The harmonica—that most humble of instruments—has played a surprisingly important role in country music. After being popularized in America in the 1870s, when they were sold by mail order for three dollars a dozen, “mouth organs” were especially interesting to southern musicians, who soon found they could get all kinds of special effects by “choking” them, blowing sideways into them, and creating blues sounds by cupping their hands around them. Some of the earliest country performers to record played the harmonica—Henry Whitter (the first to popularize “The Fox Chase”), Ernest Stoneman, and even Vernon Dalhart (who played one on “The Wreck of the Old 97”). The first harmonica specialist was DeFord Bailey, who featured his train piece, “Pan American Blues,” on the Grand Ole Opry throughout the 1930s. But the man who was to have the greatest commercial success with the harmonica was a tall, thin young man from backwoods Arkansas named Wayne Raney. He played his harmonica on some of the biggest hit records of the 1950s; influenced people from Johnny Cash to Jimmie Riddle; sold thousands of harmonicas and instruction books by mail; worked with stars like Lonnie Glosson, the Delmore Brothers, and Lefty Frizzell; and wrote some of the most enduring songs in the genre. In later years, Raney explained: “What appeals to me about the harmonica is the sound of loneliness that fits everybody at certain times.” His career was a testimony to that truth.
Born in 1921 at Wolf Bayou, a hamlet in north-central Arkansas, Raney dated his interest in the mouth harp to 1926, when he was only five; he heard a one-armed white man, a street musician, play the harmonica and choke it. “I said then,” he recalled, “that I would make it sound like that.” A crippled foot prevented young Wayne from doing many of the routine chores that dogged his family, and when his parents finally got him a harp, he spent much of his spare time mastering it. (Curiously, it was a fate similar to that of DeFord Bailey, whose illness