by Eugene Chadbourne (www. CMT.com)
With one foot in the early history of bluegrass and the other in Western swing, this historic Texas recording group of the ’20s and ’30s has earned a place in American musical history every bit as heroic as the epic last stand at the Alamo. Among many distinctions, the East Texas Serenaders were one of the few early Western groups to feature cello, played by Henry Bogan. Note the use of the word “early” in the previous sentence, because by the end of the ’30s, the cello had became a complete no-show in country music. The group also featured tenor banjo as well as the expected guitar and fiddle. The main recorded document of this group is the Complete Recorded Works issued by Document; but most listeners come into contact via a fleeting glimpse offered on any number of compilations, ranging from the narrow focus of old-time Texas string bands, in which the group certainly has historic presence, to massive multi-disc overviews of the entire history of American pop music, in which the East Texas Serenaders occupy a valuable niche as well.
The East Texas Serenaders posed for publicity pictures alternately as hillbilly rubes and smooth city-slicker types. Examining the music itself can help rectify the contradiction in images: the group was sophisticated and played without the sandpaper edge of other string bands from the region. The fiddler was of course something of the captain of the ship in any string band, and in this group it was the long-bow Texas fiddling style of Daniel Huggins Williams that was part of the ensemble’s personality, but inevitably not as much as the group’s choice of material. While most string bands of the time stuffed their repertoire faces on square dance tunes, the East Texas Serenaders avoided this part of the action like a crusty tuna salad at a buffet table. Rags, numbers that sounded like rags, and waltzes made up most of the group’s repertoire, with the latter type of number becoming some of the most frequently requested material. And the keys the group played in are also part of its unique sound; like the black Dallas String Band, the East Texas Serenaders would whip out tunes in the key of F, rather than sticking to easier square dance keys such as A and G. (more…)