Bluebird B-6513 – The Tune Wranglers – 1936

The Tune Wranglers, as pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.  Standing, left-to-right: Eddie Duncan, Bill Dickey, Eddie Whitley; seated: Tom Dickey, Buster Coward.

Pioneering, barnstorming cowboy string band from San Antonio, Texas, the Tune Wranglers made a name for themselves both for their rollicking and raucous music and as one of the earliest bands to play in the style that would later be known as western swing.

Much like their contemporaries Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the Tune Wranglers began with a partnership between a guitarist and a fiddler: respectively Edwin Portavent “Buster” Coward, born December 11, 1903, in Chesterville, Texas, and Thomas Ephraim “Tom” Dickey, born November 29, 1899, in Markham, Texas.  Dickey learned fiddle as a child, and got his professional start on Mexican border radio in 1929.  Coward too started music young, playing guitar, and also served as the most frequent vocalist and de facto bandleader as the group’s most prominent and constant member.  The duo organized the first incarnation of the band in 1935 and began touring all across the region and making appearances on radio stations WOAI and KTSA in San Antonio, Texas.  They added to their ranks hot shot tenor banjoist Joe Barnes (a.k.a. “Red Brown”), pianist Eddie Whitley, and upright bassist J. Harrell “Curley” Williams.  They made their recording debut before long, on an RCA Victor field trip to San Antonio on the twenty-seventh-and-eighth of February, 1936.  In seven sessions from 1936 to 1938, they recorded a series of seventy-nine sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, all made in San Antonio.  Their widely variegated repertoire consisted of popular songs like “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” (many of which had their title altered, likely in a royalty dodge by producer Eli Oberstein, who did the same to recordings by fellow San Antonians Boots and his Buddies), old cowboy ballads like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, blues like “Red’s Tight Like That”, jazz like “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, Mexican numbers like “Rancho Grande”, and original compositions such as “Texas Sand”.  Some of their instrumental recordings were released under the name “Tono Hombres” for the Mexican market.  They added steel guitar before their third record date, played by the prolific Eddie Duncan, and a number of other musicians sometimes sat in or replaced others, including pianist George Timberlake, and banjoist Eddie Fielding.   Most every member took a turn singing at one point or another.  Tom Dickey parted ways with the band in 1937 to lead another band called the Show Boys, with whom he recorded for Bluebird in 1938; he later made further recordings for the Folkraft label in the latter part of the 1940s, still operating out of San Antonio.  His position in the Tune Wranglers was filled by first by Ben McKay and later by Leonard Seago.  By 1938, the band included a reed section consisting of twins Neal and Beal Ruff, the former of whom also doubled on tenor banjo.  The Wranglers moved to Fort Worth in 1939 to begin appearing on KFJZ, but disbanded soon after around 1940.  Tom Dickey later operated a cafe in San Antonio, and died in that city on August 24, 1954.  Buster Coward later worked as a flying instructor and died from a coronary at his home near Boerne, Texas, on April 28, 1975.

Bluebird B-6513 was recorded on February 28, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was released on August 26 of the same year and remained in “print” for decades to come.  This pressing dates to the mid-1940s.  It was also issued on Montgomery Ward M-4766; “Texas Sand” was reissued on RCA Victor 20-2070 around 1946, backed with their other big hit: “Hawaiian Honeymoon”.  The Tune Wranglers are Buster Coward singing and on guitar, Tom Dickey on fiddle, Red Brown on tenor banjo, Curley Williams on string bass, and Eddie Whitley on piano.

Penned by guitarist and vocalist Buster Coward, “Texas Sand” became something of a standard in Texas country music, and was later covered by Webb Pierce in one of his earliest recording sessions.

Texas Sand, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.

As marvelous as the first side is, I do believe the Wranglers managed to really outdo themselves on the “B” side with their tour de force performance of “Lonesome Blues”, also featuring Buster Coward’s strong vocal talent and hot performances by every member of the band.

Lonesome Blues, recorded February 28, 1936 by the Tune Wranglers.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 – Roy Shaffer – 1939

Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.

Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis.  Roy pictured third from left.  Circa 1940s.

Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi.  After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy.  According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926.  By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day.  He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”.  During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936.  Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”.  He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago.  These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”.  Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938.  By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations.  He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”.  By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri.  He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store.  In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri.  He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956.  Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight.  Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar.  It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.

In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast.  “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”

Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.

The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Vocalion 04050 – Roy Rogers – 1938

Roy Rogers and Trigger, pictured on a circa 1940s arcade card.

Most of the attention dedicated to cowboys here on Old Time Blues is directed toward the early, more authentic folk singers rather than the singing cowboys of movie fame.  Indeed, I tend to prefer the gritty old cowpunchers with clothes all plastered o’er with dough over the idealized movie star cowboys, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a splendid piece of old Hollywood charm—and this disc by the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Roy Rogers, epitomizes that description (although frankly, I tend to favor Gene Autry).

The man who would become Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye on November 5, 1911, to a family of modest means in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Slyes moved to a farm in nearby Duck Run when Len was seven-years-old, while his father also worked in a shoe factory in Portsmouth, twelve miles away.  On the farm, he learned horseback riding, and played mandolin for local square dances.  On the eve of the Great Depression, the Slyes packed their bags and left for sunny California.  After working a variety of jobs there, Slye began to seek work singing, yodeling, and playing music professionally.  He sang on the radio with several groups like the Rocky Mountaineers and O-Bar-O Cowboys, with whom he toured the southwestern states.  After the dissolution of the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Slye joined with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer—both of whom he had worked with previously—to form the vocal and instrumental Pioneer Trio, which, with the addition of Hugh Farr, evolved into the Sons of the Pioneers by the time of their recording debut in 1934.  The Sons quickly established themselves on the musical scene with the success of Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, which became an enduring standard of the cowboy genre.  As a California-based cowboy group, the Sons of the Pioneers soon began making regular appearances in western pictures, beginning with Slightly Static in 1935, and before long, Slye was making regular appearances on screen.  His big break came in 1938, when cowboy star Gene Autry held out for a bigger paycheck for his starring role in Under Western Stars; instead, Republic Pictures replaced him with the guitarist from the Sons of the Pioneers, changing his name from Len Slye to the more Hollywood-suitable Roy Rogers.  Eventually, Rogers came to rival, or perhaps even surpass, Autry in popularity, gaining the honorific “King of the Cowboys”.  The 1942 picture Man From Cheyenne introduced Rogers’ trusty palomino steed Trigger, who remained with Rogers until his death in 1965.  On New Years’ Eve of 1947, a year following the death of his wife Arline, Roger married Frances Octavia Smith, better known as Dale Evans, who became the “Queen of the Cowboys” to his “King”; the two remained married until his death.  Much like Autry, Rogers enjoyed success across a variety of media, including radio and comic books, in addition to his movies and records.  As television came to supplant radio as America’s chief form of entertainment in the home, Rogers and Evans starred in a program from 1951 until ’57, and again in 1962.  Rogers made his last film appearance in 1975’s Mackintosh and T.J., and his final television appearances in the following decade.  After enjoying fame in seven decades of the twentieth century, Roy Rogers died from congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998.

Vocalion 04050 was recorded on March 30, 1938 in Los Angeles, California.  Roy Rogers’s singing is accompanied by an unidentified cowboy orchestra—made up of fiddle, steel guitar, organ, accordion, guitar, and string bass—and vocal group.

All the Hollywood theatrics were brought in for the melodramatic “Dust Over the West”—composed by none other than Johnny Marvin—which was nominated for the 1938 Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938.  Nevertheless, the song made enough of a hit that Brunswick also dedicated a special picture label to Horace Heidt and his Brigadiers’ dance band version.  Gene Autry cut a much less theatrical version of the song in 1937—the year before it was published in connection with Under Western Stars—with his own name added beside Marvin’s to the songwriter’s credit.

Dust Over the West, recorded March 30, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

A much more lighthearted number than the previous—though by no means no less theatrical—Rogers follows with “When a Cowboy Sings a Song”, which could practically be an anthem for Roy Rogers career, though it made far less of a success than “Dust”.

When a Cowboy Sings a Song, recorded March 30, 1938 by Roy Rogers.

Bluebird B-8899 – Ernest Tubb – 1936

Ernest Tubb at about twenty-two years old, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.

That time has rolled around once again to fondly remember my dear cousin, Ernest Tubb.  The last time we heard from E.T., he was performing his biggest hit: “Walking the Floor Over You”.  Now let us turn back the clock a few years to his earliest recording sessions, long before he had the fame and acclaim that, once found, would last him the rest of his career.

Ernest Tubb made his recording debut in a room at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio on the twenty-sixth of October, 1936, accompanying the widow of his idol Jimmie Rodgers on a song she wrote in a tribute to her late husband.  He received no credit for his role in the production on the record’s label, which simply read “with accompaniment played on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar.”  Mrs. Rodgers had loaned Tubb Jimmie’s instrument—as well as the Blue Yodeler’s tuxedo to wear in publicity shots—and helped him secure a contract with the RCA Victor Company, for whom her husband had recorded for the entirety of his six year career to help him get started in his musical career, after he had contacted her and the two became friendly.  Tubb began his recording career in earnest the following day, waxing six sides, all in the style of his hero, complete with yodeling and guitar work lifted straight from Rodgers’ records..  He began with his own tribute to the Singing Brakeman he so adored: “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers”—both penned by Rodgers’ songwriting partner and sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams—which constituted the first record issued to his name.  He followed up with four more sides, which did not see release until six years later.  Despite the lack of success brought by his first disc, Tubb was behind the Victor mike again less than half a year later to cut another two sides, this time with his friend Merwyn J. Buffington joining him on second guitar.  The resulting disc, without the words “Jimmie Rodgers” on the label to ensure its success, sold even more poorly than the first, and Tubb did not return to record for RCA Victor again.  For the remainder of the 1930s, Tubb continued to struggle as an artist, frequently working day jobs to support himself as gigs on Texas radio stations and honky-tonks failed to pay the bills.  In 1939, a tonsillectomy damaged his yodeling ability (though he did yodel on rare occasions in subsequent years), forcing him first to shift his focus to songwriting before returning to singing with a new, less blue yodeling style all his own which ultimately found him immense, lifelong success and a longstanding contract with Decca Records to go with it, but he never forsook his adoration for his hero Jimmie Rodgers.

Bluebird B-8899 was recorded between 1:00 and 2:15 in the afternoon of October 27, 1936 at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. It was released on January 9, 1942, after he had started making hits for Decca.  Ernest Tubb sings his own compositions, accompanying himself on the late Jimmie Rodgers’ custom Martin 000-45 guitar.

First, Tubb borrows heavily from the Blue Yodeler on “Married Man Blues”, with a guitar introduction lifted from Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 5” and an opening verse directly from his “Whippin’ That Old T.B.”.

Married Man Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.

Next, he does “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues”, an original composition distinct from the song of the same name sung by the likes of Bessie Smith and Furry Lewis.  In my opinion, this is perhaps Tubb’s best Bluebird side—though “Since That Black Cat Crossed My Path” is another top contender.  Though Tubb very seldom recorded with only his own guitar as accompaniment, he proves on these sides to have been nearly as proficient on the instrument as his idol, Jimmie Rodgers.  Though far from a hit record, the song was later covered by Hawshaw Hawkins in 1946.

Mean Old Bed Bug Blues, recorded October 27, 1936 by Ernest Tubb.

Vocalion 03492 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

In a remarkably rare occurrence, I received this record on the very day of publication (it’s not the first time it’s happened, but it’s sure not often).  I had originally intended to post it later in remembrance of vocalist Tommy Duncan, who sings on both sides, but then I noticed that it was the anniversary of its recording, and I was struck by the serendipity of it all.  Combine that with the fact that this is quite probably my favorite Bob Wills record, and I knew I’d have to rush this one on through and select a different record with which to eulogize Mr. Duncan.

In 1936, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were a year into their up-and-coming recording career, but had thus far only had one recording session, spread out over three consecutive days the previous September, part in Vocalion’s field trip down to Dallas.  Since then, a few changes had been made, notably Wills had added a trumpet player, Everett Stover—whom he had originally hired as an announcer—to the band’s pioneering horn section, which had previously consisted of reeds and trombone, the latter of which had erstwhile been dropped from the roster.  Still appearing on Tulsa’s KVOO from Cain’s Ballroom, they found growing regional success.  Exactly one year after their first sessions, the Playboys traveled northward to Chicago to make their return to the microphone of the American Record Corporation (Vocalion’s parent company).  On September 28, 1936, they entered the studio to record only four songs.  The following day, they were back for thirteen more, opening the set with their soon-to-be smash hit, “Steel Guitar Rag”, and closing with two fiddle solos from Wills, which were not released.  Mirroring their first three-day session, they finished up on the thirtieth with a final twelve sides.  Ultimately, a total of seventeen of their twenty-nine recorded sides were deemed suitable for release, many of which proved successful enough for subsequent reissue on other labels.  Afterwards, the Texas Playboys took themselves back to Tulsa, not to return to the studio until the next year, but they were already well down the path to national stardom.

Vocalion 03492 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1936, the last day of Wills’ second series of recording sessions.  It carried over to Okeh with the same catalog number, and was later reissued on Columbia 37624 and 20223, the latter in their “folk” series.  The Texas Playboys are Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson on fiddles, the last of whom doubles on guitar, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet, Zeb McNally on saxophone, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and Smokey Dacus on drums.

Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan sing in duet on the scalding hot “Bring it On Down to My House”, a cover—via Milton Brown—of Blind Willie McTell’s “Come On Around to My House Mama”.

Bring it On Down to My House, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

On the flip, Duncan sings and yodels solo on “Mean Mama Blues”, a cover of the equally jazzified Jimmie Rodgers song of six years prior (and not to be confused with the 1941 Ernest Tubb song of the same name).

Mean Mama Blues, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.