Batter up

In the midst of a silver age, the Light Crust Doughboys are swinging for the bleachers

Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery is a politely unassuming man, small in a way that suggests concentrated vitality rather than size. His 83 years show neither on his waist nor in his eyes. There's little to suggest that this grandfather had once walked with musical legends, or that he was among those who fashioned a brand-new music and helped define the character of an entire place and time.

It's not until he picks up his banjo--its juxtaposition of polished wood, heavy steel, and finely drawn wire mirroring the strength and delicacy it takes to play it--that it really seems likely that this man, this Light Crust Doughboy, has kept the wellspring of Western swing running clear almost since it began to flow.

"We're the ones who started it," Montgomery says matter-of-factly, his sentiment neither prideful nor falsely modest. "We didn't know what we were doing at the time--that's just how it turned out. But we had a lot of amazing talent in the Doughboys, guys like Knocky Parker and Zeke Campbell, and we listened to everything."

In his pursuit of "everything," Montgomery has heard Leadbelly sing in Deep Ellum and stood on stage with Elvis. Montgomery is much like the music he plays: Both are mutable entities formed by their surroundings, and they carry the past in their altered shapes, submitting it to the present and presenting it to the future.

Bob Wills, the hero of Western swing, is frozen in memory; Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, with far less renown though possibly more talent, are equally trapped. Only the Light Crust Doughboys are still around and still playing. The band's 65-year history makes it the world's longest-running country act, and Montgomery was around for most of it.

The Light Crust Doughboys was actually started by Brown and Wills in 1931. The two convinced Ft. Worth's Burrus Mill and Elevator Company to sponsor a radio show featuring them and guitarist Herman Arnspiger. Burrus president W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel didn't much care for the band's "hillbilly" music: He'd tried to can them after a fortnight, only to have an outraged public successfully petition for their return.

O'Daniel, Burrus' star salesman before he was made president, knew what to do when confronted with a demand: Meet it. His skill at what would now be called networking got the Doughboys on his Texas Quality Network, which consisted of more than 170 radio stations, mainly in Oklahoma and Texas. The band started selling--Wills' very first recorded "aah-haa!" was on the Doughboys' "Sunbonnet Sue"--and before long, was a sensation.

The Doughboys made such an impression that O'Daniel's successful 1939 bid for the Texas governorship can in part be credited to his stint as the band's announcer, even though he left the band in 1935. (The Doughboys were never associated with his campaign. Rather, O'Daniel hired former Doughboys to perform for him at various campaign rallies, though the perception the real Boys did O'Daniel's bidding remains.)

Brown left in '32, and Wills' drinking earned him the boot a year later. No doubt O'Daniel's less-than-enlightened managerial style played a part in their departures: He referred to his musicians by such nicknames as Snub and Bashful to prevent them from taking off on their own.

At the same time, a banjo-playing college boy named Marvin Montgomery was using his musical skills to see the country beyond his hometown of Ames, Iowa, with a traveling show. He found himself in Victoria, Texas, with plenty of time to think.

"I had been making $11 a week for a year and a half, paying for my own meals and everything," Montgomery recalls. "I had to get away from that tent show!" When a position for a guitar player came up in Dallas, paying a princely $3 per gig, Montgomery took his savings, a whole $29, and lit out for the big city, where he got in on a trio called the Wanderers that was regularly playing live on WFAA-AM.

With the Wanderers, Montgomery crossed paths with Milton Brown. The Wanderers performed at competitive "battle dances" with Brown's band around Dallas and in the booming oil fields around Kilgore and Gladewater. When announcer-manager Eddie Dunn revamped the Doughboys' lineup in 1935, he added the three Wanderers to the roster, and Montgomery got another chance to become involved with one of Brown's creations, signing on as the Doughboys' tenor banjo player. He's been there ever since.

Although Wills and Brown had drawn the fiddle-band template that the Doughboys would follow into the '90s, there were significant differences between the Doughboys and the music Wills and Brown went off to become famous for.

"They were more [like] dance bands," Montgomery says. "They put more pop, more Cab Calloway, into things. We didn't play that many dances or clubs. We were more of a show, with an MC and all. We did more cowboy songs, like 'Red River Valley' and Sons of the Pioneers stuff, and we did a hymn on every show."

Denied the distractions of honky-tonks because of Burrus' requirement of a squeaky-clean image, the Doughboys emphasized showmanship. Rubber-faced fiddler Carroll Hubbard had a routine during "Chicken Reel" in which he realistically feigned a surprised chicken laying an egg, an act that culminated in the egg--hard-boiled for handling--being tossed into the crowd. It was a favorite with audiences until someone substituted a raw egg.

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