During the height of the great string band era of the 1920s, one of the largest and most popular string bands in Arkansas was Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. Originally founded to promote tourism in the area of Izard County, the band went on to achieve a modicum of regional success before succumbing to the Depression.
Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers was founded by Dr. Henry Harlin Smith, a surgeon for the Missouri Pacific Railroad who lived in the Calico Rock (Izard County) area. On his travels with the railway, he found that he was often working to dispel the backward image that many people outside of Arkansas had of the region. Smith thought that if more people were to visit Calico Rock and enjoy the area’s natural beauty, it could change the negative misconception that was so prevalent.
As a way to promote the area and tourism, he organized a fiddle contest in Calico Rock. Smith was not a musician himself, but he knew that a rich crop of talented musicians lived in and around Izard County. The contest was held in January 1926. From the winners of the contest, Dr. Smith formed a band with the whimsical name of “Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers”—a unique but fitting name derived from the fact that fiddle bows are strung with horse hair. Smith also assembled a group of vocalists from the winners of the contest and called them the “Hill-Billy Quartet.”
Smith took the Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet to Hot Springs (Garland County) as ambassadors of the Calico Rock area. As part of his introduction before each show, he proudly extolled the natural beauty of Izard County and promoted the virtues of the area as a vacation destination.
Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers enjoyed a couple years of popularity, which earned them several radio performances on KTHS in Hot Springs and a recording session in Memphis, Tennessee, for Victor during September 1928. Three 78 rpm records, a total of six songs, were recorded at this session. Members of the band for these recordings included James Clark Duncan and Bryan Lackey on fiddles, Leeman Bone on guitar, and Ray Marshall on mandolin.
Over the years, the band’s roster changed several times. Members of the various incarnations of Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet included Leeman Bone on guitar and vocals, Graydon Bone on vocals, George Dillard on fiddle, James Clark Duncan on fiddle, Roosevelt Garner on vocals, Homer T. Goatcher on vocals, J. Odie Goatcher on vocals, Owen Hunt on fiddle, Bryan Lackey on fiddle, Ray Marshall on mandolin, W. P. McLeary on fiddle and guitar, Hubert Simmons on vocals, and Luther Walker on fiddle.
By late 1929, the Depression began to take a toll on the music industry as well as tourism. Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the Hill-Billy Quartet continued to play throughout Izard County until 1930, when Dr. Smith determined that the band no longer served its original purpose as ambassadors of tourism, and the group was disbanded.
Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers play “Going Down the River”: