The Maine music community lost a hidden giant last week with the death of Betty Cody, at 92.
For those of us born in the ’70s and later, Cody was most famous for mothering the Breau brothers, including Denny, who you’ve seen playing country-style guitar if you’ve been out much at all in Maine, and Lenny, quite possibly the best guitarist to ever call Maine home.
Unfortunately, Lenny is maybe most famous for dying mysteriously in a Los Angeles swimming pool in 1984 at the age of 43, but go find the YouTube videos. He was spectacular. And Denny ain’t no slouch himself.
Look even deeper on the YouTube machine, though, if you’re interested in the roots of Maine’s storied country and bluegrass scenes. Betty Cody was at its very beginnings. Performing solo and with then-husband Harold Breau (known as Hal Lone Pine or the Lone Pine Mountaineer; they divorced before he died in 1977), guitarist Ray Couture, and sometimes a very young Lenny and other family and friends, Cody was part of a stage show that reveled in the golden age of radio, fueled by Bangor’s WABI, St. John’s CFBC, and other country stations up and down the East Coast.
Cody and Hal Lone Pine were married in 1940 and were an inspiration to the likes of Maine country legends Dick Curless and Mac McHale (McHale was born in 1932, the year Hal made his radio debut), while cutting tracks with Westbrook’s Al Hawkes and touring with Chet Atkins and other members of the famous RCA Caravan, especially after they moved to Wheeling, West Virginia, home of the famous WWVA country station. The story goes that Cody was offered a big Nashville contract after some initial hits on RCA, but turned it down to stay in Maine and raise her kids. Perhaps ironically, Lenny did eventually move to Nashville as part of his long (and fruitless, finally) effort to find himself.
It isn’t hard to hear why she drew attention to herself on tracks like “I Really Want You to Know” and “Pale Moon,” where she shows off a brassy, full-bodied voice that’s effortless in the high tenor and can throw out a lilting yodel when called upon. It’s a voice that slices through the syrupy pedal steel and sits chillingly on top of an acoustic guitar strum.
She was every bit the talent of Jeanne Pruett or Kitty Wells or any of the many other pioneers who brought the female voice to the big Nashville stage, and it’s easy to see why Col. Tom Parker, the guy who made Elvis, would have offered her a deal. It may be that a gal raised in Auburn, Maine, just didn’t feel comfortable down there amongst the building country music industry machine. She wouldn’t be the first Mainer to make that kind of choice. Or maybe it’s true the Colonel wasn’t interested in Hal as a performer, and leaving her family for the bright lights was never really an option.
Regardless, Cody essentially retired from the music biz after the family’s last attempt to stay afloat in music took them to Winnipeg, where Lenny was inspired by the jazz scene and they hosted The Lonepine Caravan on Canadian TV. She became a mill worker in Lewiston, lived in a small apartment, and did a show or two here and there for fun and fond memories.
Thanks to the Internet, though, her music lives on. There’s even a Pandora station for Hal Lone Pine & Betty Cody. Take a listen.