Wednesday, May 31, 2017


We decided it was time.  Everything had moved from the Ryman to the brand new Opry House at Opryland the year before and a man we knew had been nominated for a song he had written. 1975 would be the perfect year for the hillbillies to dress up in their finest and attend the GOSPEL MUSIC ASSOCIATION DOVE AWARDS.  I ordered the tickets well in advance so we would get the best of the seats we could afford. The whole thing was pretty exciting to us (Daddy, Momma, and me) but we were trying to act like we belonged there and everyone we were seeing was no big deal.  The usher showed us our seats and imagine my surprise to find I was elbow to elbow with a stately older gentleman and his lovely wife who weren't merely nice folks to sit beside.  Both were music legends I had loved my entire life!  Shucks!  My Daddy had listened to them most of his life!  During the evening I found  them both to be very friendly and down-to-earth people.

I won't say too much about the wife in this column (even though she has always been one of my idols, tried to sing like her and even had a secret crush on one of her sons) because she is a story all her own.  Most people younger than my generation haven't had the pleasure of hearing the velvet voiced gentleman sing hymns on every TV show on the air like I did.  Keep in mind as you read this, he was from a different time and a place that was much different in those days.  

James Houston Davis was born on September 11, 1899 -- maybe.  Nobody really knows for sure exactly what year.  He was one of eleven children born to Sarah Elizabeth Works and Samuel Jones Davis in the then town of Beech Springs in northern Louisiana.  His family was very poor and so large that they couldn't even remember what year when young Jimmie was old enough to ask.  He never really knew for sure himself though the census records in 1900 attest that he was born in 1899.

He was the embodiment of the clique' "I was just a poor sharecropper's son" but he graduated from Beech Springs High School, , Soule Business College, received a bachelor's degree in history from the Baptist affiliated Louisiana College and a master's degree from Louisiana State University.  His master's thesis in 1927 was called COMPARATIVE INTELLIGENCE OF WHITES, BLACKS, AND MULATTOES.  During the late 1920s, he taught history and yodeling at the Dodd College for Girls in Shreveport.

Jimmie stayed at Dodd College for a year before taking a job as court clerk in Shreveport.  While working there during most of the 1930s, he became interested in politics as well as music.  Though he could neither read nor write music, he began to write his own songs and went to Memphis to make some trial recordings.  He married Alverna Adams who played classical music on the piano.  She helped him put his music on paper.  He had some success with songs like "Nobody's Darling But Mine" (thought that was an old cowboy song didn't you?) and "It Makes No Difference Now".  Other top singers of the period including Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Guy Lombardo, and  the Andrews Sisters also recorded his songs.   We remember his country and gospel songs but some of his early work was bluesy and raunchy like "Red Nightgown Blues" which some of his later opponents tried to use to discredit him.  He wrote and recorded "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky" in 1938. That same year, Davis was elected as Shreveport's public safety commissioner making him head of the police and fire departments.

On February 4, 1940 recorded a song he had just finished writing called "You are My Sunshine".  (I know some people say it was an old folk song but Jimmie Davis always insisted he had written it and he was given credit for doing so.)  It became an immediate hit.  So did the versions of the song recorded by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry.  Over the next 60 years that song would be recorded by more than 350 artists, sell millions of records, and be translated into 30 languages. 

In 1942 he was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission but left two years later to begin his first term as governor.  Jimmie Davis' run for governor did not sit well with the remnants of the Huey Long machine who wanted to continue the power they had held for twenty years.  His opponents tried to convince voters he wouldn't make the governorship his first priority and he was likely to just leave for Hollywood at any time.  They played his songs that were considered to have raunchy lyrics but the crowds would just start dancing and ignore the words.  He won easily.  During his first term in office 1944-1948, he did set an absentee record by going out to Hollywood to play in B westerns as the singing sidekick of cowboy hero Charles Staret. He also continued to write and record songs like "Is It Too Late Now" and "There's a Chill on the Hill Tonight".  His hit song "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder" was released in 1945.  He often sang at campaign stops and was known as the Singing Governor. The major accomplishment of his first term in office was to see to it that all drivers of automobiles in the state of Louisiana were required to have a license.  To show how important it was, Governor Davis received the first driver's license ever issued in the state.

He was not allowed by law to succeed himself as governor so he continued to concentrate on his music and his business interests in Shreveport.  His music had made him rich but he bought 450 acres of land just in case things went bad and he had to resort to farming.

Davis rejoined the political scene to run for a second term as governor of Louisiana in the 1959 - 1960 campaign. He once donned a white cowboy hat and rode his horse Sunshine up the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to sing the praises of his legislative agenda. With a pledge to fight for continued segregation in public education, he won the Democratic nomination over a
crowded field and easily defeated the Republican candidate Francis Grevemberg in the general election.  He signed segregation bills that basically gave local schools boards the power to determine which schools stayed open and which would be closed due to Federal Court orders to admit black children.  This was part of the theory of "interposition" which insisted the states could interpose themselves between federal law and the people who found the law to be too burdensome.  In spite of the rhetoric, desegregation was handled smoothly so that there was no violence and no closed schools during the transition.

Some of the major issues during his second term included his veto of right-to-work legislation and getting the taxpayers to pay for a new 12 bedroom 18 bathroom Governor's Mansion.  It was said he got the Legislature to approve the million dollar expenditure by threatening pet projects in their districts.  

There were some major accomplishments during this term including keeping taxes down, taking steps to preserve forests from rapid depletion, building hospitals, repairing and creating roads, raising teachers' salaries, and setting up the state's first civil service system.  He built the Sunshine Bridge and the Toledo Bend Reservoir even though these were not popular projects at the time.  He coordinated the pay periods of state employees who often had not been receiving their paychecks on time.  

After leaving office for the second time, Jimmie Davis continued to sing mostly at churches and did guest spots on various TV shows.  He recorded several southern gospel albums and served as president of the Gospel Music Association in 1967.  His admirers were disappointed in 1968 when a bill to make "You Are My Sunshine" the Louisiana state song was vetoed because the song didn't mention Louisiana in the lyrics.  The song  later shared the honors as state song with "Give Me Louisiana" by Doralice Fontane who mentioned Louisiana repeatedly.

Jimmie's wife Alverna Davis passed away in 1967.  Two years later he married the also widowed Effie Juanita (Anna) Carter Gordon.  (Now you know why I said the wife deserved a column all to herself!)

Davis ran for governor of Louisiana again in 1971.  The Democratic gubernatorial primary was crowded with new political prospects.  He finished in fourth place with 11.8 percent of the vote.  His days as a politician were over.  

During his career Jimmie Davis received many awards and honors.  The Jimmie Davis Bridge atop the Red River was named in his honor during his second term as governor.  Jimmie Davis State Park is located on Caney Lake.  A replica of the Davis homestead and the Peckerwood Hill Store that served his community (which is no longer there) was erected at the site of the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle in Jackson Parrish.  Davis was inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He was among the first thirteen inductees into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield. 

My favorite gospel song by Jimmie Davis

Jimmie Davis lived 101 years and 55 days departing this life on November 5, 2000.  The statesman, actor, singer, songwriter wanted to be remembered as "someone who scattered a little sunshine along his path".

Monday, May 1, 2017


These days there are so many awards shows on TV it makes your head spin.  There are awards for this, that, and whatever.  Celebrities from all walks of life dressed up to see and be seen. The most recent (as I write this) was the ACM (Academy of COUNTRY Music) awards show.  I heard they gave a very stirring tribute to ROCK music.  I wouldn't know I gave up watching years ago.  My ears can't suffer through three hours of loud rock or rap or whatever mish-mash that stuff they call "country" music these days just to hear a couple of songs from real country singers.

Record companies have so many ways to promote artists now with social media and pre-sales.  It is nothing for a "project" ( for the sake of all my older readers I will continue to call them records) to be released at Platinum (one million copies) level.  In the early days of recording and into the late 1950s it was a very big deal for a singer to move 500,000 copies of their record.  How very much they wanted that shiny GOLD record for their wall!  Gold records were given to the artists by their own record companies to publicize their sales achievements.  Later the awards were presented by the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) like they still are today.  More facts and figures would get you into quicksand so let me tell you about the very first COUNTRY music SUPERSTAR!

Marion Try (called Try) Slaughter II was born in Jefferson, Texas on April 6, 1883.  His father Robert Slaughter was a rancher.  His grandfather was a Ku Klux Klan member and a well-know bully.  He learned to ride, shoot, and play the harmonica at an early age.  When he was ten, his father was killed by his mother's brother because of a bitter feud over the way Robert mistreated his wife.  A couple of years later, Try and his mother moved to Dallas where he studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music and worked to support himself and his mother.  He married Sadie Lee Moore in 1902.  They soon had a son and a daughter.  The family moved to New York City in 1910.  Try worked in a piano warehouse and took occasional singing jobs.  He made an attempt to record for Edison Records but was rejected.

When he got his first principle part in an opera touring company he needed a name that would look good on the program.  He took the names of two Texas towns where he had worked as a cowboy.  That's how he became the person we know as VERNON DALHART.  He toured all over the US and Canada singing in English, French, or Italian as the opera required.  He left the Century Opera Company to play in the Hippodrome's version of H.M.S. Pinafore.  This was his most outstanding stage success. 

He soon made another attempt to record but it was shelved and forgotten.  When his opera tour ended in January 1915, Vernon again tested for Edison and was rejected but his name did appear in the EDISON DIAMOND DISC CATALOG.  His first record finally came out in December of 1916 on Columbia not Edison.  From 1916 until 1923, he made over 400 recordings of light classical music and early dance band vocals for several different record labels.  In 1924, he heard a recording of THE WRECK OF THE SOUTHERN OLD 97 a ballad about the derailment of fast mail train No. 97 near Danville, Virginia in 1903.  He talked the Edison company into letting him record it.  In August of that year, Victor records asked him to record that song for Victor and put an old folk song he had gotten from his cousin on the reverse side.  

The B- side of that record was THE PRISONER'S SONG.  That song was the number one song for twelve weeks in 1925-26.  It became such a runaway hit, that Vernon decided to sing country songs almost exclusively.  He recorded that song 18 times and it was issued on 53 labels in the US and also in Canada.   That record (78) went on to sell SEVEN million copies which was a HUGE number for the 1920s!  This was the first "southern" song to become a national hit.  It also alerted the record companies to the market that was available for country music and caused them to seek out other country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

 The Wreck of the Old 97

The Prisoner's Song

 Sadly, the stock market crashed in 1929 and Edison Records went out of business.  Many singers tried to make a living by doing personal appearances.  Vernon Dalhart did no personal appearances but within two years he had a radio show with a female singing partner Adelyne Hood.  After two months they left the show and headed for England.  They made eight recordings there with four being released.  One song THE RUNAWAY TRAIN later became the theme for a British radio show and was popular enough to be re-released in the 1940s.

When they came back to the states they made a few more recordings but no big hits for the duo.  Vernon signed an exclusive contract with RCA-Victor in 1938.  The records didn't sell well and one THE LAVENDER COWBOY ( a song about a cowboy with two chest hairs indicating he wasn't "manly") was barred from the airwaves.  When war came he worked a security job in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  After the war, he tried teaching, singing and voice placing without much luck.

Vernon Dalhart died of a heart attack on September 15, 1948 without achieving his former  success.  He is buried in Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery as TRY SLAUGHTER, SR APRIL 6, 1883 - SEPTEMBER 15, 1948.

THE PRISONER'S SONG  was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA for selling seven million copies. (The first COUNTRY song to qualify)  Vernon Dalhart was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970.  In 1981, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  THE PRISONER'S SONG was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.  It was the biggest selling non-holiday song for the first 70 years of recorded music.

Vernon Dalhart has been largely overlooked for his role as an early pioneer who paved the way for other "southern" recording artists.  He was indeed the the FIRST COUNTRY MUSIC SUPERSTAR!