Montgomery Ward M-4244 – Gene Autry – 1931

Gene Autry, pictured in his Sensational Collection of Famous Original Cowboy Songs and Mountain Ballads, 1932.

It would not be exaggeration in the slightest to call Gene Autry a true American hero.  From humble roots, he got his start in the show business covering Jimmie Rodgers’ hits for other record labels, but soon proved his own merit as a prolific songwriter and talented musician.  Before long, he broke into Hollywood in a series B-Westerns and rose not only to become one of America’s earliest “superstars”, but the idolization of millions of adoring fans.  His shrewd business sense made him a multi-millionaire by the time of his retirement at the age of only fifty-seven, and surely one of the only twentieth century entertainers to have a town named after him.

Gene was born Orvon Grover Eugene Autry in Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, son of Delbert and Elnora Autry.  The family moved a few miles north to the towns of Achille and Ravia, Oklahoma, when Gene was a child, and when not preoccupied with song he spent time in his youth helping out on his father’s farm.  In 1941, the nearby town of Berwyn was renamed “Gene Autry” in his honor.  Autry took up the guitar at the age of twelve on a model from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.  After graduating from high school, he got a job working as a telegrapher for the Frisco Line.  He often played his guitar and sang to pass the time during slow hours on the job, a habit which gained him the attention of a notable passer-through: Will Rogers.  Rogers liked Autry’s music, and recommended that he go to New York to make records.  Autry did just that in the fall of 1928, but he was turned down by Victor A&R man Nat Shilkret on the grounds that the company had only just signed two similar artists (one of whom may have been Jimmie Rodgers, who had only begun his recording career the previous summer).  Shilkret suggested that Autry seek work on the radio instead, and that he did.  Upon his return home to Oklahoma, Autry began singing on KVOO in Tulsa as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”.  He made his triumphant return to New York the very next fall, and this time he found success.  With Frankie and Johnny Marvin accompanying, he cut two sides for Victor in duet with frequent collaborator Jimmy Long.  Thereafter, he began recording prolifically for a variety of record labels, beginning with a session for Gennett, the masters of which were sold to Grey Gull and Cova’s QRS label.  He then signed on with Columbia for a short time, mostly appearing on their budget labels singing dimestore imitations of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs.  In 1930, he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on Sears-Roebuck’s radio station WLS in Chicago.  The same year, he began his long association with the American Record Corporation, appearing on their many dimestore labels and still covering Rodgers, but increasingly producing his own original material.  It was that arrangement that brought him his first big hit in 1931: “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”.  Meanwhile, he continued to record occasionally for Victor and Gennett until going exclusive with the ARC in 1933.  The following year, while singing on the radio with Smiley Burnette, he was “discovered” by Hollywood big-shot Nat Levine and selected to appear in an uncredited role in the Ken Maynard western picture In Old Santa Fe.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Montgomery Ward M-4244 was recorded in two sessions in New York City, the first on February 12, 1931, and the second on March 31 of the same year.  Side “A” was originally issued on Victor 23548 (which sold 1,901 copies) and “B” on Victor 23589 (which sold only 1,537).  Autry accompanies himself on guitar on both sides, and his joined on steel guitar by his friend Frankie Marvin on the first.

The rollicking and raunchy “Do Right Daddy Blues” is a distant cry from Autry’s typically mild and genial cowboy songs of later years, instead more resembling one of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” songs with their characteristic braggadocio and hint of machismo.  Two takes of this number exist, though this one—take “1”—was the only issued originally; the second take was released as part of Bluebird/BMG’s 2004 compilation East Virginia Blues, in their When the Sun Goes Down series examining the “secret history” of rock ‘n’ roll.  Autry also recorded a version of the song for the American Record Corporation’s dimestore labels (Perfect, Banner, Romeo, etc.) two months later, and he followed up with a different version for Victor’s short lived Timely Tunes offshoot and sequel titled “Don’t Do Me That Way” (and subtitled “Do Right Daddy Blues No. 2”) at the same session in which he recorded the “B” side of the record presented herein.  The song was later picked up by western swinger Leon Chappelear, who recorded it first as “New Do Right Daddy” in 1937, and again as “I’m a Do Right Daddy” in 1951.

Do Right Daddy Blues, recorded February 18, 1931 by Gene Autry.

On “High Steppin’ Mama”, Autry shows us just how much inspiration he drew from Jimmie Rodgers in his early career, presenting a song that sounds like it could have come straight from the Blue Yodeler himself—equally in content as in style.

High Steppin’ Mama, recorded March 31, 1931 by Gene Autry.

Victor 19171 – Wendell Hall – 1923

One of the foremost exponents of the ukulele craze in the 1920s, Wendell Hall—the Red Headed Music Maker—enjoyed a fruitful career beginning with his introduction of the wildly popular “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”, and could perhaps be viewed among the earliest artists to “cross over” from popular to hillbilly style music.

Wendell Woods Hall was born on August 23, 1896, the youngest of three sons born to minister George and church organist Laura Hall of St. George, Kansas.  His family moved to Chicago around the turn of the century, and there young Wendell got his start in music.  He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917, but fell ill during the flu epidemic the following year and did not see combat; instead, he spent some time entertaining his fellow troops following his recovery.  Following his return home, he found work as a song plugger for the sheet music industry.  Before long, he struck out on the vaudeville circuit singing and playing the xylophone, but soon—like his contemporary Cliff Edwards—switched to the more inexpensive and portable ukulele.  On occasion, he was known to double on guitar or tiple.  He began publishing popular songs in the early 1920s, and by 1923 he’d arrived in New York to embark on a successful career as a radio and recording artist.  He made his debut on September 28, 1923, in a session for Gennett records, cutting the first of several versions of his big hit “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  The following month, he re-did the number for Edison and Victor, beginning a successful engagement with the latter which produced a string of popular records and lasted until 1933, interrupted by brief stints for Brunswick in 1925 and ’26 and for Columbia in 1927.  Hall’s rural-flavored novelty songs often blurred the line between popular and “hillbilly” music, and he frequently collaborated with the country guitarist, whistler, and fellow Kansan Carson J. Robison, who made his first records with Hall.  With the smash success of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'” and other successful records behind his belt, Hall introduced and marketed a signature “Red Head” model of ukulele, manufactured by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, and instructional booklets on “Wendell Hall’s Ukulele Method”.  He remained a popular radio artist into the 1930s after the Great Depression had killed off his record career, but began to falter as the ukulele fell from favor later in the decade.  Nonetheless, he remained an active musician and music publisher, and made a brief comeback in the early 1950s.  Wendell Hall died on April 2, 1969 in Mobile, Alabama, and was buried in Manhattan, Kansas.

Victor 19171 was recorded in New York City on October 12, 1923.  It was released on the twenty-third of the following month.  It reportedly sold more than two million copies, and Hall later re-recorded both sides electrically on July 29, 1925, to keep them technologically up-to-date.  This record was transferred at 76.59 RPM, as is widely accepted for acoustical Victor records of this era.

Firstly, the Pineapple Picador sings his biggest hit composition, that old chestnut “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo'”.  Hall later followed up with the “Second Installment” in 1925 and “Part 3” in 1933.  The simple but humorous ditty proved enormously popular with artists in a wide range of genres.

It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Actually recorded first at the session, Hall sings his “theme” song “Red Headed Music Maker” on the “B” side, interpolating “Red Hot Blues”.

Red Headed Music Maker, recorded October 12, 1923 by Wendell Hall.

Decca 5018 – Stripling Brothers – 1934

The two Stripling Brothers have had the Old Time Blues limelight shined at them once before, when they played for us their tour de force breakdown “The Lost Child”, but, with that article dedicated primarily to the honor of the great record man Joe Bussard, I have yet to delve deeply into the duo’s history.  Fortunately, the time has now come to rectify that oversight.

The story of the brothers Stripling began in Alabama, in the county of Pickens, on the eighth of August, 1896, with the birth of Charlie Melvin Stripling.  His brother Ira Lee followed him into the world almost two years later on June 5, 1898.  As a youth, Charlie learned to fiddle from a neighbor called “Uncle Plez”—properly Pleasant C. Carroll, born circa 1850—who imparted the old-time traditions of the middle nineteenth century on the young man.  Soon, brother Ira took up the guitar to back Charlie up, ordering a six dollar instrument from a catalog.  Soon the pair was taking on fiddle contests and conventions, competing for cash prizes.  Not content with his meager earnings as a sharecropper, Charlie Stripling set out to win the first prizes to help bring the bacon home to his wife and six kids, and so was bent on becoming the finest fiddler in the region.  Like quite a few fiddler of his time, he supplemented his old-time repertoire with more modern “fox-trot” melodies to please a less geriatric audience.  The team played dances and functions around the area, and began performing on Birmingham radio station WAPI.  When the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company ventured down south to Birmingham late in 1928, the Striplings cut their first record for the company’s Vocalion label.  Subsequently, the pair went on to record quite prolifically for regional old-time artists of their day, traveling to Chicago the following year to make a further sixteen sides for Vocalion.  Five years later, they traveled all the way to New York to record for the newly founded Decca company, making a total fourteen more sides.  When Decca came to New Orleans in 1936, the Striplings had their fourth and final session, rounding out their discography with another fourteen sides.  By the end of their recording career, the Stripling Brothers netted a total of twenty-one records, with four sides unissued by Decca.  Though the vice grip of the Great Depression took the brothers off of records, and Ira retired from music to dedicate his time to managing the store he owned, Charlie Stripling continued fiddling for the rest of his life.  He was joined sometimes by his sons Robert and Lee, and later formed a band when his sons went off to war, but he never made another record.  Charlie Stripling died on January 19, 1966.  He was survived for a little more than a year by Ira, who passed on March 11, 1967.

Decca 5018 was recorded on September 10, 1934 at the Pythian Temple on 135 West 70th Street in New York City, and is the Stripling Brothers’ first released record on the Decca label.  As with all of the Striplings’ records, the instrumentation consists of Charlie on fiddle and Ira on guitar.

First, the brothers break it down on the lively “Possum Hollow”.

Possum Hollow, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.

Next, they play that ubiquitous fiddle melody, the waltz known as “Wednesday Night”.

Wednesday Night, recorded September 10, 1934 by the Stripling Brothers.

Domino 4328 – The Pickard Family – 1929

The Carter Family was not the only family effort in early country music—far from it, in fact.  There was the venerable Stoneman Family, the pioneering Fiddlin’ Powers and Family, and, rivaling or perhaps exceeding the Carters’ popularity as radio entertainers in their time, the Pickard Family.

The Pickard Family, broadcasting from WSM, Nashville. Circa 1932.

The Pickards’ story begins with the birth of patriarch Obediah Orlando Pickard in Beardstown, Tennessee, on July 22, 1874.  He served in a non-combatant role in the Spanish American War, as a member of the First Regiment Tennessee Infantry Band, at which post he the distinction of playing for Admiral George Dewey.  At the turn of the century, he worked, along with the rest of his family, for the U.S. Census Office, and later gave his occupation as a traveling salesman for a collection agency (whatever that is).  He married Leila May Wilson on Christmas Day, 1906, and the couple brought Obed Orlando, Jr. (“Bubb”), into the family the very next year.  His birth was followed by Leila Mai in 1909, Ruth Carmen in 1912, James Phaney (“Charlie”) in 1914, and Margaret Ann in 1924.  Though they had played music amateurly, it was only after tragedy struck that the Pickards entered the music business; following the death of eldest daughter Leila Mai in a shooting accident in 1925, Obed reportedly heard the terrible news over the radio from WSM, Nashville, while traveling for work, and telephoned the station to extend his thanks for bringing the fact to his immediate attention, at which point he was said to have been hired by the “Solemn Old Judge”, George D. Hay.  An alternative account suggests that he was hired after Hay visited the bank in which Pickard worked and was recommended to the radio man by his brother Nixon.  In either event, Obed Pickard and his family began appearing on WSM in 1926, becoming one of the earliest stars of the program that would soon be known as the Grand Ole Opry.  “Dad” Pickard made his debut recordings on March 31, 1927, with four sides for the Columbia Phonograph Company.  The rest of the family did the same the following November for the Plaza Music Company, later the American Record Corporation, to whom they were contracted for a total of twenty-five sides between then and 1930, interrupted by a stint with Brunswick that produced an additional eleven.  In all, their released output amounted to sixteen records, many issued on a variety of labels with their sides in different configurations.  They departed from WSM for a time in 1928 and appeared on WJR in Detroit and WGAR in Buffalo before returning to the Opry in 1931.  Leaving the show again in 1933, the Pickards performed around the States for a while, eventually winding up on “goat gland doctor” John R. Brinkley’s border blaster radio station XERA in Villa Acuña, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas.  Subsequently, they relocated permanently to California by the beginning of the 1940s.  There, they made appearances in several motion pictures, recorded again for the Coast label in 1947 and, in 1949, hosted a pioneering television program over KNBH in Los Angeles.  Dad Pickard died in Los Angeles on September 24, 1954, at the age of eighty.  After his passing, the Family continued to perform professionally at least until the late part of the decade, making some singles for Coral and an album on Verve.  Charlie Pickard was the next to go, at the young age of fifty-five on May 7, 1970.  Mom Pickard followed on May 5, 1972, back home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Bubb, Ruth, and Ann all survived well into their eighties, passing on March 20, 1997, March 13, 1995, and February 4, 2006, respectively.

Domino 4328 was recorded in New York City on February 18, and January 31, 1929, respectively.  It was also released on Broadway 8179 (as by the “Pleasant Family”—and that they were), Conqueror 7349 and 7736, Paramount 3231, QRS R.9006, Regal 8776, and with the sides split up on too many issued to list.  The Pickards playing here are “Dad” Obed, Sr., on harmonica and Jew’s harp, “Bubb” Obed, Jr., on guitar, and “Mom” Leila on piano, on side “A” only.  Dad, Mom, and Ruth sing on the first side, while Dad sings solo on the reverse.

Firstly Dad Pickard sings and picks his Jew’s harp in his take on the old-timer most commonly known as “Johnson’s Old Gray Mule”, rendered here as “Thompson’s Old Gray Mule”, with Mom and Ruth chiming in with a refrain from “Goodbye Liza Jane”.

Thompson’s Old Gray Mule, recorded February 18, 1929 by The Pickard Family.

On the flip, Obed sings solo on “The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train”, honoring the great American railroad men, and set to the tune of the 1871 minstrel standard “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train, recorded January 31, 1929 by The Pickard Family.

Conqueror 8274 – Callahan Brothers – 1934

Following in the same vein as popular sibling acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the, Callahan Brothers—consisting of the duo of Homer and Walter (who later adopted the sobriquets Bill and Joe for the sake of brevity)—made a name for themselves in the budding country music industry of the Great Depression-era.

Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the county of Madison, Walter Callahan, born January 27, 1910, and his brother Homer, born March 27, 1912, grew up surrounded by the rich musical culture of the mountain folks.  As they were in adolescence, the soon-to-be-famous Jimmie Rodgers was getting his start singing on the radio in nearby Asheville, and in the year of the Singing Brakeman’s demise, 1933, the Callahans got their own big break in the very same town.  While singing and yodeling at an Asheville music festival, the brothers were discovered by a talent scout for the American Record Corporation, who invited them to New York for a session.  They obliged, and had their first record date on January 2, 1934, a session which produced a hit with “She’s My Curly Headed Baby”.  With a two-guitar accompaniment and a repertoire consisting of old sentimental songs such as “Maple On the Hill” to hokums like “Somebody’s Been Using That Thing” to straight blues like “St. Louis Blues”, they were able to produce a string of decently selling records during the times of economic depression.  In addition to their work as a duet, the brothers also each recorded solo.  Around the time of their recording debut, the duo also began appearing on Asheville’s WWNC, soon moving to WHAS in Louisville, and then to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Walter retired back home for a brief period in the late 1930s, leaving brother Homer to continue solo for a time.

Reunited at the end of the 1930s, Walter and Homer changed their names to Joe and Bill, respectively, and went to Texas to begin performing on KRLD in Dallas.  There, they became early members of the station’s Big D Jamboree when it debuted in the late 1940s.  They also recorded transcriptions to be played on the Mexican border blaster stations, bringing their music to an even wider audience.  In 1945, they made an appearance with Jimmy Wakely in the Western movie Springtime in Texas.  They continued singing on the radio and on records into the 1950s.  Also in the 1950s, Homer/Bill worked as manager to Lefty Frizzell.  Walter/Joe retired back home once again by the end of that decade, this time for keeps, and became a grocer.  He died in North Carolina on September 10, 1971.  Homer stayed in Texas and in music for the rest of his long life, which came to an end on September 12, 2002.

Conqueror 8274 was recorded In New York City on January 3 and 2, 1934, respectively, the Callahans’ first sessions.  Homer and Walter Callahan sing and yodel, accompanied by their own two guitars.

From the second day of the Callahan Brothers’ first sessions, the duo sings and yodels the lonesome song “I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name”.

I Don’t Want to Hear Your Name, recorded January 3, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.

On the reverse, the brothers sing a hot hillbilly take on W.C. Handy’s famous “St. Louis Blues”, cut on their first record date.

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 2, 1934 by the Callahan Brothers.