Talent 709 – Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys – 1949

Although not nearly as widely remembered as his sometime associate Bob Wills, Big Spring bandleader Hoyle Nix made his own indelible mark on western swing, cementing his name in the pantheon of Texas fiddlers.

William Hoyle Nix was born in Azle, Texas, just a little ways northwest of Fort Worth, on March 22, 1918, son of Jonah Lafayette and Myrtle May Nix.  When he was still a baby, the Nixes moved out west to a farm in Big Spring, Texas, where Hoyle and his brothers were reared.  His father played fiddle and mother played guitar, and passed their skills on the instruments down to Hoyle and his brother Ben.  Inspired by his musical hero Bob Wills, Hoyle and Ben Nix formed the West Texas Cowboys in 1946, who soon established themselves as a hit in West Texas dance halls.  In the summer of 1949, Nix brought the band to Dallas to cut their first records for the recently established Talent label, debuting with his own “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, which proved to be a hit and became one of the genre’s most popular standards.  Subsequently, Nix’s West Texas Cowboys began touring with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Nix’s band expanded to include several former Playboys, including guitarist Eldon Shamblin.  In 1954, Hoyle and Ben established the “Stampede” dance hall outside of their hometown of Big Spring, which still stands in operation to the present day.  Meanwhile, the West Texas Cowboys continued to record somewhat prolifically on local Texas-based labels throughout the 1950s and ’60s, mostly using the new 45 RPM format.  After the dissolution of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills made regular appearances with Nix’s band.  He made his last recordings in 1977 with the release of an LP on the Midland-based Oil Patch label.  The following decade saw his induction into no fewer than four halls of fame, including (posthumously) the Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991.  Hoyle Nix died on August 21, 1985, in his hometown of Big Spring.  His legacy was carried on into the next century by his sons Larry and Jody.

Talent 709 was recorded at the Sellers Company Studio at 2102 Jackson Street in Dallas, Texas, around August of 1949.  The West Texas Cowboys are Hoyle Nix on fiddle, Tommy Harvell on steel guitar, Wayne Walker on lead guitar, Ben Nix on rhythm guitar, Charlie Smith on banjo, Loran Warren on piano, and John Minnick on string bass.  It is Nix and the West Texas Cowboys’ first record.

Hoyle sings the vocal on the famous Texas swing anthem “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, covered by Bob Wills and others—and it’s a hot number, too.  While Nix gets credit for creating the song, it may actually be traced back a ways earlier to “Big Ball in Town” (Brooklyn, Boston, or some such Yankee town), which was recorded by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers in 1928.  You may note that it is “a big ball is in Cowtown,” and not—as some listeners understand it—”Big Balls is in Cowtown”; it’s not that kind of a song.

A Big Ball’s in Cowtown, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

On the flip—actually the “A” side—brother Ben Nix sings the vocals in a more sentimental mood on “I’m All Alone”, an original composition of his own, with Hoyle backing up with some Willsian hollers.

I’m All Alone, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

Bluebird B-6926 – Riverside Ramblers – 1937

The Hackberry (a.k.a. “Riverside”) Ramblers, Floyd Rainwater, Luderin Darbone, Lonnie Rainwater, and Lennis Sonnier, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird Records catalog.

With a career spanning eight decades, the illustrious Hackberry Ramblers doubtlessly rank among the most prolific and well-known bands of the Cajun country, and surely among the earliest to gain note outside of their region of origin.

The long and storied history of the Hackberry Ramblers starts in the beginning of the 1930s, when fiddler Luderin Darbone met guitarist Edwin Duhon in Hackberry, Louisiana.  Darbone was born on January 14, 1913, in the Evangeline Parish of Louisiana; his father worked in the oilfields, and moved the family around the southwestern part of the state and the corresponding region of Texas while Luderin was growing up, eventually settling in Orangefield, Texas.  He got his first fiddle at the age of twelve and learned to play through a correspondence course; his playing was influenced by the burgeoning western swing music in Texas at that time.  Duhon was born on June 11, 1910, to a French-speaking family in Youngsville, Louisiana.  He took up the popular instruments of guitar and accordion in his teenage years.  Both young Cajuns moved to Hackberry, Louisiana, in 1931, and soon started playing music together.  Darbone and Duhon (alongside Texas steel guitarist Bob Dunn) gained the distinction of being among the earliest to amplify their music electrically, using a public address wired to Darbone’s Model A Ford.  Soon, other local musicians joined in to fill out the ranks, and the duo became a proper band.  The band took the name “Hackberry Ramblers” in 1933, after the town of their origin, and began playing on the radio and at local dance halls.  Duhon left the band soon after as work made him travel, and his role of guitarist was filled by Lennis Sonnier.  Guitarist Floyd Rainwater and his brother Lonnie on steel guitar also joined, their own places later filled by Floyd and Danny Shreve—with Darbone being the only constant member.  The Ramblers played a repertoire as varied as their membership, consisting of traditional Acadian French melodies like “Jolie Blonde”, blues songs like “On Top of the World”, western swing like “Just Because”, jazz such as “You’ve Got to Hi-De-Hi”, and even popular tunes like “Sonny Boy”.  On August 10, 1935, they made their debut recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label.  Their engagement with RCA Victor lasted until 1938 and resulted in a total of eighty-one sides, of which all but one were released.  A sponsorship deal with Montgomery Ward changed their name to “Riverside Ramblers”—after Ward’s eponymous line of tires—on radio and some of their records.  The group temporarily disbanded at the end of the 1930s, when Darbone quit music for a time.  They reorganized after World War II when Harry Choates’ version of “Jole Blon” brought Cajun music to the charts, and recorded again, for DeLuxe Records in 1947 or ’48, and continued to make records sporadically in the following decades.  The group remained active, with Darbone and Duhon at the helm, until 2004.  Edwin Duhon died on February 26, 2006, at the age of ninety-five.  Luderin Darbone survived him by nearly three years, until his own death at the same age on November 21, 2008.

Bluebird B-6926 was recorded on February 22, 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was released on April 28, 1937.  The Riverside Ramblers are Joe Werner on harmonica, guitar, and vocals, Lennis Sonnier on guitar, and Luderin Darbone on fiddle.

First, Joe Werner sings his own composition, “Wondering”, which found greater popularity when it was covered by Webb Pierce in 1951, becoming the young country singer’s breakthrough hit and earning him the nickname “The Wondering Boy”.  Even on a sentimental song such as this one, they cannot fully shake off the rough and ragged, good-time feel endemic to Cajun music.

Wondering, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

On the reverse, they play and sing a rousing rendition of Riley Puckett’s “Dissatisfied”.

Dissatisfied, recorded February 22, 1937 by the Riverside Ramblers.

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.

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.

Bluebird B-5775 – Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies – 1934

Milton Brown, during his tenure with the Light Crust Doughboys. Circa 1931.

The fourth of April, 2019, marks a historic occasion, for on this day eighty-five year prior, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies made their debut recordings, and they surely did so with a bang.

Milton Brown first cut a record in Dallas, Texas on February 9, 1932, while still a member of “Pappy” O’Daniel’s original Light Crust Doughboys.  He left that band not long afterward, and started his own, the Musical Brownies, which would gain him considerable renown.  When the Victor record company returned to Texas in April of 1934, Brown and his Brownies traveled to San Antonio for a session at the Texas Hotel.  The Brownies’ musical excellence was demonstrated by their first track, “Brownie’s Stomp”, played masterfully and hotter than anything, and laid down in one take without a hitch.  Thereafter, they submitted a total of seven additional sides to hot wax, including the classics “Four, Five or Six Times” and “Garbage Man Blues”.  The following August, they returned to San Antone and recorded once again for RCA Victor, immortalizing a further ten performances, including blues songs like Memphis Minnie’s “Talking About You” and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Just Sitting On Top of the World”, pop songs like “Girl of My Dreams” and “Loveless Love”, the old-time number “Get Along, Cindy”, and the waltz “Trinity Waltz”.  That session concluded the Brownies engagement with the Victor company; in 1935, they made a longer journey to Chicago, to begin a longer and more fruitful contract with Decca, which lasted until 1937, holding one final session after Milton Brown’s untimely demise the previous year.

Bluebird B-5775 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934, the first two sides from Brown’s first session with his Musical Brownies.  The Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.  Both are instrumental numbers, so Milton sits them out aside from an occasional holler or shout.

The Brownies’ “Joe Turner Blues”—a different melody than the 1915 W.C. Handy composition, apparently attributed (though both names are misspelled on the label) to the Brownie’s fiddler Cecil Brower and Milton Brown himself—is a superbly orchestrated blues instrumental, beautifully demonstrating their musical talent.  This “Joe Turner Blues” became a standard of Texas string band repertoires and was later recorded in 1937 by the Hi-Flyers and in 1940 by Adolph Hofner and his Texans.

Joe Turner Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

“Brownie’s Stomp” on the other side—their first side recorded—is a real show piece, with hot solos by every Brownie.

Brownie’s Stomp, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.