In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Radio Cowboys and Country Music

Tony and Juanita, ca. 1940
Tony and Juanita, ca. 1940
Maine Historical Society

Country and bluegrass music emerged in the American South, a blend of English folk songs, Scots-Irish fiddle and dance music, sacred music, and banjo and blues from formerly enslaved Africans. People heard country and bluegrass on records and radio broadcasts, influencing musicians nationwide. In Maine, French ballad traditions added unique sounds to the music.

Starting in the 1930s, Maine embraced country and bluegrass music, with Bangor called “the Nashville of the North.” Radio stations developed regional broadcasts like Lewiston’s bilingual WCOU’s 'Noisiest Gang on the Radio' show in 1938, WGAN’s ‘Ken MacKenzie Show’ in 1939, and Hal Lone Pine’s show on WABI in Bangor—which in 1938 was the first ever country music coast-to-coast broadcast in the United States on the ABC network—one year before WSM Radio’s 1939 Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Television shows followed, like Curly O’Brien’s country show on WLBZ/ Channel 7 from 1966 to 1980.

Associated with singing cowboys of the American West, like screen star Gene Autry, Maine musicians adopted Western wear fashion trends, including cowboy boots and hats, and “western yoke” pipe trimmed outfits.

Hal Lone Pine and the Lone Pine Mountaineers

Hal Lone Pine, Auburn, ca. 1950
Hal Lone Pine, Auburn, ca. 1950
Maine Historical Society

Born in Pea Cove near Old Town, Harold Breau’s career in country music as “Hal Lone Pine” took off when he met his future spouse and Franco singer Rita Cote from Auburn in 1938.

Married in 1940, Rita used the anglicized stage name Betty Cody. They performed and recorded music on RCA records with a band called the Lone Pine Mountaineers—paying homage to Maine as the Pine Tree State and the Appalachian mountain genre.

The band performed with various musicians for ten years, first gaining popularity with Canadian audiences through CBC broadcasts and in 1953 working as regulars on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree radio show in West Virginia. The couple divorced in 1963, with Betty returning to Auburn and Hal initially performing in Manitoba, but eventually returning to Maine where he continued to perform.

Betty Cody

Betty Cody, country music legend
Betty Cody, country music legendLearn more about Betty Cody

Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Rita Cote’s (1921-2014) Franco parents moved to Auburn when she was nine months old. Cote was bilingual, speaking both French and English when she started her radio and recording career at age sixteen. Changing her name to Betty Cody and marrying Hal Lone Pine, Cote’s singing range and distinctive yodel made her a favorite on the US and Canadian radio circuit, and led to a solo RCA recording contract.

Cody’s 1953 single I Found Out More Than You Ever Knew reached number ten on the Billboard country chart. Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker tried to sign her, but she did not want to leave her children while on tour. Cody chose to put music aside and raise her sons in Lewiston, supporting them with a shoe factory job.

The Maine Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Cody in 1979, noting her as Maine’s most recognized female singer. Cody performed for ten years at Poland Spring Inn in her fifties, recorded Hopeless Woman with her sons Lenny Breau and Denny, Breau and sang often with Denny on stage.

Lenny Breau

Hal Lone Pine on horse, ca. 1945
Hal Lone Pine on horse, ca. 1945
Maine Historical Society

The Breau family lived on a farm in Auburn where they kept two horses and a pony for “Lone Pine Junior,” the nickname for son Lenny Breu. Betty Cody recalled singing the Cattle Call song while watching horses and son Lenny, at about age three, intuitively singing the third part harmony.

Born in Auburn, Lenny Breau (1941-1984) toured and played music with his parents Betty Cody and Hal Lone Pine, starting as a child. Lone Pine Mountaineer guitar player Ray Couture was one of Lenny’s first guitar teachers at about age five. Lenny Breau was a natural musician and stage performer who easily traversed country to classical, flamenco, and jazz music.

Lenny caught the attention of guitar master Chet Atkins, who—along with many others—called Lenny Breau a musical genius and “the greatest guitarist who ever walked the face of the earth.” A pioneer of seven string guitar playing, Breau recorded material for 31 albums, many produced posthumously, and considered masterworks of fingerstyle guitar playing.

The Ken MacKenzie Show

Ken MacKenzie Show, ca. 1940
Ken MacKenzie Show, ca. 1940
Maine Historical Society

Ken MacKenzie introduced the concept of country-Western variety shows to Maine audiences, on the radio, television and in-person performances. He hired regular show performers, and hosted special guests and teenagers from the Portland region.

Ken MacKenzie’s parents were from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He spent his youth in Chicago and New Hampshire, where he began playing guitar. He started performing at WFEA radio station in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1936.

Ken MacKenzie and his spouse, Simone, hosted variety shows in the early days of live music broadcasting. Programs included a radio show on Portland’s WGAN between 1939 to 1957, and a weekly television show on WGAN-TV from 1954 to 1971. MacKenzie also toured with tent shows and appeared for promotions, like business openings. He recalled, "I can remember one time appearing with the show over 80 consecutive nights in a row, one night off, and then 14 more. This was besides doing our daily radio shows on WGAN."

Maine Country Music Hall of Fame
by Ken Brooks, Board Chair, Hall of Fame Inductee 2012

Maine Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Maine Country Music Hall of Fame & MuseumClick to learn more about MCMHOF

Country music originated in southern Appalachia, and travelled to Maine where it is blended with musical influences from the British Isles and French Canadians to tell story-songs about life.

Slim Andrews, Gini Huntington and Barry Deane founded the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame (MCMHOF) in 1978. Funded by the Maine Country Music Association, it is the first such hall of fame museum in Maine. Founders established the MCMHOF to recognize and celebrate musicians and entertainers from Maine who had a major impact on the musical culture of Maine, the nation, and the world.

Following a carefully screened nomination process, potential inductees must be voted on by Hall of Fame members. Typically, we induct two people each year. In 1978, the first ceremony in Portland inducted Dick Curless, Ken MacKenzie, and Hal Lone Pine.

Mackenzie and Lone Pine broadcast Maine-based radio shows nationally, along with other Hall of Fame inductees Rusty Rogers, and Curley O’Brien out of Bangor, and helped many performers get started in the music business. MCMHOF also recognizes the crossover artists between country, bluegrass and jazz.

In 2008, the MCMHOF established a 3,000 square-foot museum in the lower level of the Silver Spur Club in Mechanic Falls, making Maine the only state northeast of Nashville to have its own country music hall of fame museum!