Sometimes you hear a song that seems to be sort of a lightweight – or even silly – but it just grabs you and hangs on in a way that other tunes can’t match. “Mule Skinner Blues” by the Fendermen is exactly that for me. It tickles my fancy every time I hear it (and we all need our fancies tickled occasionally).
The original song, written by the legendary Jimmie Rodgers, was actually titled “Blue Yodel #8.” Jimmie apparently found titles a little challenging since many of his tunes were named in that manner, but the man most consider to be the first country music star gave us a lot of memorable songs in his tragically short career.
This particular one has been performed by just about everybody in country music and a few from pop music too. The long list of names includes some you’d expect, such as Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Bill Monroe, but also a few that might surprise you, such as Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Van Morrison.
But although it’s been a popular piece for years, it wasn’t until the Fendermen came along that it hit real pay dirt. That would have been around 1960, when the song became the one and only top-ten hit for the duo of closely-matched guitarists, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphries. The two had gotten acquainted as teenagers because of their shared enthusiasm for early rock and roll, along with their love of Fender electric guitars. When they later discovered that they’d been born on the same day, it seemed to be a sign. They decided to begin performing together professionally as the Fendermen, naming themselves after their favorite instrument.
They started playing in honky-tonks whenever possible and had mixed success, but began to notice that the crowd loved their rockabilly version of “Mule Skinner Blues,” which included a lot of incandescent guitar play accompanied by some laughing yodels. A local promoter caught the act and managed to get the guys matched up with a small record company. The song took off and hit the national charts, and the Fendermen were on their way. They added a drummer and went on the road, managing to make a pretty good living for a while.
Eventually they got back to the studio and recorded enough additional songs to fill an album, but none really caught the ear of the listening public. After just two years, the Fendermen were no more and the guys went their separate ways — but are still remembered by some of us for their outrageously enjoyable signature song.