By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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The Doughboys' sound was different then, as well. Montgomery played a tenor banjo--not the long-necked five-string type familiar to bluegrass fans, but a shorter four-stringed model that was once played on the riverboats and in the dance halls of Dixieland. The instruments' trebly chop made up for the lack of drums.
"Too much equipment," Montgomery says, explaining those drumless days. "Cars in those days, you'd tie the bass fiddle on the roof, and there wasn't any room for anything else." The all-string lineup kept the Doughboys a bit closer to their acoustic heritage, and their three-part singing style reminded the listener of their gospel roots. There were rural, even Appalachian, undertones to their sound.
Yokels, however, they were not. The Doughboys embodied the cross-pollination of ragtime, swing, jazz, and country and western just as completely as their better-known cohorts. "We'd listen to a lot of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey," Montgomery recalls, "looking for tricks." The blues were filtering in there, too: Band members would find an area's "colored" clubs and sit in, learning such new techniques as string-bending. Band members also visited the still-bustling Deep Ellum scene, picking up on the stylistic innovations of such artists as pianist Clarence "Pinetop" Smith.
The '30s was the Doughboys golden age, both for fame and chops. They went to Hollywood and made two movies with Gene Autry, The Big Show and Oh Susanna. In the latter, the Doughboys play two numbers beneath paper lanterns, and the speed of their chops is as amazing as the enormous Tom Mix-style sombreros they're wearing.
During this period the Doughboys toured the country in a $50,000 custom bus that had its own generator-powered PA and a covered stage on the back; on the sides, the words "Light Crust Doughboys" were painted in red neon. It looked like a cross between a Tijuana taxicab and a gazebo with wheels, and it made quite an impression in dusty burgs that might only have had one radio; with it the Boys could draw three times a town's population. It also made quite an impression on new Doughboy recruits, who were advised to urinate off the back of the moving bus to save time. The bus' unique aerodynamic properties usually went unmentioned: They caused anything thrown off the tail to be hurled back into the face of the thrower.
The Doughboys took a break for World War II, and when they reformed in 1946, Montgomery was the only prewar name that came back. America's tastes had changed during the war, however, and the new radio show never reached its old heights. The advent of TV spelled the end, and the Light Crust Doughboys went off the air in 1951.
They continued to tour, and the band was not above keeping in step with the times. Before the war, when Wills and Brown began enjoying widespread success, the Doughboys--in their hearts and souls a string band--moved closer to their sound by adding a piano player. After the war, they experimented with different singers--among them Hank Thompson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Slim Whitman--and in the mid-'50s met the growing tide of Elvismania with an Elvis of their own: Dallas' own "Blond Bomber," the great Ronnie Dawson.
"We both knew each other," Dawson recalls. (In fact, Montgomery and the other Doughboys knew Dawson's dad, local bass-fiddle player Pinkie Dawson.) "We played this big concert down on Commerce, with flatbed trucks lining the streets and all these bands using them for stages. [Montgomery] approached me about going out on the road with him. Later on he told me, 'The reason I noticed you is that when you were playing people stopped what they were doing.'"
Although Dawson now recalls his tenure with pride, the rocking 16-year-old Bomber was less than impressed.
"There wasn't a lot of glamour to it," says Dawson. "Back then, fiddles were uncool--completely--and Western swing was dead." Recognizing steady paying work when he saw it, however, Dawson became a Doughboy. His hopes of working his square gig in anonymity were dashed almost immediately when Montgomery came to pick him up in a mammoth station wagon with "WHITE CRUST DOUGHBOYS" painted on the side. At the very least, Dawson had a ringside seat for the band's slow decline.
"The only audience we had were grocery stores and schools, and that was a bummer for me--I wanted to play for some people!" Dawson recalls. "You had to get up at 7 [a.m.] and go do a radio show or a store at 8. People didn't want to hear music at 9 in the morning while they were shopping, especially hillbilly music. It wasn't hillbilly music, man, it was jazz, but that's how they looked at it...I wasn't too into that."
Shoppers may have disliked the string band, but the kids loved Dawson. Montgomery says audiences would give him a hard time about bringing Dawson--"this kid," Smokey says--to shows, but that once they heard him and saw him play, they'd have no more doubts.
"Sure enough, Ronnie would do an Elvis song and just get mobbed by these kids," Montgomery recalls, "and when we left, the same folks would be saying, 'You be sure to bring that blonde kid back!'" Dawson kept at it, playing rock licks on his Stratocaster while the band played along behind him, turning standards like "Red River Valley" into teen-friendly songs like "Red River Rock."