Girl Power

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"These are all women who were deserving of fame, but they didn't make it for who knows what reason, and they deserve recognition," says Dennard, who has become the most important figure in the preservation of this city's musical past. "They were thrilled anyone cared at this point. They couldn't believe anyone was interested anymore. They've become grandmothers and were shocked anyone would remember them, much less someone my age. And they were always flattered by how much I knew about them. They would ask me, 'Where did you find this stuff? How do you know this stuff?' I mean, I was sending them cassettes of things they hadn't heard in almost 50 years."

Unlike last year's The Big "D" Jamboree Live! collection, most of the songs on Gals of the Big "D" Jamboree weren't actually recorded on the Sportatorium stage; in fact, only a handful of the 29 were taped in front of that raucous Saturday-night audience. But that does nothing to diminish the importance of the collection: If The Big "D" Jamboree Live! served as a historical document, presenting a snapshot of that precise moment in time when country music began its obstinate struggle with that encroaching demon known as rock and roll, then The Gals of the Big "D" Jamboree exists to remind us there were so many female country and rockabilly performers whose work remains viable long after it was discarded.

"Show business is so mercurial," says Dennard, who assembled the collection from recordings he discovered at the Library of Congress and in the archives of Ed McLemore, who ran the Big "D" Jamboree and managed so many of the artists who performed there. "You get a talent like Helen Hall. Why didn't she make it? Is it because of her car accident? Wrong place, wrong time? I just don't know. For every star, there are 10 people who didn't make it who are just as good. There's such legacy of good music here, and I didn't think [the fact they've been forgotten] was a good enough reason to let their music disappear."

Of the 11 artists found on the collection, only one's been remembered by history: Henrietta-born Charline Arthur, who joined the Jamboree in 1952, recorded for RCA Records from 1953 till 1956 (thanks to some help from Colonel Tom Parker, no less), and kept trying to make records until the mid-1970s. Hers is one of the most fascinating tales in Texas music history, and among the least-told; that she died in 1987, living in anonymous squalor, ensured she would remain a legend, if only because it would later become so hard to distinguish facts from fictions by those who recounted her story. That she was the only woman to play the Jamboree in slacks, that she took photographs with cigarettes dangling from her fingertips, only made her more mythical.

She was born to a Pentecostal preacher, bought her first guitar when she was 7, and wrote her first honky-tonk tune when she was all of 12. When she was about 20, in the late 1940s, she began playing clubs across the state, landing in Kermit to take a job as a radio DJ. When Eddy Arnold and Parker heard her perform, they managed to land her a record deal with RCA, and when she started cutting tracks for the label in 1953, she was produced by Chet Atkins. Though she performed on the Grand Ole Opry, she and Nashville were hardly a perfect fit: The stodgy gatekeepers of country had little patience for her temper and overt sexuality. She fared better at the Jamboree: "Texans," Dennard reminds, "really like to party, and the Big 'D' was a lot less hesitant about letting women do their own thing than the other uptight venues."

Arthur became close friends with Hall, so much so the two began writing and recording together; in 1957, Arthur went into her mobile home in Dallas and cut a version of Hall's "Hello Baby" that appears on the Gals collection. Like so many of the songs on the disc, it straddles country and rockabilly: Arthur sneers that she'll be a "slave to your love"; she roars over a twanging guitar and flat, four-four beat. It's sexy but only from a distance; there's something about Arthur that even then seemed a little dangerous--as though getting mixed up with her might become more trouble than it was worth.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky