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Chuck Wagon Gang

Chuck Wagon Gang

Country-gospel group

When David Parker "Dad" Carter started the Carter Quartet on radio station KFYO in Lubbock, Texas, in 1935, he had no idea that he was founding an institution that would survive into the twenty-first century. Although numerous personnel changes took place in what would become known as the Chuck Wagon Gang, and founding members departed or retired, the country-gospel group persevered. For 70 years the group has spread its trademark close harmony by selling millions of records, performing on the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride, and by appearing on a numerous television and radio shows. The Chuck Wagon Gang's calling card was its ability to successfully combine several strands of traditional Southern music into a distinctive blend. "Their greatest significance is that the band provides an important link between country music and traditional sacred songs of the South," wrote Sandra Brennan in All Music Guide.

David Parker Carter met Carrie Brooks at singing school in Clay County, Texas, around 1908. The two began to "court" and were married in 1909. Between August 10, 1910, when Ernest Carter was born, and March 15, 1930, when Bettye Carter was born, David and Carrie Carter had nine children. By the 1930s, however, the Carter clan faced the same hard times as many other Americans in the midst of the Depression. Forced to make ends meet by picking cotton, accepting government relief, and eating wild game, the proud family knew they had to find a better way to get by.

With a new life in mind, the Carters moved to Lubbock, Texas, in the middle of 1935. There, Dad Carter took his oldest son and daughter, Ernest and Lola, to a local radio station to audition as the Carter Quartet (the fourth member was Anna "Effie" Carter, who was sick with pneumonia at the time). The new quartet was immediately hired to sing on a daily program for 15 minutes each day, for a total of $12.50 per week. "Lubbock loved the Carters," Bob Terrell later wrote in The Chuck Wagon Gang: A Legend Lives On, "and their listeners numbered most of the people in town and for the short distance the station reached into the countryside." Over time, other Carter children would also take their turns singing in the quartet.

Although KFYO increased the quartet's pay to $15, the Carters moved to Fort Worth, Texas, the following year without a specific offer from another station. After several unsuccessful auditions, the Carters were hired at WBAP, the most powerful station in town. Here, the group reached a pivotal turning point. One of WBAP's supporters, Bewley Flour Mills, sponsored a band called the Chuck Wagon Gang, who sang on the radio and traveled throughout Texas to advertise flour and feed. Why not, a Bewley executive suggested, hire a second Chuck Wagon Gang—the Carter Quartet—to sing on the radio, so that the other band could travel farther afield? Dad Carter liked the idea, plus the fact that the newly dubbed Chuck Wagon Gang would be receiving $60 a week. Eventually the traveling group disbanded, leaving the Carters as the Chuck Wagon Gang.

As the Chuck Wagon Gang's popularity grew throughout the remainder of the 1930s and into the 1940s, the group's style slowly evolved from a mixture of secular and sacred material to a primarily gospel-oriented sound. "Each of their radio shows included a little hymn-singing," wrote Helen Risenhoover in the Dallas Morning News. "After people wrote in asking for more, the Carters devoted their Wednesday and Sunday programs to gospel music." The Chuck Wagon Gang was the first group to record the classic "I'll Fly Away," and also built their repertoire on songs like "Looking for a City," "I'll Meet You in the Morning," and "The Son Has Set Me Free."

The quartet formed a relationship with Columbia Records beginning in November of 1936, when they recorded 22 songs on a portable unit set up in their San Antonio hotel room over a two-day period. Despite busy schedules as performing artists, the Carter family lived a fairly quiet life, seldom traveling beyond their home base in Fort Worth and later Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Chuck Wagon Gang temporarily ceased performing during World War II, but reunited soon after the conflict ended. "Their appeal to the public did not die nor even dim during that long hiatus," wrote Terrell, "and when the Gang went back to singing after the war, it found its loyal fans waiting."

The Chuck Wagon Gang toured more frequently after the war, canvassing the South and growing in popularity. "They became so popular," wrote Paul Wadey in the London Independent, "that when their sponsor, Bewley Mills, offered a picture of the group to anybody who sent in a coupon from one of its bags of flour, it received over 100,000 applications." Changes, however, beset the group during the 1950s. In 1955 founder Dad Carter retired, and in 1957 Roy Carter also departed from the group. After multiple personnel changes, the group went into semi-retirement, only to return to active touring once again in the mid-1960s. In 1966 the Chuck Wagon Gang became part of the first gospel concert to be performed at Carnegie Hall, and also performed at the Gator Bowl in Florida.

Over the course of its career the Chuck Wagon Gang recorded more than 400 songs and sold 37 million records, appeared at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 22,000, and was voted top gospel music act by the National Disc Jockey Association. In 1985 Dad Carter was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame, and in 1987 all the Chuck Wagon Gang members were given Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). The group has remained popular even while competing with a new wave of gospel music in the 1990s and beyond. Despite the absence of its original members, little else has changed over the years. "We make sure our songs are honest, upright, and with a good message," Roy Carter told Risenhoover. "We're not going to sing about triangles or barrooms. There are enough good songs without that."

For the Record …

Members include Anna "Effie" Carter (born on February 15, 1917, in Noel, MO; died on March 5, 2004, in Fort Worth, TX), vocals; David Parker "Dad" Carter (born on September 25, 1889, in Milltown, KY; died on April 28, 1963, in Oklahoma City, OK), vocals; Ernest "Jim" Carter (born on August 10, 1910, in Tioga, TX; died on February 2, 1971), vocals; Rosa Lola Carter (born on December 31, 1915, in Noel, MO), vocals, guitar; Roy Carter (born on March 1, 1926, in Calumet, OK), vocals; Ruth Ellen Carter (born on January 3, 1924, in Noel, MO), vocals.

Formed Carter Quartet in Lubbock, TX, 1935; renamed as Chuck Wagon Gang, 1936; first studio recordings, 1936; disbanded temporarily during World War II; toured widely in the Southern United States, late 1940s; founder Dad Carter retired, 1955; recorded and performed infrequently, late 1950s; participated in first gospel concert at Carnegie Hall and performed at the Gator Bowl, 1966; left Columbia Records, 1977; returned to full-time touring, 1987.

Addresses: Record company—RCA Music Group, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, phone: (212) 930-4449, website: http://www.rcarecords.com/.

Selected discography

Homecoming, MCA, 1964.

Jubilee, MCA, 1971.

Family Tradition, MCA, 1973.

Looking Away to Heaven, Columbia, 1976.

Heaven Will Surely Be Worth It All, Gusto, 1985.

Lord Lead Me On, Gusto, 1985.

American Tradition, MCA, 1986.

Old Time Hymns, Vol. 1, MCA, 1990.

Old Time Hymns, Vol. 2, MCA, 1991.

Celebration, K-Tel, 1992.

Amazing Grace, Universal, 1992.

Keep On Keepin' On, MCA, 1993.

Songs of Inspiration, Universal, 1993.

In Harmony, MCA, 1994.

Headed for the Promised Land, Sony, 1995.

Sources

Books

Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.

Terrell, Bob, The Chuck Wagon Gang: A Legend Lives On, Roy Carter and Bob Terrell, 1990.

Periodicals

Dallas Morning News, November 17, 1985.

Independent (London, England), March 11, 2004, p. 41.

Online

"Chuck Wagon Gang," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 22, 2004).

—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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