When considering the female side of the early days of rockabilly, names like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin come readily to mind. But one of the earliest — and feistiest — was a lady named Charline Arthur, whose career even included a boost from Colonel Tom Parker (before he became the force behind Elvis Presley).
While growing up during the Great Depression as the daughter of a Texas preacher, Charlene Highsmith was drawn to music from an early age. She was always headstrong, earning the money to buy her own guitar at age seven and not only learning to play it but also writing her own songs. By her teens she was appearing on local radio, and when her parents refused to let her join a touring musical show she simply married musician Jack Arthur and joined the group.
Performing as Charline Arthur, she began to build a career in the post-war years by appearing in stage shows and honky-tonk joints everywhere. Her performing style was different than most country singers — she wore slacks instead of frilly dresses and she was a firecracker on stage, jumping around wildly and sometimes even singing while lying on her back. Her songs were often raunchy and cutting-edge for the era, adding to her outlaw appeal.
By the early 1950s she was working in radio as a DJ/singer and caught the attention of Colonel Tom Parker, who was promoting Eddy Arnold at the time. That led to her volatile relationship with RCA records, one that would produce good records like “Burn That Candle” and “Honey Bun” but also create a lot of heartburn for producer Chet Atkins. She also began appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, Louisiana Hayride and other shows, although some of her material was censored, which just added to her frustration. At times, she even appeared on stage with Elvis. (His mother loved her.)
Unfortunately, the constant turmoil took its toll. It led to RCA dropping her and other companies steering clear. She tried to reinvent herself as part of a trio with her sisters, but that failed, as did her attempted solo comeback in the late 1960s. Ill health finally slowed her down and she eventually died at age 58 in 1987, but is still remembered as a part of early rockabilly.