By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
They greet one another like combat veterans. Their hugs are tentative but warm; their smiles, always broad. Sitting beside the crackling fireside in a holiday-decorated North Dallas home during the last week of 1999, these men reminisce for a while, tossing around names like kids playing catch. They pore over old photos and concert programs in which they appear as young men. Too often, they end their sentences by explaining, "Oh, he died last year." Then they pause and move on.
"There ain't too many of us left," says 86-year-old Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, who looks years younger than his birth certificate would indicate. The banjo player, a member of the Western-swing pioneering Light Crust Doughboys since God was a toddler, stands beside 80-year-old Ed Watt and 60-year-old Ronnie Dawson -- men he has known for more than 40 years. "You're looking at the last of the guys from the Big 'D' Jamboree," Montgomery says, his deep voice full of pride.
"My God, I haven't seen you since you were a kid. Lookatchu -- ya still are a kid." Watt, who wears his 80 years like the faded leather jacket wrapped around his broad shoulders, beams as he talks to Dawson, the forever-young rockabilly who will always be the Blond Bomber to these men. The last time Watt saw Dawson was in 1960, not long after Dawson, then known as the teenage, flat-topped Ronnie Dee, first took the Sportatorium stage and put a screaming audience of 5,000 in his back pocket.
All three met in a wrestling arena at the corner of Cadiz and Industrial Boulevards, back when the Sportatorium played host every Saturday night to big-name talent and local heroes on their way up and down. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the Sportatorium housed the Big "D" Jamboree, a three-and-a-half-hour weekly revue that introduced this town to the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Snow, Rose Maddox, Ronnie Dawson, Lefty Frizzell, and so many others who left their footprints in the footnotes of local music history. And, yeah, there was that skinny kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, by the name of Elvis Presley.
Ed Watt knew them all. He booked the talent at the Jamboree from 1953 until it exhaled its final breath some 13 years later. Smokey Montgomery knew them all too; as bandleader for the Jamboree from 1949 until 1960, he backed the acts big and small. Watt and Dawson, of course, will tell you Montgomery didn't learn anything from them big-name fellers -- he was better than all of them put together.
If yesterdays look larger the further we travel from them, then the Big "D" Jamboree exists now as a mythological moment. It was where country turned into rock and roll, where hillbilly begot rockabilly, where small men blossomed into enormous stars. One performer from the Jamboree, Orville Couch, recalls the first time Elvis played the Sportatorium, in the spring of 1955. He was a scrawny kid who drove a log truck for a living. His car might have been a Ford, though Couch says, "it looked like it had been turned over."
"We sat backstage one night and visited, and he talked about all the things he wanted to do," recalls the 64-year-old Couch, who now lives in Combine and still records gospel music in his high-tech home studio. "I don't think he ever dreamed he would become what he became."
Dallas seems to think history is something that comes with an expiration date. This city paves over its yesterdays, reducing historic monuments to rubble and parking lots; ours is a town that confuses progress with amnesia. Soon enough, the old-timers who remember when will disappear, and all that will be left are inaccurate history books, if even that.
But as the 20th century gives way to the 21st, a double-CD set arrives in stores that conjures up still-vibrant echoes of a golden age. On January 18, local record producer David Dennard -- a 49-year-old man who has spent the last three years of his life dusting off local music's best, lost moments -- will release The Big "D" Jamboree Live Volumes 1 & 2, featuring never-before-heard 1950s performances from no less than Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson and Ronnie Dawson and other lesser-knowns. The collection is nothing short of a modern miracle. It's easily the most important local release in years, less an album than a living-and-breathing-and-kicking historical artifact.
Divided into two thrilling discs -- one titled "Hillbillies," another titled "Rockabillies" -- The Big "D" Jamboree Live makes tangible those reverberations the old men speak of. Along with the numerous never-before-seen photos crammed into its accompanying booklet, the collection acts as a sort of time machine, allowing audiences to listen in as Cash performs his latest Sun Records single ("I Walk the Line") or as a young Dawson wraps his high twang around "Johnny B. Goode" or as Perkins stomps his "Blue Suede Shoes." Perhaps just as important, The Big "D" Jamboree Live -- compiled from acetate discs rescued from the bowels of the Library of Congress -- resurrects the likes of Sid King & The Five Strings, Johnny Dollar, Orville Couch, the Bellew Twins, Charlene Arthur, Tommy Mitchell, Johnny Carroll, and others relegated to the margins.