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.
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.