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GOGR Music History -
Chuck Wagon Gang

By John Crenshaw and Alan Kendall

Many great American traditions have endured through the last century. Baseball is still one of America’s favorite sports. Grilling hot dogs and hamburgers on a beautiful summer day is still a wonderful tool to bring a family together. And the music of the Chuck Wagon Gang is still adored by countless hundreds of thousands worldwide.

The Chuck Wagon Gang began their career in 1935 amidst the cotton fields of Texas. Cotton farmers by trade, the family of Dave and Carrie Carter consisted of eight children; from oldest to youngest– Ernest, Clellon, Rosa Lola, Effie, Eddie, Anna, Ruth Ellen, Roy, and Betty. Never known to ask for money, Dave found himself in need of immediate financial help during the Great Depression, when daughter Effie contacted pneumonia. These were the days when pneumonia was still a killer. Dave, along with oldest son and daughter Ernest and Lola, traveled to Radio Station KFYO in Lubbock, TX seeking employment. Dave Carter was elated when his family group was hired for a daily fifteen minute program at $12.50 per week. They were given a week’s pay in advance, and Effie received the medical help necessary. She quickly recovered and joined her father and siblings to make the group a full quartet.

After a year at KFYO, the Carters sought greener pastures and moved to 50,000-watt station WBAP in Fort Worth, landing a radio program sponsored by Bewley Mills’ Flour. The Carter Quartet soon changed their name to The Chuck Wagon Gang. Cy Leland, who was now both the Chuck Wagon Gang’s announcer and agent, also recommended stage names for the Carters. Dave became known as "Dad", Ernest was renamed "Jim", Rosa Lola shortened her name to "Rose", and Effie’s name changed to "Anna", despite the fact that there was already a younger sister named Anna in the Carter clan. The name changes stuck and Dad (tenor and mandolin), Jim (bass and guitar), Rose (soprano), and Anna (alto) established a loyal following with their diverse musical program. They sang primarily western and folk songs, and always included a gospel song in their programs. By 1940, the demand for the group’s gospel songs was so great that they began singing exclusively religious tunes.

Early Chuck Wagon Gang Cards of Rose, Anna, Dad, and Jim

The Gang caught the attention of Don Law and Art Satherly of American Record Corporation, which later became Columbia Records. Law and Satherly moved quickly to sign the Chuck Wagon Gang to a recording contract. The Gang entered into their first recording session on November 25, 1936. The first song they recorded was, "The Son Hath Made Me Free". In those days, the Carters would assemble around one microphone and a needle cut the song onto a plastic master disc. They recorded twenty-two songs at their first recording session. Of those songs, only eight were gospel.

Although the Gang recorded both gospel and secular tunes during the early sessions, they soon began recording only gospel songs. The Gang's earliest recordings were released on Columbia affiliate labels such Okeh, Perfect, Melotone, Conqueror, and Vocallion. Their association with Columbia Records lasted over 35 years during which time four hundred and eight recording masters are known to exist. During their time with Columbia, the Gang became the label’s second highest-selling artist. Columbia sides such as "I’ll Fly Away", "Echoes From the Burning Bush", "Lord Lead Me On", "Higher", "Church In the Wildwood", "Jesus Hold My Hand", "I’ll Meet You In the Morning", "Heaven’s Really Gonna Shine" and far too many more to mention became hymnbook standards.

The Gang continued to flourish on radio during the late 1930s and into the early 1940s. Upon the outset of World War II, many members of the Carter family received their draft notice. The Chuck Wagon Gang deemed it necessary to disband for the duration of the war. Many of the men in the family departed for the military, leaving home pregnant wives. By the grace of God, all of the Carter men returned home safe and sound to their wives and several of them returned to newborn children! This was certainly a wonderful time in the lives of the Carters, and the Chuck Wagon Gang returned to the airwaves of WBAP.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1951
Clockwise from Top Left:
Howard Gordon, Haskell Mitchell,
Dad Carter, Anna Carter-Gordon,
Rose Carter-Karnes

For many years, the Chuck Wagon Gang’s popularity was geared exclusively by record sales and radio. The Bewley Flour Company desired that they be exclusively a radio quartet, so personal appearances outside the Fort Worth area were non-existent. By the early 1950s, Wally Fowler sought the group out to appear on his all-nite sings. Although the Gang was reluctant to appear, they soon relented and appeared at one of his concerts in Augusta, GA. The story of Fowler and his first experience with the Chuck Wagon Gang is legendary, and covered in their book The Legend Lives On, so therefore I recommend that you read that story in greater detail there. Following a series of appearances in the southeast, the Chuck Wagon phenomenon caught like wildfire, and they soon left the world of radio to meet the demand of their touring schedule.

The rigorous road life eventually became too much for the elder members of the family, and for the first time in the group’s history, personnel changes began to unfold. The first to leave was Jim Carter. Jim made the first concert tour with the Gang, but decided that family and home meant more to him than the rigors of the road. The group hired Anna’s husband Howard Gordon to play guitar for the group. Famous bass singers Big Jim Waits and Haskell Mitchell filled some of the personal appearances with the Gang, but their heavy tones didn't really fit the sound of the Chuck Wagon Gang. Although Waits and Mitchell appeared on stage, they never recorded with the Chuck Wagon Gang for Jim would return to the studio for their recording sessions.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1953
L-R:
Dad, Anna, Howard, Rose, Roy

Soon, youngest son Roy Carter joined the group as bass singer. Unbeknownst to Roy, older brother Clellon was attending the Stamps School of Music in anticipation of replacing his brother Jim as bass singer. When Clellon found out of Roy's interest in singing with the family, he dropped out of the Stamps School and resumed his life driving a cement mixer. Roy was none the wiser for many months, and Clellon was one of the few Carter children never to sing actively with the Chuck Wagon Gang.

Dad Carter suffered a major heart attack in 1955 that necessitated his permanent retirement from the group. Son Eddie Carter took his father’s place for about a year, after which he was replaced by "Cousin" Pat McKeehan.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1959
Top: Ron Crittenden, Howard Gordon, Howard Welborn, Bottom: Rose Carter-Karnes, Anna Carter-Gordon

The group more or less entered "semi-retirement" in the late 1950s, as the Carter children began spending more time at home tending to their family lives. Roy Carter left the quartet for six years, moving to Nashville to work as a manufacturer. Roy still desired to sing during this time, so he and Pat McKeehan joined Glenda and Faye Bond and formed a short-lived group called "Roy Carter and the Chucks." They embraced the Chuck Wagon Gang style and song arrangements, but this group did not go over well with the other members of the Carter family, so it soon dissolved. Roy's association with Wally Fowler kept the Chucks afloat on television and the concert stage for a short time, but they soon heeded the Carter family wishes and disbanded.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the group consisted of Anna Carter-Gordon, Rose Carter-Karnes, Howard Welborn, Ron Crittenden, and Howard Gordon accompanying on guitar. Although the group’s personal appearances had been cut drastically, the demand for their records remained strong as ever. The group adopted a bit more modern sound with Crittendon and Welborn, as is evident on their Columbia recordings. McKeehan, Welborn, and Crittendon were the first "non-Carters" to appear vocally on a Chuck Wagon Gang recording.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1963
Top: Jim Wesson, Roy Carter, Howard Gordon, Bottom: Rose Carter-Karnes, Anna Carter-Gordon

By 1963, the Chuck Wagon Gang began touring more extensively. Roy Carter returned to the group, and Jim Wesson was added as their tenor singer. Wesson was a great soloist, and was one of the first gospel singing artists to release a solo recording with liner notes written by his new boss, Roy Carter. Although his voice was a bit "cultured" for the Chuck Wagon Gang sound, they continued to thrive with Wesson as tenor. The Gang saw much activity during the 1960s, as they joined The Rangers Trio as co-hosts of the television show, "Gospel Roundup". In 1966, the Chuck Wagon Gang were part of the first gospel concert to be held at Carnegie Hall. For the first time, the Gang traveled to northern venues, performing in cities such as Detroit and Chicago, where their music was received with great enthusiasm. They also played the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles where they played to a receptive audience of 22,000. It seemed the group was really on a roll during this time, yet the winds of change were to blow the Gang’s bus doors wide open.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1967
L-R:
Ron Page, Louise Clark, Howard Gordon,
Anna Carter-Gordon, Greg Gordon

Rose Carter-Karnes left the Gang in 1966, being replaced by Louise Clark. Clark did a very admirable job, yet the distinctive sound of the Gang missed Rose’s vocal touch. Although Sister Rose had retired from the road, the contract with Columbia called for her to be on all of their recording sessions. Therefore, Louise would sing the concerts and Rose would sing on the records. Ron Page came on board as tenor singer when Jim Wesson left to join The Prophets. 1967 was a year of major changes in the Chuck Wagon Gang. Roy Carter retired from the group once again and entered into teaching. Ron Page moved over to the bass part in the quartet and Anna's son, Greg, became the tenor singer for a short time. Anna’s husband and Chuck Wagon Gang guitarist Howard Gordon suffered a fatal heart attack and died on October 3, 1967, during the taping of a television show in Nashville.

Anna attempted to keep the wheels on the Chuck Wagon with various personnel for a short time. After Page left the group, Anna hired recent Stamps School graduate Jim Black to sing bass, and Anna’s children Vicki and Greg sang soprano and tenor parts. Greg also filled a dual role as guitarist, but it was a difficult task. To add to the mix, Vicki became pregnant, so Norah Lee Allen filled the soprano role for a short time. However, in 1968, Anna married popular singer and former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis, and began traveling as vocalist with the Jimmie Davis Trio. This removed Anna from full-time service with the Chuck Wagon Gang, and therefore the group entered into semi-retirement for the remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s. Every so often, the Chuck Wagon Gang would reconvene on the concert stage in a package with the Jimmie Davis Singers, but these concerts were rare.

In the Studio - 1970
L-R:
Roy, Anna, Rose, Jim

The group continued to record about ten or twelve songs for Columbia every year various capacities, they did very little touring. These sessions reverted back to the Carter family. Jim went back into the studio filling the bass singing duties with the Gang in the late 1960s, moving Roy to tenor. During this time, Greg Gordon served as guitarist and was often the session leader. After Jim's death in 1971, Eddie Carter returned to the studio as tenor singer, and Roy moved back to his regular role as bass singer.

Roy Carter eventually became restless and began taking the Gang on summer concert tours, joined by sisters Ruth Ellen Carter-Yates and Bettye Carter-Goodwin on alto and soprano, and Pat McKeehan on tenor vocals and guitar. The demand for the Gang was still great, and this lineup of the Gang toured for several years, as Roy’s teaching schedule would allow.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1985
L-R:
Ruth Ellen Carter-Yates, Roy Carter, Harold Timmons, Pat McKeehan, Patricia Neighbors

By the 1980s, Roy Carter had retired from teaching, and the Chuck Wagon Gang hit the road full-time once again. Roy, Ruth Ellen, and Pat continued to remain the nucleus of the group. Joining the Gang during this decade were several wonderful soprano vocalists; including Roy’s daughter Shirley Carter Coers, Patricia Neighbors, Debby Trusty, and Anita Saylor.  Filling the alto spots in the early 1990s were Renee Martin and Kathy Watson.  Also joining the Gang in 1985 was their first and only pianist, Harold Timmons.

By the early 1990s, the Chuck Wagon Gang consisted of Pat McKeehan – Tenor/Guitar, Debby Trusty – Soprano, Kathy Watson – Alto, Grady Robinson – Bass, and Harold Timmons – Piano. This was a mult-talented and versatile group, and they soon began mixing Chuck Wagon Gang sounds with musical stylings that more reflected modern country music.  Unfortunately, the group soon disbanded. A few months later, however, the Chuck Wagon Gang returned with Roy Carter at the helm. Joining him were former tenor and alto Jim Wesson and Ruth Ellen Carter-Yates, Anna’ Granddaughter Shaye Truax at soprano, and Darrell Morris playing guitar. This lineup remained on the road for a few years before Roy Carter announced his permanent retirement, and the old Chuck Wagon was rolled into the barn once again.

Chuck Wagon Gang - 2007
Clockwise from Top Left: Dave Emery, Stan Hill, Penny Greene, Julie Hudson

The Chuck Wagon Gang lay dormant for several years, making very few personal appearances, recording an album every now and then. In 2000, the Chuck Wagon Gang resurfaced once again with Jim Wesson, Darrell Morris, Vickie Owens (daughter of Anna), Kasey Owens, and Grant Owens (grandchildren of Anna and children of Vickie). This group remained together for a very brief period, and soon solidified with Darrell Morris singing bass and playing guitar, Shaye Truax singing alto, Melissa Kemper on soprano, and Ricky Karnes (son of Rose Carter-Karnes) singing tenor. This group did a wonderful job carrying on the tradition of the Chuck Wagon Gang for several years.

Several more personnel changes would take place over the next few years for the Gang. Ronnie Page rejoined the Chuck Wagon Gang in 2004 as tenor, and bass singer and guitarist Dave Emery replaced Ron Crittenden, who had briefly stepped in the group following the departure of Darrell Morris. In 2006, tenor Stan Hill and soprano Julie Hudson replaced Ronnie Page and Melissa Kemper.

Today’s lineup of the Chuck Wagon Gang is one of their finest. The group at this writing consists of Dave Emery – Bass and Guitar, Julie Hudson – Soprano, Stan Hill – Tenor, and Penny Greene, who joined the group in 2007, as alto. Shaye (Truax) Smith, although no longer traveling with the group full-time, still remains part-owner of the group and makes appearances when able.

The Gang continues to remain in heavy demand, as crowds of all ages hearken a return to simpler times, memories of going to church with Grandma, all day camp-meetings, and singing hymns around the campfire. It is little to no wonder in this volatile day and time that the music of the Chuck Wagon Gang has endured so well and so long. Some things never change!


More Photos of the Chuck Wagon Gang Through the Years


Chuck Wagon Gang - 1955
Dad (Inset), Eddie, Rose, Anna, Roy, and Howard

 


Chuck Wagon Gang - 1966
L-R: Howard Gordon, Anna Carter-Gordon,
Ron Page, Louise Clark, Roy Carter

Chuck Wagon Gang - 1990
L-R: Anita Saylor, Pat McKeehan, Harold Timmons,
Renee Martin, Roy Carter

 


Chuck Wagon Gang - 2002
L-R: Shaye Truax, Darrell Morris, Melissa Kemper,
Rick Karnes

Chuck Wagon Gang - 2004
L-R: Dave Emery, Shaye Truax, Ron Page,
Melissa Kemper

 

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Last Modified: December 3, 2008
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