GOGR Music History -
Swanee River Boys
In the past
months, we’ve said our goodbyes to many legendary figures in gospel music. Fortunately, there are a few legends still kicking. This month, I’d like to take to opportunity to introduce you to Buford Abner and the Swanee River Boys Quartet.
The Swanee River Boys had a sound unlike any other in gospel music past or present. They embraced a soft harmony with a spiritual sound that resembled a black quartet more than a white gospel group. Their sound was remarkably similar to early recordings of the Mills Brothers. Even their stage mannerisms were different from other groups as they crouched down toward the microphones and swayed in time to their soft refrains. The late Bill Carrier, an original member of the group, explained, “We had to be different to survive.”
The roots of the Swanee River Boys can be traced to the Vaughn Four based in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. The group was formed in October of 1938 by Bill Carrier and Stacy Abner soon after they graduated from the Vaughn School of Music. In late 1938, Stacy invited his nephews, Buford and Merle Abner, to join the quartet. The group made its income from personal appearances and song book sales of Vaughn Music Company publications. They appeared regularly on radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the request of the music company, this quartet sang strictly gospel material.
In late 1939, Buford and Merle Abner along with Bill Carrier moved to radio station WDOD in Chattanooga, Tennessee where they joined forces with former Rangers Quartet tenor George Hughes to form the Swanee River Boys. Much like other groups of the day, the group did a mixed bag of songs including western, swing, and popular music in addition to their gospel fare.
Buford Abner was the lead vocalist, Hughes sang the tenor, Carrier was the baritone. Merle Abner provided a soft, subtle bass line that laid a perfect foundation for their smooth spiritual sound. For many years, the gentle strum of Bill Carrier’s acoustic guitar was the lone accompaniment for the quartet.
At WDOD, the Swanee River Boys performed on two early morning radio programs in addition to having a spot on the popular “Noon Day Frolic”. This musical variety program was one of the top rated shows on the station. During this time, the Swanee River Boys made personal appearances in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. A typical program for the group would be around ninety minutes in duration encompassing a wide variety of musical styles along with comedic relief.
In addition to his other duties with the group, Buford Abner soon became the comedian of the group. Buford was also responsible for the vocal arrangements for the quartet. Many of their songs were composed by him. His songs were made famous not only by the Swanee River Boys, but also by other top gospel music groups of the day.
The Chattanooga area had several full time gospel quartets, so each had to carve their own niche in order to gain popularity and survive.
The Swanee River Boys added variety to their programs by including folk songs and Negro spirituals to their gospel and popular repertoire. Buford’s original compositions highlighted their programs. This varied repertoire allowed the Boys to perform entire sacred concerts for churches and yet give a musical variety review in school auditoriums or for civic organization.
According to a log book kept by the late Bill Carrier, by 1941 the Swanee River Boys had an extensive repertoire of 186 titles. Of that number, approximately 52% were gospel and religious in nature.
The quartet accepted a position at WSB radio in Atlanta, Georgia in the spring of 1941. They soon became a regular fixture on the famous WSB Barn Dance. Their own program, “The Little Country Church” was a regular feature of WSB radio for more than four years. This exposure led to greater popularity for the Swanee River Boys.
Both of the Abner brothers entered military service during World War II. At this time, their positions were temporarily filled by Fleming Culberson, Lee Roy Abernathy and Bill Lyles. Abernathy was just beginning a career in gospel music that would see him perform with some of the most popular groups in the nation. He also taught piano and voice to many that proclaimed the gospel in song. Bill Lyles left the Swanee River Boys to join the Blackwood Brothers where he remained until his tragic death in 1954.
At the completion of their armed forces tour of duty, the Abner brothers reunited with Carrier and Hughes at WSB radio station in Atlanta. They soon moved to WBT radio in Charlotte, NC where they performed on the CBS radio network. When the Mills Brothers decided to take their act to Las Vegas, the Swanee River Boys moved to radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio where they replaced this famous quartet.
The group was also a pioneer of early television programming in addition to their radio activity. Other programs on which they regularly performed included “Olympus Minstrels”, “The Circle Arrow” , “Checkerboard Time”, “The Swanee River Boys”, and “Carolina Calling” . . . a version of which is still being produced today. In 1947, the Swanee River Boys took second place on the NBC Radio talent show “The Big Break.”
The group had been without a permanent change in personnel for twelve years when Bill Carrier left the group in 1952. Horace Floyd, formerly with the Sunny South Quartet and Sunshine Boys, joined the group as tenor singer and George Hughes moved to the baritone slot. By 1954, George Hughes had also departed and the quartet consisted of Joe Thomas, Horace Floyd, and the ever-present Abner brothers. Thomas and Floyd had sung together in the Sunny South Quartet. Don Stringfellow, formerly of the Stamps-Baxter Quartet, soon joined the group as baritone and remained in that position for many years. Amazingly, their overall sound never changed. Their leanings toward secular music tended to push them out of the gospel music circuit for much of this part of their career.
After a recording drought of several years, the Swanee River Boys again began recording gospel music. During the 1960s, they spent a lot of time overseas performing for the troops in USO programs. After recording many gospel songs for the predominately secular King label, the Swanee River Boys turned their recording talents to several sacred labels.
An early 60s recording titled “Swanee River Boys Finest” finds Bill Carver as the new tenor of the group joining baritone Don Stringfellow and the Abner brothers. By now, Buford had also taken over as the guitarist for the group. Gordon Stoker, lead singer of the Jordanaires Quartet, wrote the liner notes for this Zondervan album. He writes: “The Quartet is now doing only Gospel singing and Buford Abner, the leader, is writing some very fine Gospel songs.”
Buford Abner’s song writing skills had been noticed by other major groups in the industry, either. His songs were recorded by many top groups including the Rebels Quartet, Statesmen Quartet, Melody Boys Quartet, Blackwood Brothers, LeFevres, Oak Ridge Quartet, Sunshine Boys, Rangers Quartet among others. In later years, Jake Hess and the Imperials used the Abner classic, “He Was a Preachin’ Man” for the title song of one of their best-selling albums.
Although the Swanee River Boys were not extremely active on the gospel music circuit, they continued to produce popular recordings and Buford continued to write quality gospel music. In the 60s, Bill Nelson joined the group as baritone singer, and the group continued to prosper. The Swanee River Boys were included in the mid 60s gospel music movie “Sing a Song for Heaven’s Sake” as they performed one of their classic songs, “Up to the House of the Lord”.
In adding a bit of diversity to the sound of the group, Bill Carver added a second guitar to the accompaniment. As the group sound became a tiny bit more progressive, they began to incorporate Bill Carver’s electric guitar in addition to Buford’s ever present Gibson acoustic instrument.
As the 60s rolled along, the quartet released a number of albums on the Skylite label. Although their visibility on the circuit wasn’t strong, there was still a demand for their music. As age began to take its toll on the group, Buford Abner retired in 1970 and the others followed suit shortly thereafter. To this writer’s knowledge, Bill Nelson is the only member that continued a career in professional gospel music after the Swanee River Boys retired. He later joined the Monitors Quartet and also sang with David Reece and the Rangers Trio.
A resurrection of the group performed at the 1989 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. That year, the group consisted of Bill Carrier, Buford Abner, Bill Carver, Lem Kinslow, and Don Stringfellow. Don adequately filled the bass part of the ailing Merle Abner. They still embodied the soft spiritual sound that brought back fond memories to the audience.
Buford Abner has garnered his share of honors. His accomplishments were recognized by the University of Florida, and they presented him with a copy of Stephen Foster’s handwritten manuscript of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River”
Buford Abner was an inductee into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Groups continue to perform his songs such as “I Get Happy” (are you Pioneers reading this?), “I Have a Desire”, “Lifted From Sin” and “Gloryland Boogie” (also known as “Yonder in Gloryland"). He and his family still sing together embracing a sound much like the Swanee River Boys of years gone by. His brother Merle passed away several years ago.
Buford was presented with a Living Legend Award at the 2003 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. He proved to that audience that an 85-year-old man can still play that Gibson guitar and sing those smooth spirituals. That evening, Buford joined with three other legends . . . Mosie Lister, Glen Allred, and Fred Daniel. . . to delight the crowd with a couple of songs in the ole Swanee River Boys style. In honor of this event, Charles Waller compiled a special video of some of their most memorable performances entitled “Spiritual Singing for All America”.
While the hard driving, foot stomping, hand clapping sounds seemed to dominate gospel music, the long and outstanding career of the Swanee River Boys proved that the people also appreciated having their ears tickled by soft harmonies, strumming guitars, and smoothly accented rhythms.
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