The Hackberry Ramblers started playing their unique blend of Cajun and western swing in 1933. Money was scarce during the Depression, and playing in a band seemed like a good way to get by. “I worked in a government program for $1 a week and room and board,” band member Crawford Vincent told Mary Foster of the Associated Press. “I could make $3 playing with the Ramblers on a Saturday night. That was big money.” No member, however, suspected that “getting by” would lead to a lifetime career. In 2003 the Hack-berry Ramblers were still going strong, 70 years after forming, and, thanks to a Cajun revival in the 1980s, were more popular than ever. “We are the oldest band in the country,” Luderin Darbone told Edna Gundersen in USA Today. “We’re too old to retire.” Fans, however, realize that the band isn’t just a nostalgia act. “They are popular because they’re not just old men playing,” Ben Sandmel told Foster. “They’re good musicians playing.”
Darbone and Edwin Duhon formed the band in Hack-berry, Louisiana, a small town near the Gulf Coast. “Luderin claims he organized the Hackberry Ramblers, but I’m the one that started it….” Duhon lightheartedly told John Wirt in the Baton Rouge Advocate. “He’s like a brother, so I don’t want to take him to court.” Although the Depression made jobs difficult to find, oil drilling
Members include Glenn Croker , guitar, vocals; Luderin Darbone (born on January 14, 1913, in Evangeline, LA), fiddle; Edwin Duhon , accordion; Johnnie Parket , bass; Lonnie Rainwater , guitar, vocals; Ben Sandmel , drums; Floyed Shreve , vocals, guitar; Lennis Sonnier , guitar, vocals; Crawford Vincent , guitar; Joe Werner , guitar, vocals.
Group formed in Hackberry, LA, 1933; signed to RCA Bluebird, 1935; disbanded during World War II; performed frequently at the Silver Spur nightclub, 1946-53; played at Silver Star Club near Lake Charles, 1953-63; recorded Jolie Blonde, 1963; reemerged as popular band, 1980s; recorded Cajun Boogie, 1993, and Deep Water, 1997; performed on Grand Ole Opry, 2002.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-4840, website: http://www.rounder.com. Website—Hackberry Ramblers Official Website: http://www.hackberryramblers.com.
drew a number of people to the region. Influenced by local music and popular bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Darbone and Duhon built a group that characterized the best of both styles. “Louisiana is primarily known as the home of Cajun music,” noted David Goodman in Modern Twang, “but it has also produced a number of fine Western swing bands…. One group that has blended both styles is the Hackberry Ramblers.” The band played at house parties, passed the hat, and built a strong local reputation.
The Ramblers signed a long-term contract with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Bluebird in 1935, eventually recording 82 songs for the label. Songs like “Jolie Blonde”—considered by many to be the Cajun national anthem—and “Wondering, Wondering” became hits, and the crowds attending the shows grew so large that the band decided to invest in a sound system. The system coast $50, and since electricity was still something of a novelty in rural areas, often had to be connected to the battery of Darbone’s Model A Ford. “People came from all over to hear the sound system,” Darbone told Gundersen. “I retired it after two years. It was hard on the car.”
Even with a recording contract, however, the band’s fame remained regional, and they made a living playing the lively roadhouses scattered along the Gulf Coast. “The sound system and eclectic songbag made the Ramblers a hot ticket in Cajun country and the coastal towns along southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas,” wrote Jason Berry in New Orleans Magazine.
When members of the Ramblers were called to active military service during World War II, the group temporarily disbanded. In 1946 they added electric guitarist Glenn Croker and continued to play locally, including a regular gig at the Silver Spur nightclub from 1946 to 1953. The band settled into a ten-year run at the Silver Star Club near Lake Charles in the 1950s and then considered retiring in the early 1960s. Chris Stachwitz of Arhoolie Records, however, was aware of the band’s historical importance. He encouraged them to continue to perform and record a new album comprised of classic material for his label. “There is an atmosphere to Jolie Blonde,” wrote Jared Snyder in Music Hound Folk, “of musicians who know themselves and each other so well and are just purely enjoying the act of making music together.”
After a hiatus, Darbone and Duhon rebuilt the band with new players just in time for a Cajun revival in the United States during the 1980s. The Ramblers also returned to the recording studio during the 1990s and released two well-received albums, Cajun Boogie in 1993, followed by Deep Water, recorded on their Hot Biscuits label, in 1997. “The Hackberry Ramblers…,” wrote Richie Unterberger of the latter album in All Music Guide, “seem to be reaching their peak well past Social Security age.” Deep Water also included a number of high profile guests, including Rodney Crowell, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Marcia Ball, and brought them a Grammy nomination. Guitarist Croker told Wirt that attending the ceremony “was probably the pinnacle of my music career.”
Although it may have seemed incongruous to the Ramblers, their Cajun boogie style has been embraced by young audiences—they even appeared on MTV with teen pop group Hanson. “The Hackberry Ramblers,” wrote Gundersen, “immune to music industry tenets limiting longevity and relevance, hit their prime when they hit their 80s.” Crocker remembered playing at the Mermaid Lounge, noted for rock, at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. “I saw the green hair,” Croker told Gundersen, “so I knew they’d boo us. Shoot, they followed us outside, wanted autographs, wanted to hear the whole history.” Sandmel, however, wasn’t surprised. “It’s dance music,” he continued, “That’s why we get the 20-year olds with body piercings as well as the older folks who want their 78s autographed.”
In 2002 the 89-year-old Darbone and 92-year-old Duhon achieved a lifetime dream when the Ramblers took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. “People kid us now that we’ve finally become famous,” Darbone told Foster. “I just wonder why it took so long.” The band also toured Europe for the first time in 2002, playing shows in Holland and France, and made their first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. The Ramblers were featured prominently in John Whitehead’s documentary, Make ’em Dance!, and in 2003 saw their earlier recordings reissued by Arhoolie. “We started the band in 1933,” Darbone told Gundersen. “It seems like a long time to a lot of people. Of course, to us it has gone by pretty fast, even though it is a long time. We’re still playing, we’re still enjoying playing.”
Cajun Boogie, Flying Fish, 1993.
Jolie Blonde, Arhoolie, 1963; reissued, 1993.
Deep Water, Hot Biscuits, 1997.
First Recordings: 1935-1947, Arhoolie, 2003.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, Nashville: Dowling press, 1999.
Walters, Neal, editor, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Associated Press, May 31, 1991.
Baton Rouge Advocate, April 24, 1998.
New Orleans Magazine, July 1997, p. 47.
USA Today, September 18, 2002, p. D6.
“Hackberry Ramblers,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Hackberry Ramblers." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hackberry-ramblers
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