That’s how the idea emerged to put Austin on the road with a traveling, multi-act tent show appealing to audiences in backwater southern towns. The tour would be called “The Star-O-Rama Of 1939″ and the show “Models And Melodies,” setting out with dozens of ballroom dancers, chorus girls, one act that featured a California country girl who played a mean slap bass, and starring Austin — soon backed by a new band of note.
To promote this tour, Austin’s manager mentioned a guy who had advanced carnivals in the same areas, if never before musical acts. He was working as the dog catcher in Tampa, Florida. Gene met him, and they found instant personal and promotional hustling rapport.
The man called himself Colonel Tom Parker.
Austin, the Colonel, and Hillbilly Jazz
“In a short while,” Austin says of Parker in his memoir, “he had the show going full blast; attendance was great.” The man he called “Tommy” was plastering towns with posters saying “Gene’s Coming!” and nothing else, for days before they arrived. News stories were planted in daily papers such as Tennessee’s Johnson City Press that interviewed Gene when he arrived. Elephants would march into main streets heralding the show. But this was still the Depression and it wasn’t always easy going.
Bass player Red Wooten, who was on the tour, recalls, “I sat in the trailer that Gene lived in, sitting and talking with Tom Parker for about an hour while Gene made breakfast. Parker kept asking Gene what part of the country he wanted to go to next, and Gene would say, “Well, wherever the loot’s good!”
In practice, they were showing up at hard-hit towns throughout the heart of the south, playing for fans who were now often followers of “hillbilly music,” as it was called. Austin was doing a radio promo on the powerful WDOD station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he heard a band from the Knoxville area that had a regular midday show there: the Fidgety Four. Wooten was their new bass player, and the hot guitar playing lead was Roy Lanham.
All the members had backgrounds as hillbilly string band musicians and had been raised singing in gospel choirs, but they were just beginning to play a sort of hot swing pop that retained eastern hillbilly trace elements. Austin hired them and changed their name, in another “Blue Heaven” reference, to the Whippoorwills.
The track listing of this hot band’s Soundies CD Hard Life Blues: Roy Lanham & The Whippoorwills, recorded a decade after the tour (with the band relocated to California), indicates the permanent influence of Austin and his followers. Austin’s “When My Sugar Walks Down The Street” and “Carolina Moon” are joined by outright jazz tunes, Autry’s “Tweedle O’Twill”, Wills’ “Stay A Little Longer”, and fast electric-picking turns on the old-timey “Arkansas Traveler”.
Wooten, who cites Austin as a main influence, would go on to be the Academy of Country Music’s bass player of the year three times for his work with Hank Thompson and Eddy Arnold, and on California sessions at Capitol Records during Ken Nelson’s tenure. He’d also be the bass player on the famous Red Norvo jazz-backed recordings of Frank Sinatra.
“Roy Lanham had been doing hoedowns — fiddle tunes,” Wooten recalls. “But everything we did in the tent show was pop music‚ mostly Broadway tunes that got big — and we’d bring that to this country audience. Gene would then turn around and do something like ‘This Train Don’t Carry No Gamblers’ — the very kind of thing that’s right in the middle between pop and country; he could do that great. That’s what breaks down that barrier, to me — that gospely in-between music.”
By this point, multiple firsthand observers note, Austin himself was a remarkable, commanding live entertainer, with hundreds of songs at his disposal that might be called up without notice, depending on how he read the crowd or what was requested. He had a charming, semi-comical style of laid-back piano playing — on the black keys only — punctuated with sudden hand lurches reminiscent of Chico Marx’s novelty bits.
Eastern Tennessee, George Reneau’s old stomping grounds, was now a hotbed of rising new-generation country instrumentalists. Lanham’s radio replacement when he left with Austin would be a very young Chet Atkins, and Jethro Burns was transforming mandolin playing.
Another young area guitar player was Merle Travis, who in 1981 recalled how impressed he was with and Austin and the Whippoorwills’ show when he went to check out this latest thing. “Three young fellers were playing along with Austin,” Travis wrote in Guitar Player magazine. “A boy with a mandolin, a bass player, and the kid with the guitar. ‘We gonna pee on th’ fire and turn th’ dogs loose,’ Gene Austin would say, chuckling, ‘and we gonna turn Roy Lanham and his Diddlin’ Duo loose on this ol’ gut-bucket, hooked-joint blues that I wrote back when I needed money.” Travis and Lanham would remain close friends after that encounter, as Merle went on to become a key guitar stylist of the century.
The late Roy Lanham, belatedly, is increasingly being recognized as an electric hillbilly jazz lead guitar innovator. Though he always thought of himself as a jazz musician, for many years he was lead instrumentalist for the cowboy Sons of the Pioneers. With less fanfare, he was also the hot proto-rockabilly guitarist on a good many cuts by the Delmore Brothers and Grandpa Jones, and on Loretta Lynn’s first single, “Honky Tonk Girl”.
His widow Marianne, herself a jazzy singer with the latter-day Whippoorwills, recalls the Lanham family’s continuing closeness to Austin for years to come. Because of occasional reunion shows with Gene, they’d keep his small traveling piano on hand at their Hollywood house, which he’d pick up to take on the road. In the early ’60s, there were still ongoing jam sessions at the Lanhams’ place: The Whippoorwills would play, Merle Travis and friends would join in, and Austin would sing increasingly jazz-like leads — all with the likes of the Bonanza cast on hand to catch the music.
Wooten, in an interview for this story, was very explicit about the specific Austin influence in this hillbilly jazz arena. “We walked onstage with him without a sheet of music,” he recalls. “He’d just start singing — and this is just how fantastic Austin was — and do a medley of twelve or fifteen different songs in one tempo and keep that going. All kinds of tunes, and we’d have to follow whatever he played, piano-wise! My ears had to grow up about twenty years just working with him that year!”
Wooten compares the instrumental method the band developed for jumping into the Broadway and southern pop songs Austin would bring up without warning to the loose-but-ready latter-day Nashville session player “head chart” approach. “That’s exactly the way we did it!” he affirms. “Have you ever heard of that word called ‘S-O-U-L’? That’s where my playing got soul — hearing Gene Austin sing. When he’d do a song, you’d remember it. It wouldn’t come out like it was written on paper, it would come out like he did it himself — and like nobody else.”
Taking that method and style to country sessions under classic California producer Cliffie Stone, Wooten developed a way to note oncoming chord changes so that the head arrangements could be shared with incoming backup musicians — in direct parallel to the “number system” that would come to be used by Nashville cats.