Country Music Goes to Hawaii

Hawaiian music and country music go way back. Really.

Man playing guitar, focus on hands
Steel guitar. Jonnie Miles / Getty Images

Sure, the tropical island paradise might seem as far from the coal mines of West Virginia as you can get. Hank Williams never sang about wafting palm fronds and rolling surf. June Carter never pined for the Waikiki hills of her home. Indeed, the whole idea seems as preposterous as ordering a Mai Tai at a honkytonk.

Well, drink up, friend-o.

If you want to get to Nashville, you’ve got to go through Honolulu.

Now, before you start throwing your beer bottles at the chicken-wire, let me explain. The truth is that country music has always stolen — more generously, borrowed — from anything within earshot. How else do you explain the jazzy country swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys?

Yet even compared to those cross-cultural contributions, Hawaii’s musical contributions are greater, adding what became an integral part of the country sound — the steel guitar.

According to lore, it was Oahu resident Joseph Kekuku who, in 1894, had the uncanny compulsion to slide a piece of steel — some say a comb, others a knife, still others a railroad spike — across the strings of his guitar. The result was a smooth, shivering sound that proved infectious and became the prevailing style in Hawaii. The sliding steel guitar made its way to the U.S. mainland where, in the early 1900s, it showed up in blues and hillbilly music. (One crucial difference: while in Hawaii the steel guitar was played on the lap, on the mainland it continued to be held upright.)

The steel-guitar attained its dominance with San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exhibition in 1915. The fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, featured pavilions representing cultures from around the world. While there were many attractions to be had at the exhibition, which ran shy of a year, one of the most popular was the Hawaiian Pavilion. With an eye toward boosting tourism to the islands, the exhibit delighted with its exotic air — and of course its entrancing music. Americans were smitten.

Hawaiian music soon took hold of the public consciousness, becoming a mainstay on American radio, and selling a record number of albums the following year. Meanwhile, groups such as King Bennie Nawahi and Kalama’s Quartet found a welcome reception in coast-to-coast tours.

And don’t think country artists didn’t take note. The father of the form himself, Jimmie Rodgers, recorded the novelty track “Everybody Does It in Hawaii” in 1929. But the most important result was that country acts began adding steel guitarists to their rosters. And pickers who didn’t know how to play the instrument learned.

But among Hawaiian artists, it was Sol Hoopii who did the most to infiltrate the evolving country sound. During the 1920s and ’30s, he became a mainstay in Los Angeles, performing his lap-steel guitar at nightclubs and on record for country artists including Rodgers. While some claim he invented the electric lap-steel guitar — ubiquitous now on recordings from George Jones to Garth Brooks — it’s clear that Hoopii did the most to popularize the form in its early days.

Sol Hoopi’s influence, and the influence of Hawaiian music, in general, can still be felt in country music today any time you hear the twanging notes of a steel-guitar tugging at your heartstrings.

For your dose of Hawaiian-flavored country, the following list is a good place to start:

  • Roy Acuff: “Steel Guitar Chimes“
  • Jimmie Rodgers: “Everybody Does It In Hawaii,” and “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”
  • Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: “Steel Guitar Rag
  • Hoot Gibson: “Na Moku Eha”
  • Sol Hoopii “Hula Blues“
  • Darby and Tarlton: “Slow Wicked Blues“
  • Milton Brown: “You’re Tired of Me”
  • Jimmie Davis: “You Are My Sunshine“
  • Bob Brozman: “Hilo Hula”
  • Ledward Kaapana: “My Sweetheart” (with Bob Brozman)
  • Ray Kane: “Willie’s Tune“
  • The Tau Moe Family: “Samoan Moon“