In Cross Rhythms' ongoing series, we remember the rugged rural hymnody of THE CHUCK WAGON GANG, a pivotal sound in the development of 20th century Christian music.
Slowly but surely, everyone seeking to grasp the origins of Christian music are realising the huge debut owed to the white rural American music of the pre-war years. This music which straddles both the development of country music and today's Southern gospel practitioners has one hugely important exponent in the Carter Family (already covered by Cross Rhythms in our Gospel Roots series). But it's another family group and, by coincidence, another group with the Carter surname which also need to be recognised by serious Christian music historians. When Dave Parker 'Dad' Carter took his family group to audition for a radio station in 1935 he was to set in motion a set of circumstances leading to an influential, eight decade recording career for his group dubbed The Chuck Wagon Gang. The music performed by DP and his kids Lola, Effie and Ernest was an eclectic mix of their Texas heritage. Playing various instruments and harmonising in a plaintively rugged way they lived in a cabin in North Cabin Camp near Lubbock, Texas and, when not picking cotton, entertained themselves with Western ballads, American and Irish folk songs and the gospel songs and hymns they learnt at the church they regularly attended. Needing money to tend a sick child, DP took his eldest son and daughter to Radio Station KFYO in Lubbock and asked for an audition for a singing job. They got it. The Carter Quartet were soon hired, receiving the princely sum of $12.50 a week for a 15 minute daily programme.
After a year Dave Carter sought greener pastures and took his family to Fort Worth where they landed a job with the biggest radio station in the area, WBAP. Bewley Flour Mills of Fort Worth sponsored a Western band on WBAP called the Chuck Wagon Gang who toured around the Fort Worth area singing songs and dishing up biscuits (made from Bewley's flour, of course) from a motorised "chuck wagon". In 1936 the Carter Quartet became the radio persona of the Chuck Wagon Gang. Also given name changes by agent Cy Leland were the family - Effie became Anna (despite her having a 12 year old sister called Anna), Ernest became Jim, Lola became Rose and Dave was dubbed 'Dad'. Through the rest of the '30s the Chuck Wagon Gang became a part of what has been called "the Great Fort Worth Flour War". On other stations Light Crust Flour sponsored the Light Crust Doughboys while Gold Chain Flour sponsored Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubador. But the Chuck Wagon Gang more than held their own and their popularity grew with each passing year. This was underlined when the radio station offered group photos and more than 100,000 requests were received. Recording-wise too the group flourished. Talent scouts Art Satherly and Don Law of the American/Brunswick Record Corporation (which was acquired by Columbia Records in 1938) signed the Gang and on 25th November 1936 the group gathered in a hotel room in San Antonio and recorded 16 songs (not bad for a day's work!).
The group's repertoire, like their radio programmes, was a mixture of the sacred ("The Son Hath Set Me Free") and the secular ("Take Me Back To Renfro Valley"). Rose could yodel "Oklahoma Blues". Or the group could sing their plaintively haunting gospel songs like "I Love To Tell Of His Love". A 1937 session was the last one where the Chuck Wagon Gang recorded secular material. It was their gospel songs and hymns performed in their simple, no thrills, rural way that caught the ear of their big radio and record audience. At first live concerts were few and far between but by the '50s the Chuck Wagon Gang hooked up with the legendary concert promoter Wally Fowler who began to feature the group on his multi-group programmes to huge success. Since those times the group have appeared at the Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Grand Ole Opry and on literally thousands of concert stages.
The group also have a vast recording legacy. When they finished their last recording session with Columbia Records on 23rd September 1975 a stunning 408 known masters had been recorded with, to date, over 30 million copies sold. After Dad and Jim died and Rose and Anna retired the Gang almost parked its wagon. But Ray Carter resurrected the group and the Chuck Wagon Gang once more played concerts and recorded albums. The current line up consists of Vicki Owens (Anna's daughter), Shaye Truax (Vicki's daughter), Jim Wesson, Darrell Morris and group manager and guitarist Grant Owens. In 1990 the book The Chuck Wagon Gang: A Legend Lives On by Bob Terrell was published. In it Terrell wrote, "From the beginning, the Chuck Wagon Gang grew in great popularity in the hearts of Americans. Who can ever forget the beautiful voices of Rose and Anna? Or the way Jim and Dad backed them? Together, the four produced a sound that has never been duplicated in American music - except by succeeding editions of the Chuck Wagon Gang."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.