By Marcie Gray
We celebrate such a rich musical heritage and the legacy lives on through those working hard to keep it alive. I can just picture heaven lined with Cracker Barrel rocking chairs filled with the legendary folks who gave us these memories, sipping sweet tea and telling stories. It’s up to this generation to carry on that sweet Southern musical legacy, and to leave our children with unforgettable stories to tell of the music that moved their hearts and the groups that brought it to them.
The Chuck Wagon Gang is one of the legendary groups still carrying on and making more memories. With 78 years of ministry behind them, they are honored to be a part of keeping the rich heritage alive.
The Chuck Wagon Gang was formed in 1935 by D.P. Carter and son, Jim (Ernest), along with daughters, Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie). The Carters were cotton farmers, who migrated from place to place to harvest, so they were no strangers to travel. They found themselves in Lubbock, Texas with a very sick child and no means to pay for medicine. Dave Carter and two of his children, Lola and Ernest went to KFYO radio station seeking employment on radio, hoping to buy medicine for Effie. They were hired, Effie recovered quickly and joined them and the Carter Quartet radio career was born.
After receiving overwhelming radio response, Mr. Carter decided to move the family to Fort Worth, Texas, where they were hired by WBAP and instantly became Bewley’s Chuck Wagon Gang. Bewley Mills flour company sent the group on location advertising flour. Hot biscuits were served at each venue. For simplicity’s sake, their individual names were changed, as well, to D.P. (Dad), Anna (Effie), Rose (Lola) and Jim (Ernest). Their repertoire consisted of ballads, folk, western, popular songs of the day and one hymn or gospel song each day. After recording a combination of gospel and country music, the decision was made to record only gospel music, because of the popularity of the gospel songs. Before long, The Chuck Wagon Gang was under contract with Columbia Records, fostering a thirty nine-year relationship during which they recorded 408 known masters.
During their 15 years doing radio programs, The Chuck Wagon Gang was reluctant to travel far from home. They eventually accepted two dates, in Atlanta and Augusta, with the late promoter Wally Fowler, for his “All-Nite Singings.” Eventually, they would travel to Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, The Grand Ole Opry and many other notable locations.
Howard Gordon, Anna’s husband, joined The Gang playing acoustic guitar from 1930’s until 1954, then electric guitar until his death in 1967. Most of the groups like the LeFevres, Blackwoods and Statesmen used pianos, but The Gang kept the guitar. Harold Timmons played piano for The Gang in the 1980’s through early 90’s, for nine or 10 years. He was the first and last piano player and though he no longer travels with them, he is their Historian and Marketing Director.
With eight decades behind them, 49 members leaving a legacy and over 40 million records sold, The Chuck Wagon gang has certainly seen the changes in technology and the times, but the original style and sound and, most importantly, the message of their music remains unchanged.
The current Chuck Wagon Gang members are: Shaye Smith, granddaughter of the Gang’s original alto, Anna Carter Gordon Davis, who was married to Howard Gordon, the group’s guitarist for many years. Shaye sings alto and is the group’s owner/manager. She originally joined the group in 1993 as the soprano and sang until the Wagon was parked in 1996. In 1999, she helped get the group back on the road. Julie Hudson sings soprano for the Gang. Stan Hill sings tenor. Singing bass and playing guitar is Jeremy Stephens.
The Chuck Wagon Gang sings approximately 200 dates per year. They have recorded over 900 songs. When I asked Shaye if she knew most of them, she chuckled and replied, “Oh, no! We’ve got songbooks that have most of the songs in them. At our concerts, we take requests and even if we kind of know the song, we try it. Sometimes it’s a train wreck. I think the crowd loves it when we mess up. We probably know 150 that we can do well. Just to think that there’s another six or seven hundred left that we don’t know is mind-boggling.”
A little over a year ago, The Chuck Wagon Gang got involved with Marty Stuart. Marty is a champion of old Bluegrass, Western songs and old Gospel. He is a huge fan of The Gang and was thrilled to learn that they are still out on the road. They met in Nashville through a mutual friend, Eddie Stubbs. Marty wrote some songs for The Gang and produced an album that will be coming out in September. “We’re working with him and working on a documentary,” said Shaye. “This documentary and the Bear Family Box Sets bring back the complete works of Johnny Cash, Connie Smith, Jimmy Rogers, Ray Price, Earnest Tubb, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and The Gang.”
Shaye continued, “I was so excited when I found out about that and we have been digging and finding out all of these pictures and discovering that we were mistaken about certain facts. It’s been amazing as we’ve found all of these facts. It has taught us that The Gang has never really been a Southern Gospel group. In the 30’s they were on Columbia. Some of the legends who shared the Columbia label were Country legends Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, Carl Smith and Hank Snow, just to name a few. When those people became stars in the 40’s and 50’s, The Gang had already been on the label for 20 years and these people looked up to The Gang.”
“They did what’s called package shows. The Gang would appear on The Grand Ole Opry with Roy Acuff and country stars of the time. They would do concerts with Statesmen, Blackwoods, The Speer Family, but they would be the Country Gospel act on these shows. Marty wants to educate people on who The Gang really is. The Gang has been influenced by Country stars such as Ronny Milsap, Bill Anderson and George Jones. It’s really humbling to me to know that those same stars listened to The Chuck Wagon Gang years ago.”
“We are hoping for a September release for this documentary. The Bear Set will be coming out almost simultaneously and will include seven CD’s with 25 years of songs going back to the 1930’s.”
The Chuck Wagon Gang recently had an incredible experience. They were booked in Quinnehock, Alaska. The Eskimos flew them out there for three days to sing. They arrived in a little tiny fishing village on the Bering Sea, 80 miles from Russia. There were no roads and the town had only had running water for six months. There were 600-800 Eskimos both nights. It was hard to imagine where they all came from! Bethel is the biggest next village, then Anchorage. “That was the first time The Gang has been to Alaska,” said Shaye.
“Marty told us, ‘You take a camera out there and film those Eskimos.’ I asked them, ‘Why The Gang… why us?’ They told us that in the 50’s when the Meridian Missionaries made their way from Bethel across the tundra, they brought Chuck Wagon Gang records with them and introduced them to the Eskimos and now, they are Gang fanatics. We flew in on a little bitty plane and landed on a gravel airstrip in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by beautiful mountains and were just in awe. When we got off the plane, there were all these Eskimos there and every one of them had a cell phone filming us getting out of the plane. They made you feel like celebrities.”
“It was unseasonably warm and there was not much snow. It was in the 30’s and 40’s, so cold to us, but not to them. They are used to it being in the teens and 20’s. Some of them were singing Chuck Wagon Gang songs in Yipik (their native tongue). We recorded it on video so we could include it in the documentary. God is laying all of this in place. We couldn’t orchestrate all of this in the right timing. It was an incredible experience and we look forward to returning.”
The best selling CD for The Gang is called Timeless Hymns. The songs were chosen from a list emailed to them by their fans. Their Timeless Hymns – Volume 2 CD was recently released. In September, their newest project, The Chuck Wagon Gang Sings the Songs of Marty Stuart, will be released.
When asked what is the one song that moves their audience most powerfully, Shaye shared that the new project, Hymns Volume 2, has a song on it called “I Must Tell Jesus.” “Julie sings it and every time, you just watch the response and you can tell that it blesses people. She shares about singing it with her family… that was one that she sang with her mom and dad and she talks about all the things that go on in our lives and we think nobody understands, but you can always tell Jesus… you must tell Him.”
Shaye shared that she is still inspired by the sweet harmony of Rose and Anna, the foundational female voices of The Chuck Wagon Gang. Rose’s piercing soprano voice and Anna’s chocolaty alto voice were the distinction of The Gang. The strum of the guitar and those voices were two things set them apart.
The Chuck Wagon Gang currently records under the New Haven label and is booked by Jubilee Agency. You can read more about The Chuck Wagon Gang at: www.chuckwagongang.net.
The history of our Southern Gospel heritage is richer than most of us realize. It’s up to us to keep it alive, and groups like The Chuck Wagon Gang are doing a wonderful job of sharing the gospel using the same message their ancestors did over 70 years ago. That message remains steadfast, and so do those who are called to share it. Thank you, Shaye and Harold, for taking the time to share your memories with SGN Scoops, and for your dedication to keeping the legacy alive!
Written by Marcie Gray.
First published by SGN Scoops in August 2014.
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