Texas-born singer, songwriter, and storyteller Stuart Hamblen made his greatest hit with gospel songs in the 1950s, but many years earlier he got his start as pioneering singing cowboy, and helped push along the birth of “country and western” music in the days when the genre was narily yet zygotic.
Carl Stuart Hamblen was born on October 20, 1908 in Kellyville, Texas, four miles west of Jefferson, the son of itinerant Methodist preacher Dr. J.H. Hamblen. As a boy, he spent much of his time traveling with his father on his evangelical pursuits, eventually taking the young Stuart to Hamlin, Texas, out Abilene way. There he encountered the lore of the western cowboy, and his songs, as well as that of black field hands. He attended McMurry College with intentions to become a teacher, but instead was drawn to music. In 1926, Stuart Hamblen began singing on KFYO in Abilene, by some accounts making him radio’s first singing cowboy. Three years later, he won a talent contest in Dallas, and used the cash prize to secure passage northward to Camden, New Jersey, home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, where he aimed to make some records, following much in the footsteps of his antecedent Carl T. Sprague.
On June 6, 1929, Hamblen made his recording debut with four sides for Victor, singing and strumming his guitar to “The Boy in Blue”, “Drifting Back to Dixie”, “When the Moon Shines Down Upon the Mountain”, and “The Big Rock Candy Mountains, No. 2”. Thereafter, the young man went west, to California, where he became “Cowboy Joe” on Los Angeles’ KFI. Meanwhile, he made a further ten sides for Victor through 1931, culminating with his own popular compositions “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose” and “My Mary”, both later popularly covered by the likes of the Light Crust Doughboys, Milton Brown, and others. By the middle of the 1930s, Hamblen had formed a western band called his “Covered Wagon Jubilee” (or simply his “Gang”), which at one point included guitarist Wesley Tuttle, and with whom he recorded again, first making a pair of unreleased sides for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before signing with Decca for another nine that year and the next, of which all but one were released. Those proved to be his last records for nearly a decade, none of which ever seemed to sell very well, and he focused primarily on his radio work. From the late 1930s through the ’40s, Hamblen also appeared in several motion pictures, several of which starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne. In 1938, he ran for Congress in California, as a Democrat. During World War II, he wrote and sang some patriotic songs, and recorded again for Russian spy Boris Morros’ American Recording Artists (ARA) label in 1944.
At the height of his singing cowboy fame, Stuart Hamblen built up quite a reputation as a hard drinker, gambler, and all-around hellraiser. He’d get drunk, shoot out streetlights, and get sent to jail, only to have his sponsors bail him out so he could be on the radio the next day. But that changed when Billy Graham came to Los Angeles on his first Crusade in 1949. Hamblen’s wife persuaded him to attend the revival, and the reverend turned his life around. Hamblen experienced a religious awakening, and announced the very next day on his radio program that he was “hitting the sawdust trail.” From then on out, he dedicated his work to sacred music, composing “It is No Secret (What God Can Do)” and “This Ole House”, and recording far more prolifically—and successfully—than ever before, with sessions for Columbia, RCA Victor, and Coral. He also prominently supported the temperance movement, and, after his radio show was canceled because he refused to do advertise beer, he renewed his political ambitions in 1952 with a presidential run on the Prohibition Party ticket, garnering 72,949 votes. He also remained associated with Billy Graham, who credited much of his success to Hamblen’s timely conversion. Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with “Stuart Hamblen Day” Los Angeles on February 13, 1976 and later with “Stuart Hamblen Days” in Jefferson, Texas. Following a battle with brain cancer, Stuart Hamblen died at the age of eighty on March 8, 1989.
Victor V-40311 was recorded in Hollywood, California on August 21, 1930. It was released on October 17th of that year, and sold a total of 1,826 copies. Hamblen is accompanied by his own guitar, as well as unidentified players on steel guitar and fiddle.
Hamblen sounds rather like Ernest Tubb (who would not make a record for another six years) as he sings and yodels his own composition “Sailor’s Farewell”.
On the reverse, he sings a cowboy’s tale of heartache on another original composition: “By the Sleepy Rio Grande”.