Tuesday, April 14, 2015
This 1984 collection, part of CBS's "Columbia Historic Edition" series, compiles twelve sides cut during 1935-1940. Although its cover would make it appear to focus on Patsy Montana, the LP actually includes many of the Prairie Ramblers' solo sides, including some they cut as the Sweet Violet Boys, as well as those on which they accompany Montana.
Like all the albums released in this series, the LP features excellent presentation, sound, and liner notes, reproduced below:
Patsy Montana is justly celebrated in country music history as the first woman to have a million-seller record, 1935’s “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” But there are more reasons than that for listening to her today. She pioneered the cowgirl/buddy image in country music establishing a new female entertainment personality. She was a successful country composer during the era when commercial songwriting in that genre was in its infancy. And she recorded with The Prairie Ramblers, arguably the greatest string band of country music’s “Golden Age.”
She was from rural Arkansas. They were from rural Kentucky. Yet the music created by Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers was a fusion of hillbilly instrumentation and jazzy urban rhythms, with perhaps a dash at ethnic polka and schottische styles thrown in for spice. It was hybrid music. It had bright, clear yodel bursts, immense good humor, dazzling instrumental passages and tremendous popular appeal. That is why Prairie Ramblers music still sounds fresh today.
When Montana and the Ramblers teamed up in 1933 both had recognized careers. Born Ruby Blevins, the then 21 year old inger/fiddler/yodeler songwriter had already established an image as Palsy Montana in California and over KWKH radio, in Shreveport, Louisiana. And the string band then known as The Kentucky Ramblers, had already secured a regular cast spot on the WLS National Barn Dance radio show in Chicago.
They teamed up on WLS — a not inconsiderable factor in their subsequent rise to prominence. The Chicago station was the most powerful popularizer ci country music in the world at the time. The same year that Montana joined the show, WLS went nationwide over the NBC radio network. WLS Artists Bureau pioneered road shows for its acts, thus beginning the country booking agency business. And the mighty station reached millions of Northern, urban listeners, thus bringing a regional style to national attention. At least part at WLS’ vast, overwhelming success was due to a distinctive sound d featured. There was a warm, homey, fireside, reassuring tone about it it. Its stars had dulcet honeyed styles that gave them a friendly, neighborly quality. It was at once immensely folksy and incredibly professional. Patsy Montana & The Prairie Rambters epitomtzed this sound.
Montana’s performances were feminine in the then-dominant “mother,” “sweetheart,” and “comedienne” modes for country music women but her introduction and popularization of the “cowgirl/buddy/lover” musical personality provided a new role model for female country acts. The singing cowgirl came along at a time when huge numbers of working class women had to enter the work force alongside their husbands. Patsy’s western fantasies of male female equality coincided with women s emergence from the kitchen. The exuberant singing cowgirl was a respectable way to swing.
To accommodate their new member’s western image and repertoire, the four WLS string band members who had been performing together since 1931 — Floyd “Salty” Holmes (guitar, tenor vocals), Jack Taylor (bass), CharIes “Chick” Hurt (mandola) and Shelby “Tex” Atchison (fiddle) — renamed themselves the Prairie Ramblers. Montana’s main contribution to the act was her sense at showmanship and image but this was enough to distinguish the group from being just another National Barn Dance act to being a headline attraction. The band was so hot that when Atchison moved west in 1938, Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers attracted the equally fluid fiddler Alan Crockett and continued their radio record and touring popularity.
Both as separate acts and together Montana and the Ramblers had recorded for Victor, but it was not until their discovery by the American Record Company’s (later CBS’) Uncle Art Satherley in 1935 that disc stardom arrived. By then the market for records was quite low. Few new artists were being recorded; and female country acts, in particular, were not considered good prospects. Nevertheless Satherley believed in the band and its lead vocalist enough to take them to his company’s New York studio in August, 1935. He emerged with the biggest records that both Patsy and the band were ever to make. On August 15th, The Prairie Ramblers recorded their biggest hit, “Nobody s Darling But Mine,” and the following day came Montana’s self composed classic “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
Over the next five years (the period of the act’s greatest popularity), they embellished Montana’s cowgirl/yodeler image and continued to mine the country jazz idiom as an acoustic swing band. A delightful addition to these twin toe tapping types of releases were those by “The Sweet Violet Boys.” This was a recording pseudonym adopted by The Prairie Ramblers to record slightly off-color material. Patsy wasn’t allowed in the studios for these, but often Sweet Violet Boys sessions included guest appearances by Will Thawl (clarinet), Bob Miller (piano), George Barnes (guitar), John Brown (piano) and other country-jazz aficionados. The merry results were often in a vaudevillian jug band style, with Holmes switching from guitar playing to jug blowing for the occasions. Sometimes 78s were released with The Prairie Ramblers billing on one side and The Sweet Violet Boys name on the other.
The classic Prairie Ramblers, Patsy Montana, and Sweet Violet Boys recording sessions were from 1935 to the dawn of World War II, the period from which all the selections on this reissue come. The team broke up in 1940 when Montana went to Decca Records. The band eventually added drums and electric guitar and became a jazz ensemble. Montana continues with her western songs and yodeling to this day. In 1970 she was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music.
The Grand Ole Opry and Nashville have dominated country music history since World War II; and this fact has tended to overshadow the importance and overlook the impact of the music made by the WLS National Barn Dance acts. One listen to what’s in these grooves, however, ought to set the record straight.
Listen closely. This is the sound of the mountains meeting the sound of the city. It’s east meeting west. It is country music taking its first steps out of babyhood toward adulthood. And its mighty, mighty pleasing; for there’s something still thrilling about a wild and reckless jazz fiddle break, a stinging and sizzling mandolin lick, and a head-to-the-sky, wide-open-spaces yodel.
—ROBERT K. OERMANN The Tennessean, Nashville
1. Deep Elem Blues
2. A Rip Rip-Snortin', Two-Gun Gal
3. Monkeys Is The Cwaziest People
4. Gonna Have A Feast Here Tonight
5. Hi-Falutin' Newton
6. I Haven't Got A Pot To Cook In
7. I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart
8. With A Banjo On My Knee
9. Goodbye To Old Mexico
10. Cowboy Rhythm
11. There's A Man That Comes To Out House
12. Beaver Creek