BILL BOYD'S Cowboy Ramblers

Saturday, February 1, 2014


This beautiful gatefold 2 LP set was released on RCA's series of historic Bluebird reissues in 1975. An early example of the kind of dedicated treatment such collections would come to receive in the CD era, it features 32 of Bill Boyd's classic sides 1934-1950, as well as recording dates, session details, and detailed notes as follows:

BILL BOYD’S COWBOY RAMBLERS
THE MUSIC
Mention “Western Swing” to a Country Music buff and certain thought patterns emerge—The Southwest, hardwood dance floors, the hanging smoke fog, and good spirits in one form or another. Occasionally a few fists would fly, too, but this need not be surprising when one considers the setting.
As a Country Music sub-genre, Western Swing was the Southwest’s response to the big dance band. This music evolved in Texas during the mid-1930s as an outgrowth of the rural fiddle bands, but was also heavily influenced by other musical forms such as the jazz bands, “pop” orchestras and neighboring Mexican ensembles. Two or three-piece fiddle bands had long been in use for dances in smaller environs, such as at “house parties” in rural homes. But the larger dance halls required a heavier, louder sound and the Western Swing band fulfilled this need through the addition of rhythm instruments such as piano, banjo and drums. Amplified steel and standard guitars also joined the fray and even horns occasionally. Such bands were naturally attractive to the thousands of urbanized, ex-rural folk who hungered to dance to an acceptable sound not totally divorced from the one they recalled “back down home.”
The use of “Western Swing” as accepted definition for this blending of rural hillbilly music with other elements didn’t occur for more than a decade after the music’s inception. Some interim descriptive attempts in trade circles included “Novelty Hot Dance,”“Old Time Singing and Playing” and “Hot String Band.” A 1939 Bluebird Record Catalog of “Old Familiar Tunes” spotlighted such recordings as “Of Special Interest to Coin Operators,” for the coin-operated jukebox’s impact on record sales had become significant and the jukebox was now a permanent fixture in cafes and restaurants. More important, however, it had also assumed a role as THE dance band at some establishments where the expense of providing live dance music was prohibitive. Thus, recordings by Western Swing bands were sought after by jukebox operators, particularly in the Southwestern states.
By July, 1941, an issue of Victor Record Review was approaching a final definition of this musical style when it used a subject heading of “Texas Swing” in listing the latest Bluebird label releases by various Texas and Louisiana groups. Finally, in 1946, Spade Cooley was dubbed with the title “King of Western Swing.” Spade’s fancy arrangements and unusual instrumentation, even including classical harp, had met with great success in California, where he headquartered, and earned him this nickname in a contest held by The Boots and Saddle Club. Thus the appellation, “Western Swing,” gradually became popularly used to describe the musical sound created by these larger Country-oriented dance bands.
While its debt to other musical styles, particularly jazz, can’t be minimized, Western Swing had to retain sufficient rural Country flavor to be accepted by the folk. This was not all that restrictive, however, for the style of musical output would still vary from one Western Swing band to another. Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies for example, achieved great success in recording without the use of horns. Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, on the other hand, employed horns successfully on many recordings. The sheer size of the Wills band in the pre-War years enabled it to vary its sound from Country to Swing or Jazz even in the middle of a single performance. But the Wills band could and did continue to perform the Country sounds, too, which allowed it to retain that base or rural support despite its occasional forays into non- Country idioms. Another top flight group which had no fear of losing the support of loyal, Country fans was the Cowboy Ramblers. Led by Bill Boyd, with able assistance from younger brother Jim, this band’s output was primarily an all-string Western Swing repertory from beginning to end, with horns or drums used sparingly.
THE BOYDS
William Lemuel (Bill) Boyd was born September 29, 1910, in Fannin County, Texas and Jim’s arrival came four years later on September 28, 1914. Their parents, Lem Boyd and the former Molly Jared, were natives of the middle Tennessee town of Cookeville (Putnam County), where their ancestors, William Boyd and William Jared, had settled their families after having served in the Revolutionary War under General Washington.
Lem Boyd chose to join the migration westward in August, 1902. Texas was chosen as a destination when he heard rumors of more potential for money there. The family initially settled near Whitewright (Grayson County), but moved to nearby Fannin County in late 1903 where they established a 320-acre cattle ranch/cotton farm four miles southwest of Ladonia.
With thirteen children in the family, the Boyd Ranch was operated mostly by family members although some hired help was necessary, especially at harvest time. Chores for Bill and Jim weren’t unlike those encountered by other farm boys, including laborious hoeing and picking in the cotton fields, riding, roping and a host of other duties. Thus to brand Bill and Jim as drugstore cowboys would be inappropriate as they were indeed the real thing.
Music surrounded the Boyd children on the ranch. Lem Boyd was a tenor singer and Molly often sang old ballads to the family. Old phonograph records were present as was the battery-powered radio. Then there were hired hands on the ranch who, at day’s end, would often play and sing western songs. True to form, Bill obtained a mail order guitar and in due time was performing alongside the ranch bands.
In 1926, Bill and Jim, along with two rural neighbors, Howard and Bill Staley, were invited to perform on Greenville radio station KFPM. No money was involved in their radio debut, but they came away convinced that guitar pickin’ was a preferable career to cotton pickin’! Despite their radio debut, however, work on the farm had to continue and their responsibilities became even heavier due to the death of their father that same year.
By 1929, farming had become less lucrative and the family decided to lease the farm and move to Dallas and sample city life. Bill had completed his schooling and, along with other family members, sought employment to make ends meet. Jim enrolled at Dallas Technical High School where he met Audrey (Art) Davis for the first time. As classmates, they performed in the school band; Art on clarinet and Jim on guitar. Art was also becoming proficient on fiddle and mandolin which prompted Jim and Art to volunteer their musical services (in “down home style”) for school assembly programs. The first Cowboy Ramblers band was thus taking shape.
Due to job scarcity and tight money in general, Bill was forced to accept any employment opportunity that came along and labored in positions ranging from department store delivery boy to roofer. His longing for a musical career had not waned, however, and he continued to cast an eye in this direction.
A big turning point for Bill came when he and two friends, O. P. Alexander and Red Stevens, auditioned for station WFAA and were hired for an early morning show. Dubbing themselves “Alexander’s Daybreakers,” Bill performed on guitar and sang, O. P. blew harmonica and Red tickled the mandolin strings. Audience response was sufficient to keep the show on the air for two years whereupon, in 1932, the Cowboy Ramblers were formed. WRR then became base of operations for Bill, and for Jim, too, as one of the Ramblers’ charter members.
The musical careers of both Boyds were now on the upswing. Bill continued to front the Cowboy Ramblers on WRR for more than two decades. Except for a tour of duty with the Light Crust Doughboys band in 1938-1939, Jim remained a member, too, and would assume leadership responsibilities when Bill was away on other business, such as personal appearance tours. Jim also recorded for RCA during 1949-1951 with his own band, The Men of the West. Here Jim vocalizes on Wah Hoo and I’ve Got Those Oklahoma Blues and sings in duet with Bill on I’m Gonna Hop Off the Train (their first recording), Going Back to My Texas Home and I’ve Got the Blues for Mammy. Bill solos on The Strawberry Roan, The Windswept Desert (Desert Blues), Mama Don’t Like No Music, Fan It, Singing and Swinging for Me and teams with Curly Perrin on ‘Way Out There. Curly performs the vocal on Guess Who’s in Town.
Hollywood’s motion picture industry beckoned Bill in the early 1940s. His manager at the time was Jack Adams who was, also, a motion picture distributor and a PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) franchise holder. With Bill’s recordings achieving wide success, Jack convinced PRC that movies with Bill in a starring role would have box office potential. This effort by Adams resulted in six movies by Bill for PRC: “Texas Manhunt,”“Raiders of the West,”“Rolling Down the Great Divide,”“Tumbleweed Trail,”“Prairie Pals,” and “Along the Sundown Trail.” Jim played a leading role, too, in “Tumbleweed Trail” and starred in the Astor Pictures production “Saturday Night Square Dance.”
Interestingly, younger brothers John and Clyde Boyd also journeyed into music. John picks on steel guitar on several Ramblers’ recordings, including the versions of Boyd’s Tin Roof Blues and Spanish Fandango heard in this set. In addition, he also formed his own band, The Southerners, and completed a recording session with them in 1937. John met an untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 1942.
Clyde, while not a participant in the Ramblers’ recordings, did become teacher of guitar and, at this writing, manages the Boyd School of Guitar in Dallas which has been in operation for over 40 years since its founding by Bill in the early 1930s.
By the mid-1950s the musical airwaves were fast becoming sole property of the platter-spinning deejays, resulting in the demise of live musical programming on the local station level. This also signaled an end to the Cowboy Ramblers and forced Bill and Jim to join the deejay crowd. Bill continued to perform in this capacity until his retirement two years ago and Jim still spins the discs today on a part-time basis, though laboring full time as a housing contractor.
THE BAND—ITS RECORDINGS AND SIDEMEN
The bleak Depression year of 1932 witnessed the formation of the first Cowboy Ramblers band on radio station WRR. The band was comprised of Bill and Jim Boyd on guitars, Art Davis on fiddle and Walter Kirkes on 4-string banjo. The band members, other than Bill, were actually WRR stall musicians and, as such, derived their income from the station. Bill would purchase the necessary time for his daily program from the station, which included talent costs, and would then sell the program to local sponsors. As staff musicians, the band members would also perform on similar musical programs throughout the broadcast day, such as Roy Newman’s “Noon Hour Varieties.” For Bill’s personal appearances requiring a band’s presence, such as at fair dates away from Dallas, he would resort to a “pick-up” band of musicians desiring such work. Most recording sessions required the augmentation of his radio group with musicians from the Light Crust Doughboys and/or other bands in order to achieve a fuller sound. Since this meant using some non-WRR personnel, their recordings would vary from the music heard on their WRR radio programs.
Despite the success of Bill’s recordings with jukebox dancers, live dance dates for Bill and the Ramblers were rare. Bill’s prime interests were in his daily radio shows, fair and theater dates, plus his recordings. His narrowed activities made some sense, for to play dance dates would have meant further augmentation of his radio band or else the formation of new “pick-up” bands. Though plenty of musicians were available for such duty, it was felt that any potential gain was not worth the problems involved.
The Ramblers’ recording career was launched as a result of the interest of a district manager for Victor Records who had heard the band perform and recommended them for a recording contract in 1934. This marked the beginning of a relationship that spanned seventeen years. All of their records were issued on Victor’s Bluebird label prior to 1946 with subsequent releases appearing on RCA Victor.
For their initial recording session in San Antonio’s Texas Hotel on August 7, 1934, the Ramblers were basically a four-piece fiddle band. Performances were mostly western-flavored selections, such as The Strawberry Roan (heard herein), or fiddle instrumentals like The Lost Wagon (actually Soldier’s Joy) and The Ramblers’ Rag, also presented here. Personnel in the band consisted of the same foursome that comprised the original 1932 group.
The band’s movement toward Western Swing was apparent by the second recording session in January, 1935, also at San Antonio’s Texas Hotel, when the band, enlarged by one to include piano, recorded varied selections ranging from Handy’s St. Louis Blues to Wagner’s Under the Double Eagle, not to mention eight other selections from diverse sources. Such song borrowing from other musical traditions continued for their remaining sessions of the 1930s,
A later session in August, 1935, marked the addition of another guitar for heavier rhythm and in February, 1936, the Ramblers recorded with their first amplified instrument. This was the steel guitar of Wilson “Lefty” Perkins, played in Bob Dunn’s trumpet-emulating style. Dunn pioneered in steel guitar amplification and made the first such recordings with his crude contraption in 1935 as a member of Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies.
Recording for their fifth time in October, 1936, a second fiddle was added and the band now numbered seven. By the March, 1937, session an eighth instrument came aboard in the form of a clarinetist plucked from the Musicians’ Union rolls expressly for the session. The band’s size finally peaked at ten for the sessions of September, 1937, in Dallas and April, 1938, in San Antonio.
The Ramblers’ 1940s and 1950s recordings stressed the newer songs, including some of their own composition. The band maintained a Western Swing flavor, however, except for a New York session in June, 1945, which utilized New York musicians who had little or no feel for the western style.
Fortunately, Bill’s other sessions throughout the years featured musicians who indeed were capable of injecting true enthusiasm into their playing. It, therefore, seems fitting that some of these featured instrumentalists on fiddle, piano and steel guitar be singled out for their contributions to this set.
Jesse Ashlock (fiddle): Initially a breakdown fiddler in his native Texas style, Jesse developed into a top Western Swing fiddler by learning “licks” directly from Cecil Brower, Clifford Gross and others. He also admired the recordings of jazz violinist Joe Venuti and learned from them. Jesse’s fiddle comes to life here on Saturday Night Rag, a tune he learned directly from Kentucky fiddler Clifford Gross when Gross was a member of the Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth. He, likewise, performs on Goofus and sings on River Blues, better known as Ready for the River. Jesse’s tenure with the Cowboy Ramblers and WRR was brief, but his efforts on Bob Wills’ recordings of the ‘30s and ‘40s are numerous.
Cecil Brower (fiddle): No ordinary fiddler by any means, the late Cecil Brower studied music and violin at Texas Christian University but, except for stints with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and with Ted Fio Rito, he chose fancy fiddlin’ over violin playing. Cecil was prominent on all of Milton Brown’s recordings and did some sessions with the Light Crust Doughboys and Bob Wills, as well as with Bill Boyd. Here he performs on Draggin’ It Around (Draggin’ the Bow), Beaumont Rag and What’s the Use. He had his own band in Odessa, Texas In the late 1940s and was on network TV during the mid-1950s as a member of Bill Wimberly’s band on “Ozark Jubilee.” In the early 1960s he performed on ABC-TV’s “Jimmy Dean Show” and later worked on various recording sessions in Nashville.
Art Davis (fiddle): Art studied music during his high school days and played clarinet, fiddle and mandolin. Both Bill Boyd’s first and last recording sessions featured Art on fiddle. An examination of The Ramblers’ Rag, Barn Dance Rag and Lone Star Rag will reveal his fine artistry. He also doubled on mandolin on
some early cuts, such as Barn Dance Rag and sings here on I Can’t Tame Wild Women. Art acted and performed musically in a number of B-Western movies with Gene Autry for Republic Pictures and with Bill “Cowboy Rambler” Boyd for PRC. He had a starring role in various films, too, including “The Masked Phantom” and “Texas Marshall.” Art fronted his own band, The Rhythm Riders, for several years after World War II.
Carroll Hubbard and Kenneth Pitts (twin fiddles): The tightly- knit fiddle harmony of these two artists on New Spanish Two-Step, La Golondrina and Spanish Fandango can easily project one’s thoughts to Mexico’s mariachi sounds, one of the many Western Swing influences. Both Hubbard and Pitts can comfortably perform in wide areas of the musical spectrum.
Carroll studied at the Fort Worth Conservatory of Music and later at the Guild Hall School in London while in military service during World War II. However, he always enjoyed Country Music and joined the Light Crust Doughboys after the War. At this writing he performs with a three-piece Country group at a Dallas night spot and, also, turns violinist (continental-style) for special occasions, such as wedding receptions.
Kenneth was performing as a self-educated musician on his 1930s sessions with the Light Crust Doughboys and Bill Boyd, but later, in 1953, acquired a master’s degree in Music Education. His diverse background includes a tenure with the opera in Fort Worth and service as music director for radio station WRAP for several years. He teaches music today and is musically active in the church he attends.
John W, “Knocky” Parker (piano): Western Swing served “Knocky” well as both a training ground for performance and springboard to success as a jazz pianist. During his tenure with the Light Crust Doughboys, he became fascinated with Doughboys banjoist Marvin Montgomery’s slurring chords and found them adaptable to his piano playing. (Marvin, incidentally, can be heard supplying his fine banjo back-up on various selections here. Please consult the discography.) “Knocky” has since described his piano playing as “distinctly Marvinesque.” He augmented the Ramblers on several recording sessions and shines here on Joe Sullivan’s Mill Blues (Gin Mill Blues), which he also recorded with the Light Crust Doughboys one month after the Boyd session. Today, “Knocky” is a University teacher of English, but continues to perform and lecture at jazz concerts.
Wilson “Lefty” Perkins (steel guitar): As the nickname implies, Perkins performs lefthanded on steel. The strings, however, are not reversed and remain in a righthand performing position. “Lefty” came to Fort Worth from Denison, Texas, and “made the rounds” with various bands, including the Cowboy Ramblers, Universal Cowboys, Light Crust Doughboys and the Musical Brownies under Durwood Brown’s leadership. “Lefty” had a high regard for Bob Dunn’s steel playing and performed with Bob on twin steels as a member of Major Kord’s Hi Flyers in Eagle Pass, Texas, on “Rancho Grande Roundup” in 1937-1938. His arrangement of New Steel Guitar Rag was a best-seller for the Cowboy Ramblers. “Lefty” continues to be musically active in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
Andrew Schroder (steel guitar): Andy came to Fort Worth via Corsicana where he had performed as a Hawaiian guitarist. He switched to amplified steel and became a member of the Hi Flyers who were being re-organized in preparation for their move to KOMA in Oklahoma City. As a stage band on KOMA from 1939-1941, they also performed under other names, including The Bell Boys. Andy became a Cowboy Rambler in the mid-’40s and has written or co-written several steel guitar tunes, including Roadside Rag and New Fort Worth Rag, the latter spotlighted here.
* * *
Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers arc consistently ranked among the top four Western Swing recording bands by aficionados of that performance style. Bill’s knack in surrounding himself with top flight musicians for his recording sessions is noteworthy. The fact that an augmented band could perform with so much cohesion, especially on instrumentals, is amazing. Many of their instrumentals, including New Spanish Two-Step, Under the Double Eagle and others, have sold so well over the years that Bill has been referred to as “King of the Instrumentals.” It’s certainly in this area that the Ramblers’ recordings achieved marked success.
The days of the Cowboy Ramblers are over. But great music remains preserved in the grooves of their many recordings. This band cut 229 sides during their years with RCA and it’s a tribute to their fine musicianship that over 99%, or 227, were chosen for release.
Bob Pinson
COUNTRY Music Foundation
Nashville, Tennessee


The download folder includes jacket and label scans.

Tracks:

1. I'm Gonna Hop Off The Train
2. The Rambler's Rag
3. The Strawberry Roan
4. The Windswept Desert
5. Going Back To My Texas Home
6. Mama Don't Like No Music
7. Under The Double Eagle
8. Barn Dance Rag
9. I Can't Tame Wild Women
10. Wah Hoo
11. River Blues
12. Goofus
13. Saturday Night Rag
14. Fan It
15. 'Way Out There
16. Draggin' It Around
17. You Shall Be Free Monah
18. Guess Who's In Town
19. Beaumont Rag
20. What's The Use
21. New Steel Guitar Rag
22. Boyd's Tin Roof Blues
23. I've Got Those Oklahoma Blues
24. New Spanish Two-Step
25. Spanish Fandango
26. Singing & Swinging For Me
27. La Golondrina
28. I've Got The Blues For Mammy
29. Mill Blues
30. New Fort Worth Rag
31. Lone Star Rag
32. Domino Rag

10 comments:

tamworthted said...

Thanks Lefty, What a beaut.

Uncle Gil said...

Great one that I lost many years ago. Thanks !

Donna Rose said...

Thank you for including all the notes as well as the visuals. It makes a nice change to have the complete package. This is one to treasure!

Jonathan F. King said...

Boy, has it been that long since I bought this LP? Just crucial in my development as a western swing nut. Great to have in digital form ... thanks!

Rick said...

Yet another guy who bought this on vinyl 40 years ago and has been wanting to hear it again. Thanks, Lefty!

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