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Rock Koster, RockAs valuable to the casual fan as to any student of Texana.
— Dallas Morning News
But the group was more than a way to push flour; the talented musicians associated with them included Bob Wills and Milton Brown, each of whom receive credit for founding western swing.
With the demise of their regular radio program, the Light Crust Doughboys had to remake themselves. Trailblazers in western swing, the Doughboys explored many other musical genres, including gospel, for which they were nominated for Grammys in 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002. They continue to play together with versatility and wide-ranging talent—“official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State” as declared by the state legislature in 1995. Their legendary banjo player, Smokey Montgomery, was with the group for sixty-six years before his death in 2001.
For the first time, here is the story of the Doughboys phenomenon, from their debut broadcast to their contemporary live performances. This is a rich slice of Texas musical and broadcasting history. Included inside is a bonus CD containing seventy-two minutes of Doughboys music, from early studio recordings to contemporary tunes.
"The best show group I've ever had"
When the tale of the Light Crust Doughboys began, Herbert Hoover was president. The majority of Texans, indeed, the majority of Americans, still lived and toiled on the farm. Car travel had begun to transform the nation, but the great interstate highway system existed only in the minds of a few visionary dreamers. Of course, there was no Internet and no television, and while the medium that would make the Doughboys stars all over the Southwest—radio—had already captured the imagination of millions of listeners, it remained only a rumor to many rural Texans. So what would have been the chances, back in 1931, that the Light Crust Doughboys would be taking the stage on a warm summer night amidst the opulent, high-tech ambience of North Dallas in the first year of a new millennium?
The 90-degree heat does not deter a crowd of Doughboys fans, standing in line, patiently waiting for the dinner theater doors to open. Many of them are gray-haired and wear bifocals, but others would not look out of place waiting in line for a Dixie Chicks show. Young or old, they're all here to enjoy an evening of Western swing (along with a gaggle of other musical styles), played by a band whose roots reach down to the very beginnings of the music.
Backstage inside the small theater, the Light Crust Doughboys filter in one by one for the show, still more than an hour away. They're dressed in starched, pale magenta and indigo Western shirts and bolo ties. The talk is easy and familiar, and only occasionally touches on music. Someone brings up Louis Armstrong, and ventures that he was a part of a vanishing breed of jazz musicians. "We're very close to a vanishing breed ourselves," another Doughboy reminds him. "These old Western swing guys—there aren't too many of 'em left."
Finally, a wiry man with steel-gray hair, a bristling mustache, and dark piercing eyes saunters in. He has the air of relaxed, confident authority. Someone anxiously asks Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, a Doughboy since 1935, about the arrangement of a particular song on the set list for that evening's show. "We'll make it up as we go along," Smokey replies reassuringly. "I'll do like Bob Wills used to do, I'll point at you, and you play every lick you know.... We rehearse, but we never do 'em the same way we rehearse 'em." He may sound casual, but before the show begins, Smokey will instruct all of the Doughboys on the parts they'll play.
Time has mellowed Smokey. He notices when someone plays the wrong chord in a tune, but doesn't make an issue of it. Still, the intensity of his drive for musical perfection remains strong. "It doesn't make much difference. Nobody knows the difference but us. Maybe most of them [the Doughboys] don't know the difference except me, but I know the difference every time we play it, because it hits a bad chord right here. We played it last night. I almost got sick at the stomach, but I didn't. In the old days, I'd have chewed them out. Now, what the heck" (Montgomery oral history, 106–7).
"He identifies with young groups and is young. Marvin will always be young," pianist Knocky Parker, Smokey's old Light Crust Doughboys partner, commented admiringly (Interview, January 10, 1984).
Even after time eventually catches up with Smokey, he'll still have his say. "I've got them [his pallbearers] all picked out. I've got the music picked out. I'm going to do a tape recording of me talking, telling a lot of bad things about a lot of guys I know," he said, tongue definitely in cheek (Oral history, 107).
A long-time Doughboy, Muryel "Zeke" Campbell, gave Smokey due credit for holding the group together far past the time of their radio heyday. "They haven't been on the radio all these years, but they've been going continuously since the beginning. Marvin kind of took over," Zeke said (Oral history, 74).
In the dinner theater, the Light Crust Doughboy fans wait with anticipation. Some, like Virgil and Virginia Summerall of Dallas, have been Doughboy fans since the days of W. Lee O'Daniel, the flour salesman who built his fame as the Doughboys' master of ceremonies into a political career that led to the Texas governor's mansion and the U.S. Senate. In fact, Virgil sold Light Crust Flour himself in a grocery store in Corpus Christi. "Man, it was a big seller," he said.
Like many Texans, Virgil well remembered seeing the Light Crust Doughboys perform live on their many tours around the state. "I saw him [O'Daniel] several times, him and the band," Virgil recalled. "Every time they came on [the radio], I turned 'em on at the store." It's his first time to hear the group play in about 60 years, since before he went to serve in Southeast Asia during World War II.
Other fans, like Charlie Ostrander, are relatively new to the fold. "We started following the Doughboys at the Christmas show of '98," he said. "We've only missed one show since then." Charlie is from Massachusetts, but still knew of the Light Crust Doughboys. "I've heard about them all my life. But my wife got me interested in cultural events. She's my cultural director." Charlie's wife Marina is Russian. "So I said, you know, in America, we have culture, too. And I said, let's go see the Doughboys. That's American." Marina said she loves the Doughboys' spontaneity. "It seems to me they're playing for their own enjoyment as much as for ours, and it just feels wonderful," she said.
Sharon Dickerson, the president of the Light Crust Doughboys Fan Club, grew up in Nashville. Her father worked for the giant music publishing company, Acuff-Rose, and was a big fan of the Doughboys, so she grew up as a fan of the group. "I was in Mesquite to hear Hank Thompson [the County Music Hall of Fame member who has his own chapter in Doughboys history] one night, and I got there early and decided to go into Generation's Past [an antique store operated by Doughboy bass player and impresario Art Greenhaw] and met Art and his mother. We got together the following week and started talking about my love for the Doughboys, and he was infatuated with the fact that I had known Hank Thompson all of my life and grew up in the music business. And he said, 'We would love to have you aboard doing something.'" Soon, she was the volunteer leader of the Doughboys fan club. "I publish a newsletter every month. It runs anywhere from four to five typewritten pages. I put it on the Internet, I send out new fan-club applications. I attend 99.9 percent of the concerts."
"I like the traditional music that the Doughboys play, their versatility and their wholesomeness," Sharon said. "They're incredibly talented musicians, each of them individually as well as a group. I've always adored them."
Sharon, a country-music singer and performer in her own right, has a favorite moment in her association with the Doughboys. It happened at a concert. "Smokey kept telling me, 'Don't you leave, don't you leave.' And he called me on stage during the second half of the concert, and he said he thought it was time everybody knew who exactly I was. And he said, 'I think you all need to hear this lady sing.' So Art and I sang 'Amazing Grace,' both with the band and a cappella. Of all the memories, that's the one that got me in the heart the most" (Interview, May 2, 2001).
When the sold-out house has completed their dinners of sandwiches and salads, Smokey turns to the group and jauntily announces, "Shall we go out there and see what it looks like?"
While Smokey reckons the band of the late '40s was the best group of musicians to perform as the Light Crust Doughboys, the modern-day Doughboys have their own distinction in his astute judgment. "The best show group I've ever had is the guys I've got right now," he said (Interview, January 3, 2001).
On this night, the manager of the theater presents the Doughboys with a certificate naming them to the "Rockabilly Hall of Fame," along with Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others. It's a reminder to the audience that the Doughboys cover a lot of musical territory, not just Western swing, a fact that will become very apparent before the evening is over. Smokey takes the plaque and holds it high, to the fond applause of the crowd.
"They are part of what made rockabilly music bigger," Bob Timmers, founder and curator of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, said. "They were part of the tradition of rockabilly. The Doughboys' innovative Texas swing has a direct link to rock 'n' roll," he said. "Swing helped inspire rockabilly, which inspired Elvis Presley and ultimately rock 'n' roll," Timmers asserts (Barber, June 18, 2000).
By no means is it the only recent honor in the astonishing career of the Light Crust Doughboys. In early 2001, the Doughboys received a Grammy nomination for their recording The Great Gospel Hit Parade with legendary gospel singer James Blackwood and the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley's vocal group. (Blackwood, who died in early 2002, was closely associated over the years with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, the Statler Brothers, Larry Gatlin, and Tammy Wynette, and, as of 2001, had received nine Grammy awards and 29 Grammy nominations of his own.) In 1999, the Doughboys were nominated for a Grammy award in the category of "Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year" and for a Gospel Music Association "Dove" award. The nominations were for their collaboration with Blackwood and his quartet, They Gave the World a Smile: The Stamps Quartet Tribute Album. In 1998, the Doughboys were nominated for Keep Lookin' Up: The Texas Swing Sessions, also with Blackwood. The Light Crust Doughboys were charter inductees in the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 1995, the Texas Legislature named the Doughboys "Texas' official music ambassadors." In recent years, they have performed in unique collaborations with the Lone Star Ballet in Amarillo and the Southern Methodist University Mustang Band, and performed in a series of concerts in Europe. In 1999, Mel Bay Publications, Inc., published two books of Doughboy compositions, most of them by Smokey Montgomery and Greenhaw.
The Light Crust Doughboys' place in Texas music history is secure. John Morthland, a contributing editor to Texas Monthly magazine, has been writing about music since 1969 when he began working as an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Morthland related a story that is often repeated about the powerful presence of the Doughboys in the 1930s and '40s. "Johnny Gimble [a former member of Wills' Texas Playboys] has said this to me, and I've read it or heard it from others too, that when they were growing up, you'd walk down the street at noon and every window was open and the Doughboys were coming out of every window. You could hear their whole radio show as you walked down the street," Morthland said (Interview, May 4, 2001).
After the Rockabilly Hall of Fame presentation, a local radio personality steps to the mike, and intones the historic words, "The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!" Immediately, the Doughboys launch into their time-honored theme:
Now listen everybody from near and far,
If you want to know who we are
We're the Light Crust Doughboys,
From Burrus Mill.
Like our song, think it's fine,
Sit right down and drop a line,
To the Light Crust Doughboys,
From Burrus Mill.
And I declare, (oh, yeah!) we'll get it there (ah-hah),
And if we have the time to spare,
Sometime when we're down your way,
We'll stop in and spend the day.
We're the Light Crust Doughboys,
From Burrus Mill.
Never do brag, never do boast,
We sing our song from coast to coast,
We're the Light Crust Doughboys, From Burrus Mill.
Smokey cradles his celebrated tenor banjo on his lap as he sits at stage left on a stool, the only concession to his 87 years. Throughout the evening's two-hour show, he will hop from the stool to the mike to announce the tunes, josh with the other Doughboys, and charm the audience. "We'll dedicate this next song to Joe Dickinson [the theater manager] because it really fits him. It's called 'Bubbles in My Beer,'" he confidently offers. Keyboardist Bill Simmons sits in front of Smokey, and slightly to the left at the edge of the tiny stage. Fiddlers John Walden and Jim Baker stand at the back, and bassist Art Greenhaw holds down stage right, as guitarist Jerry Elliott steps forward to sing the classic Texas Playboys barroom number.
Jerry has been a Doughboy since 1960, a record of longevity that would be astounding if not for Smokey's 65 years with the band. "He was the 'Fort Worth singing sensation of 1949,' which is strange since he tells us he's 32," Greenhaw tells the room. Elliott's resume includes serving as an arranger for the late, great singer and songwriter Roger Miller. Jerry dips his head and grimaces as he reaches for the high notes, and then rares back and wails, still climbing the scale with considerable ease. He recalled that when he joined the band, the Doughboys were still playing at grand openings of grocery stores that bought a big load of Light Crust Flour, and the Cargill foods company, which had bought out the Burrus Mills and Elevator Co., was still paying the group. "But Smokey wanted to get off the road," he said, and the group has been playing shows for the simple pleasure of its fans ever since, never mind the flour.
The next song, "My Mary," was perhaps original Doughboy Milton Brown's best-known song, recorded in 1935 after he left the band to launch his own group, the Musical Brownies. The Doughboys themselves recorded the song in 1934 (Ginell, Milton Brown, 291–92). Jerry sings the beautiful melody, which sounds as contemporary as any recent hit by George Strait.
While the Doughboys are closely identified with country music, their music actually predates what we today call "country." Smokey Montgomery: "They didn't write country tunes then. There wasn't a Nashville where they made tunes just for country. We were playing all the pop tunes, trying to play them like a big band. We listened to Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and all those bands, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller. We played a lot of tunes that they played, pop tunes. We would get a lot of songs from south of border: 'La Cucaracha,' 'El Rancho Grande,' and all those tunes. We did a lot of old breakdowns and old-time East Texas running waltzes" (Oral history, 124).
Early in the show, Smokey shows that, after more than six decades with the Doughboys, he is still very much a banjo virtuoso, as he tears up "Sweet Georgia Brown," fingers racing up and down the fretboard.
Smokey plays a four-string tenor banjo, different from the more familiar five-string variety. His favorite instrument is a 1948 model Silver Bell Symphonic banjo. He also has a gold-plated Silver Bell Bacon made in 1922, the year when he picked up the banjo for the first time (Tarrant; Montgomery interview, May 3, 2001).
Doughboys shows tend to be informal affairs, not unlike a spontaneous jam in Smokey's den. Smokey, the undisputed leader and a jovially hard taskmaster, may announce at any moment that the band will play an unrehearsed number. Or he may good-naturedly upbraid one of the Doughboys for some real or imaginary transgression. At the end of "Sweet Georgia Brown," Smokey, in mock indignation, instructs Bill, "Don't hit that last chord till I hit the last chord." The audience enjoys the feeling of "sitting in" as the Doughboys have fun with their music.
ALight Crust Doughboys performance is a guided tour through the American musical landscape of pop, country, early rock 'n' roll, gospel, and jazz, besides the group's home base of Western swing. They launch into a countrified version of Pat Boone's "Love Letters in the Sand." Smokey relates a story about '50s teen idol Boone hitchhiking back and forth from the University of North Texas campus in Denton to WBAP-TV in Fort Worth, where he sang on a daily program. "Pat's almost a genius, but sometimes he goes over to the other side," Smokey jokes cryptically. Fiddler John Walden steps to the mike and croons the tune in a rich, smooth baritone, his prominent eyebrows and handlebar mustache bobbing, his eyes twinkling.
Backstage before the show, John tells how his father led an orchestra in Wichita Falls, and how he slyly led John into music. "'See that fiddle in this case,' he told us boys," John recalled affectionately. "'I'm going to put it under this bed, and I don't want you to touch it. You'll get a hard whipping if you mess with it.'" Of course, little John picked up the fiddle. "'Which one of you boys got the fiddle out? I'll have to whip you all if you don't own up to it,'" he told John and his brothers. So John admitted playing with the old fiddle, expecting the worst. "But he made me study four hours instead," John said. "He made me run scales."
Art is a frequent contributor of new songs to the Doughboys' repertoire. Smokey introduces Art's song, "Texas Women," saying, "This song was written by Art. He's still researching it." Art, responds, "I had a good teacher in Smokey," to which Smokey shoots back, "As much as I can remember." The song is a bouncy paean to the women of the Lone Star State, in much the same spirit as "California Girls" by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
Excerpted from The Light Crust Doughboys Are on the Air by John Mark Dempsey. Copyright © 2002 John Mark Dempsey. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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