Sons Of The Pioneers’
By Rich Kienzle
Merle Travis once said, “I get out a couple of Roy Lanham albums and play them. Then I listen to some of my recorded efforts and come up with this sort of remark: ‘Dadblame, buddy, that’s awful!'”
Travis, the father of the fingerpicking style that bears his name, always minimized his own vast talents, but his comment on Lanham’s abilities is no exaggeration. Lanham, who has served the Sons Of The Pioneers for 25 years, is only the second guitarist in the group’s entire 52-year history. What many western music fans don’t realize, however, is that Lanham is also a jazz guitarist of impeccable taste.
Few remember the Whippoorwills, the superb vocal/instrumental group Lanham led in the ’40s and ’50s. Fewer still know of Lanham’s career in the studios. Mainstream jazz players have long admired his masterful single-note improvisations and luxuriant chord-melodies done in four-part harmony. Yet his two outstanding (and out-of-print) jazz LPs were barely noticed.
Veteran western swing bandleader Hank Penny, another friend of over 40 years, marvels at his versatility: “He could play single string lead guitar, and play real funky on one chorus and play it in full chords on the next chorus. And he wouldn’t have to stop and think and look down on his guitar neck.”
Roy Howard Lanham was born in Corbin, in eastern Kentucky, in 1923. His interest in guitar came early, and one of his first influences was the obscure country player Harry C. Adams. “He was on WHAS in Louisville,” Roy explains. “He played acoustic and was a good, snappy, fast country guitar player, although he played some things like ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.'”
Roy learned the rudiments of playing on his brother Arvil’s Stella guitar. “He was left-handed, and he saw I was going to learn, so he strung it up right-handed,” Roy recounts. “I got my own guitar when I was about eight. It was a Cromwell, one of the first arch-bodies that they had.”
In the fall of 1939 he met Grandpappy And His Gang from the popular Mid-Day Merry-Go Round on WNOX Radio in Knoxville, Tennessee, When the group came through Corbin. “Grandpappy” was comedian Archie Campbell, later of Hee-Haw fame. He invited Lanham to join the group, and the guitarist began working on WNOX on October 19, 1939.
Moving to a larger radio station broadened Roy’s musical tastes, particularly when he met he Stringdusters, a WNOX pop/jazz quartet. Its nucleus was guitarist Homer Haynes and mandolinist Jethro Burns, whose skills as Django Reinhardt-influenced swing musicians were apparent even then. “I would hear then on the air, and I loved what they played,” says Roy. “They copied the Hot Club Of France. I would go home and try to play as good as I could.”
The Stringdusters disbanded when Haynes and Burns left to work as comedy duo Homer And Jethro. In 1940 Lanham formed a Stringdusters-like group just before moving to WDOD in Chattanooga. In the band were mandolinist Doug Dalton and guitarist Bynum Geouge. “I started out basically as a rhythm player, copying Homer,” he explains. They called it the Fidgety Four, in anticipation of finding a bass player, and in Chattanooga they picked up bassist Red Wooten.
Singer/composer Gene Austin heard the group and hired them as part of his troupe, which was touring as a tent show. He changed the group’s name to the Whippoorwills because of the first line of his classic composition “My Blue Heaven.”
By then Roy had been impressed by Charlie Christian and particularly by George Barnes, who was among the first jazz guitarists to use an amplified instrument. “He played jazz and country tunes,” states Lanham. “I just liked Barnes’s ideas. Anybody else who played the same notes would sound different, but I liked the sound he got out of his amplifier. He played with a lot of authority.”
The Whippoorwills briefly returned to Chattanooga but left when Austin re-hired them to work in hotel ballrooms. Lanham modeled the Whippoorwills’ four-part vocal harmonies after a pop group called the Merry Macs. “They sang like the Pied Pipers, Hi-Los, and the Four Freshmen,” he says. When they were in Cincinnati, Austin bought the entire band new instruments. He paid $324.00 for Roy’s blond Gibson L-5, his “first good guitar.”
When the Whippoorwills disbanded in October 1941, Lanham went to Atlanta and joined the Shades Of Blue, a trio built around a female pianist and blind steel guitarist Billy Galloway. “He played like George Barnes on a single-neck steel,” marvels Roy. “When I took a chorus, he would play a bass line. We played all jazz.”
Roy installed DeArmond pickup on his L-5 and bought a Kalamazoo amp, his first electric setup. In Atlanta, he also met his idol, George Barnes, who’d been drafted and assigned to Camp Wheeler, Georgia. One night they jammed, and Hank Penny remembers, “Barnes was so impressed with Roy’s playing. Roy imitated him, and it just fascinated George that somebody could do this thing so well.” Atlanta guitarist Sheldon Bennett piqued Roy’s interest in chord-melodies. “He played chord stuff in three parts,” says Roy; “I added a fourth part. I play most of my songs in four-part harmony.”
In 1943 he returned to Cincinnati and joined 50,000-watt WLW as a staff musician. He played guitar and bass with the station’s country and pop acts, which included Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, and Grandpa Jones. His friendships with all three men lasted for decades. That same year Syd Nathan, a local used record dealer, founded King Records (later a major R&B label). Roy played with Hank Penny’s band, the Plantation Boys, when Nathan recorded the group in 1944. Lanham played on King sessions until he left Cincinnati.
Some of his best work was on the Delmore Brothers’ early country boogie recordings for King, records that pointed the way to rockabilly. “On ‘Freight Train Boogie,’ it’s me and Jethro Burns,” he says. That phenomenal solo features the two playing driving rhythm against one another, at one point even quoting from Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball.” “Jethro and I used those little licks that me and Doug Dalton used with the Whippoorwills,” Roy remembers. Lanham can also be heard on such Delmore classics as “Hillbilly Boogie,” “Steamboat Bill Boogie,” and “Barnyard Boogie,” as well as their more conventional country recordings. By that time he also moved his DeArmond pickup assembly onto his newest guitar, a blond Epiphone Emperor.
In 1945 Lanham was on Chet Atkins’ first recordings for the new Nahsville-based Bullet Records, done at Bucky Herzog’s Cincinnati studio. The A-side, the excellent after-hours number “Guitar Blues,” featured a rhythm section and clarinet. “Chet Atkins And His All Star Hillbillies.”
Picture of Roy Rogers & Dale Evans with the Sons of the Pioneers He stayed in Cincinnati until late 1947 and moved to Dayton, Ohio, where the Whippoorwills reorganized. Dalton returned, and three new members joined: rhythm guitarist Gene Monbeck, bassist Dusty Rhodes, and singer Juanita Vastine, known professionally as “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Their smooth vocal harmonies on both country and pop tunes anticipated Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks by over 20 years. “When Georgia joined us,” he recalls, ” she sang the lead, and we had four-part instrumental and five-part vocal.
“What I thought was unique with the Whippoorwills, and nobody was doing this, was talking country tunes and putting jazz feeling behind them,” He continues. “There’d be no really bad country music today if all of the people who recorded played good chords. But they oversimplify it.”
Through 1948 and ’49 they toured the Midwest and spent a year in Springfield, Missouri, at KWTO Radio, before being called to Los Angeles in 1950 to join the cast of western comedian Smiley Burnett’s transcribed (pre-recorded radio show. They did between 300 and 400 Burnette shows and also worked on George Morgan’s transcribed radio show in Springfield and on Roy Rogers’ tours.
Lanham was also doing one or two sessions a day. He began a relationship with the Fabor and Abbott labels that lasted into the ’60s. He worked on Johnny Horton’s and Jim Reeves’ early Abbott sides, including Reeves’ hits “Mexican Joe” and “Bimbo”, and played on Mitchell Torok’s hit “Caribbean.” “Abbott’s president, Fabor Robinson, had me almost on a retainer,” remembers Lanham. “I used to arrange for his artists.” He used his Epiphone on an instrumental single for Radio, a Robinson subsidiary. Both “Klondike” and the flipside, “Attitude,” were rock-oriented. He also played on Johnny Burnett’s hit “Dreamin'” and on his brother Dorsey Burnett’s “Tall Oak Tree.”
But the mid ’50s were bittersweet. The Whippoorwills never really caught on, and in 1955, after Cliffie Stone hired Roy to replace Jimmy Bryant in the house band of the Hometown Jamboree television show, they disbanded. On the show Roy played instrumental duets with Speedy West, as Bryant had.
Lanham, who’d met Leo Fender in 1952, had abandoned hollowbody instruments for Fenders by the mid ’50s, when Leo gave him a Stratocaster. “Since he gave me my first Fender guitar, I haven’t played anything else,” he declares. And that loyalty to Leo has stretched through Music Man and G&L instruments, both co-founded by Mr. Fender.
Roy also played a part in the career of the teen vocal group the Fleetwoods. Bonnie Guitar, an Abbott artist and Seattle native, discovered three Seattle high school students who’d recorded “Come Softly To Me.” They sang unaccompanied, with only car keys clanging rhythm. Bonnie brought the tape to Roy in L.A. to see what he could do with them.
“I tuned my regular guitar down – my E string down to a C – and played a bass line,” he details. “Then I played little fills and rhythm to the tracks. I tuned all three of the overdubs to their voices. “Mr. Blue’s was the next thing we followed up with, and I got Si Zentner to play trombone; we added a drummer, and I did the same thing thing with ‘Mr. Blue,’ I tuned my guitar down for a bass line and just played rhythm and fills.”
Both songs, released on the L.A-based Dolton label, were enormous pop hits in the post-Elvis era of 1959 and Dolton asked him to do an album The Most exciting Guitar was recorded at Western Recorders in Los Angeles in 1959 with Red Wooten and drummer Earl Palmer. The songs ranged from “A Smo-o-th One” and Woody Herman’s bop classic “Lost Weekend” (which featured shimmering chord-melodies) to “Steel Guitar Rag” and “Old Joe Clark.” On “These Foolish Things” Roy used Joe Maphis’ Echosonic tape echo device.
His session work continued. In 1960 Lanham played on Loretta Lynn’s first recording, “Honky Tonk Girl,” did western bandleader Spade Cooley’s final LP, and played on Ned Miller’s hit “From A Jack To A King.” Then in the fall of 1961 Karl Farr, the Sons Of The Pioneers’ original guitarist, died during a performance. Farr, who often played Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang-style jazz duets with his violinist brother Hugh, was charter member. Roy joined the Pioneers that September.
He was not on unfamiliar ground. “Before I joined the Sons Of The Pioneers, I did their albums,” he says. “That was me, Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, and Jimmy Wyble. We used three or four guitars and played different rhythms. A couple of us would play single-note things, and some things we did ensemble.”
In 1962 he recorded The Fabulous Roy Lanham for Sims Records at Western Recorders. This, too, mixed country and jazz. Dusty Rhodes was added on rhythm guitar, Muddy Berry on drums, and Red Wooten on bass. Between work with the Pioneers he demonstrated Fender equipment, particularly at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) shows. “I’d represent Fender and play for all the dealers,” he recalls. “Barney Kessel would be there, and Chet Atkins would be there for Gretsch. Homer And Jethro and I would jam with Speedy West.”
In 1961 and 1962 he re-introduced two legendary Fender instruments: the Bass VI 6-string bass and the Jaguar. “I used to do solos on the Bass VI, and I still have it. I wish they’d had it out when I did ‘Come Softly to me.’ I still have the first Jaguar they made. I introduced it in Chicago when it first came out.”
Since the ’60s Lanham has remained with the Pioneers, serving as comedian and playing a brief country guitar medley onstage. He still squeezed in occasional sessions throughout the ’60s, including some Monkees dates. The Pioneers now work in the Missouri Ozarks during the summer and in Nevada in the winter, and Roy’s interest in jazz continues unabated. A whippoorwills reunion, however, despite renewed interest in string jazz, isn’t likely. “I think the Whippoorwills are history,” he reflects. “I was trying to take good music and make it sell, and we just couldn’t do it.”
Lanham’s explanation of his phenomenal technique is simple: “I alternate between chord style and single-string style. I don’t use my pick when I’m playing chord style; I use my thumb and three fingers. People ask me what happens to my pick when I go from a single-string to a chord chorus. A lot of guys stick the pick in their mouth, but I palm mine between my first two fingers.
“I used to play with a real stiff pick,” he continues, “but on the fast country things I do now, I use a thin Fender pick. I’m using Fender light strings [with an unwound third] on my G&L. I always used a wound third, up to the last couple of years, but when I played chords I’d mash it out of tune. Now, with the G&L, it plays in tune, like it has more vinegar.” He also says proudly that “my speed’s almost like it was 40 years ago.”
Roy also fingerpicks Travis-style, a legacy of his long friendship with Merle. “Barney Kessel came out to our house in the early ’60s,” he recalls. “He always told me, “Take off your boots and hat, and you can be a great jazz player.” He wanted me to teach him the Travis-Atkins style, so I showed him the basics of the thumb and fingers. He felt he needed to know that to be a well-rounded guitar player.”
Lanham owns two Music Man Stingrays (one with a Fender Jaguar neck installed) and currently plays Leo’s G&L electric. Everything is stock, with one exception:”it had three knobs on there, and Leo took one of them off, so I have just one for tone and one for volume. It simplifies things, and it’s better all the way around.” He and the rest of the Pioneers use Randall 2000 amplifiers.
Aside from Roy, few mainstream jazz-oriented players (save Jimmy Bryant, Ed Bickert, and a couple of others) have favored solid body instruments. “I can get jazz sound our of the solidbodies,” he proclaims. “It’s all in the tone, and a lot of times it’s in the picks, the tone on the amp, and the tone on the guitar. I keep the Randall in the middle- everything set above 5- and it works out pretty good.”
However, he has been looking at hollow-body instruments again. “A Baptist preacher here in Missouri is a musician, and I just played his Gibson ES-335 TD. It’s a fine guitar, and I might try to get hold of one of those. I don’t know if it was just that particular one or whether they’re all good, but I really enjoyed it. It has a different feel. Where I might fluff a note or two on my guitar, I wouldn’t on that one.”
Among his other instruments is a Fender-style electric with a curly maple body, built by a student at the Roberto-Venn Luthiery School of Phoenix, which is run by Roy’s friend Bob Venn. He also uses a Fender Kingman acoustic with Fender medium strings. He is no fan of effects, however. For a time he used a chorus, but he admits, “I’m not using it anymore. I don’t care for them.”
Lanham had open-heart surgery in 1980, but was back onstage within two months. In 1983 he went to Phoenix to work with pioneer steel guitarist Bud Isaacs, Duane Eddy, Thumbs Carllile, Jethro Burns, and fiddler Johnny Gimble, in an event Isaacs called the Great American Jam, which he’s trying to sell to cable TV. More recently, he worked on the final LP by the late western swing bandleader Tex Williams, of “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!(That Cigarette)” fame, before Williams died in 1985. And he’d also like to record some jazz.
“I think I should get something out, “he concludes. “if I did, I’d put out some real good ballads, like Johnny Smith. I still like to play. I’ve thought of putting out a Duke Ellington album-composition like ‘Prelude To A Kiss,”Caravan,’ and things like that. And I’d like to do an album with Chet Atkins.”
From Guitar Player Magazine,
Vol 21, No. 3,
Article by: Rich Kienzle
Reproduced by permission of:
Rich Kienzle, author.
A SELECTED ROY LANHAM DISCOGRAPHY
The Most Exciting Guitar, Dolton, BST 8009;
The Fabulous Roy Lanham, Sims, 105.
With the Sons Of The Pioneers:
The Sons Of The Pioneers,
Bear Family (Eduard Grunow Strasse 12, 2800
Bremen 1, West Germany), BFX 15071;
20 Of The Best Of The Sons Of The Pioneers,
British RCA, NL 89525.
Rompin’ Stompin’ Singin’ Swingin’,
Bear Family, BFX 15102;
The Fleetwoods’ Greatest Hits,
Hot Rod Is Her Name,
Roulette/Murray Hill, 25145.
Click here to purchase Roy Lanham CDs.
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