When Light Crust Doughboys bassist Art Greenhaw curses today's commercial radio broadcasting industry as "a marketing scheme, a revenue-driven format, a way around payola," why, as a member of the world's longest-running Western swing band, doesn't he craftily refer to an inspiring tale of better airwave days to sharpen his case against corporate media and the sorry state of music radio? The fiddle band trio's original 1931 theme song might give you a clue: "Oh, we never do brag, we never do boast/We sing our song from coast to coast/We're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mills."
In radio's early days, companies created in-house music groups to promote their businesses' names, push products and foster brand loyalty. The Light Crust Doughboys, founded by W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel to promote his Fort Worth flour company Burrus Mill as well as its Light Crust Flour brand, was one of these mouthpiece bands.
Without Sugar Pappy, a future two-term Texas governor, and his penchant for hawking and shameless self-promotion, the world may never have known the talents of fiddler and part-time Turkey, Texas, barber Bob Wills, one of The Light Crust Doughboys' original members and later founder of the Texas Playboys. Texas also might not be considered the birthplace of Western swing.
Wills and his bandmates' hillbilly and gospel tune radio performances, and consequently their efforts to push Light Crust Flour, initially received tepid audience responses. Pappy promptly fired his musical sales team as a result. But in the midst of a tough economic period, the desperate musicians managed to work out a deal with their flour boss. They labored a 40-hour week at the mill in exchange for $7.50 weekly and corporate sponsorship on the radio. Within about a month, The Light Crust Doughboys were surging in popularity, so Pappy said they could stop sacking flour if they agreed to eight-hour daily music practices inside the mill.
By this time, advertisers nationwide had identified country music as a great medium for reaching rural audiences. Country was especially popular with advertisers peddling medical treatments. Sponsoring 14 stations in the South, plus several bands, like the Crazy Hickory Nutes and the Crazy Mountaineers, the biggest advertiser was nearby Mineral Wells-based Crazy Water Co., run by brothers Hal and Carr P. Collins. The company's most successful product was homemade laxative Crazy Water Crystals. "When I was a kid, I used to have a shotgun, and when that shotgun got clogged up, I used to take me a ramrod and give it a good cleaning. Now Crazy Water does the same for you. When you get clogged up, Crazy Water is just like that ramrod," went the product's folksy radio pitch.
Country folk loved the Doughboys' twangy sound, associated the band with Light Crust Flour, became local buyers and made Pappy a wealthy man. Within a few years, the band could be heard on as many as 170 radio stations each weekday at noon, with their still-used signature opening: "The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!"
Minus four years during World War II, some version of the Doughboys has been performing ever since. The radio shows stopped in 1950, but the band continued playing flour-company events until the early 1990s, when an international conglomerate bought Burrus Mill.
The now-six-man band, which has received Grammy nominations the past four out of five years for best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album, "was just in existence to promote the flour company. A corporate entity. But now we don't have anyone to answer to," Greenhaw says, noting the band presently sells recordings largely through the Internet and at public appearances. Not to mention thanks to plugs from corporate-owned publications.