By Guphy Gustafson
Sacramento has a fruitful country music past, far too rich to recount in its entirety here. Much of our early country history revolves around three families: Bob Wills and relations, Johnny and June Carter Cash and The Andersons.
Stay all Night, Stay a Little Longer
Bob Wills, the king of Western Swing, came to Sacramento in 1946 with intention to stay. Western Swing is a fun, danceable subgenre of country, with elements of jazz, Cajun and big band. Many Western Swing bands had dozens of members, each specializing in a different instrument, and the greatest group of all time, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, was one of the biggest. Wills played the fiddle, and his whoops and hollers egging the band on are an essential element of their songs.
After touring for most of the 1930s and ‘40s, Wills was ready to settle down. He opened Will’s Point on Auburn Blvd on June 16, 1948. The building was previously known as the Aragon Ballroom; it was built by the Maleville Brothers, who also built Sacramento’s most exceptional tiki bar, the Coral Reef Lodge on Fulton Avenue. Will’s Point featured an Olympic-sized swimming pool called Will’s Plunge, emphasizing that the honky tonk was for the whole family. The Texas Playboys were the house band and they stayed in lodgings built under the stage. The dancehall was surrounded by couches for the kids to sleep on and there were always hot dogs and coffee available. Beer too. It held about 4000 people and often saw capacity crowds. No funny business was allowed, just good wholesome dancing and fun.
By 1950 Wills was ready to get back on the road. One of his musicians, Billie “Tiny” Moore, took over management of the dancehall. Moore played fiddle and is often cited as one of the greatest electric mandolin players ever. The moniker was ironic – “Tiny” wasn’t a small man. How Moore and Wills met is legendary: Moore left the armed forces in 1943 (where he had taught himself to play mandolin), and headed east looking for musical work. He stopped into a coffee shop in Port Arthur, TX, where he ran into Bob Wills. They got to talking and before long Moore got his mandolin and amp out of his car and played a song – he became a Texas Playboy on the spot. While touring, Moore met The McKinney Sisters, Dean and Evelyn. Wills had hired the sisters after hearing them on the radio; they joined the band at 14 and 12, respectively. They performed with the Playboys (dressed in full cowgirl finery) from 1946-49. Dean and Tiny Moore wed in 1948, and when offered Wills Point they jumped at the chance to settle down and raise a family in Sacramento.
Moore felt that Will’s Point needed a Wills at the helm, so he brought Bob’s younger brother Billy Jack to Sacramento to lead the house band. Billy Jack was a talent in his own right; he led Billy Jack Wills and his Western Swing band to becoming a Northern California favorite. Just to tie up everything in a neat little package, Billy Jack married the other McKinney sister, Evelyn.
Will’s Point burned down in 1956, but that wasn’t the end of the Western Swing legacy in Sacramento. From 1956-62, Tiny Moore starred in children’s’ television show on KXTV called Ranger Roy and Anna Banana. His co-stars were a ringtail monkey and a donkey. One of the features was to give Anna Banana (the monkey, obviously) a present to destroy. She wasn’t trained, so her exploits were always a surprise to the audience and to the cast.
In 1962 Moore opened the Tiny Moore Music Center on El Camino Avenue. The shop sold instruments and offered lessons – It was here that Sacramento RV singing legend Ron Schmeck learned to play guitar – his album Easy Livin’ would go on to grace the vinyl collection of every Midtowner who has ever looked through a local thrift store record bin.
In 1970, Merle Haggard released A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills.) Former Texas Playboys, including Tiny Moore, were recruited to play on the album and tour. Moore went on to be one of Haggard’s Strangers from 1973-76 and died on stage in Jackpot, NV in 1986.
Another legacy of the Wills days was Vance Terry, who played steel guitar with Billy Jack. Terry was more of a jazz player than country, but he knew Western Swing. He recorded “The Brisbane Bop” with Jimmie Rivers, which was a tribute to the great DeMarco’s 23 Club in Brisbane, California. Local musician (and expert on all music Americana) Keith Carey said of him, “He’d be better described as playing steel guitar, perhaps, than pedal steel, because he used the pedals in a different way than the Nashville guys, and he’d started out on straight, non-pedal steel.” Terry’s technique was superb and he generously taught many to play the steel. He died at the Marshall Hotel in 2001 after a sad decline.
The Western Swing Society started in Sacramento in 1981, and Dean McKinney Moore served as the president for many years. The Western Swing Society is still active today and sponsors musical gigs.
There’s a Greystone Chapel here at Folsom
Technically, Folsom lays claim to the area’s most famous and awesome country music moment, but we are assuming possession nevertheless. Of course we’re talking about Johnny Cash’s wildly popular and gritty At Folsom Prison record from May 1968. This album was actually a comeback for Cash – he was a bit down on his luck before it came out, and that could be why he sang like a condemned man despite having never served time. June Carter (not yet Cash), the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins all played in the brig show. The musicians bunked at the El Rancho Motel (now The City of Dharma Realm in West Sac), where they also practiced, and rumor has it that then Governor Ronald Reagan stopped by to encourage them. There were two shows recorded, one at 9:30 AM and one at 12:30 PM so there was plenty of material to choose from for the LP. Nearly the entire album came from the early show when the singers were still fresh. The band played “Greystone Chapel” written by Glen Sherley, who was in Folsom at the time of the performance. Later in an interview Cash regretted calling attention to Sherley in front of the prison population.
Smile for a While and Let’s Be Jolly
Lynn Anderson was born in North Dakota, but wisely moved to Sacramento immediately. She started singing locally at age 10, spurred on, no doubt, by her country songwriting parents, Casey and Liz. Lynn Anderson was beautiful, with a great voice and sunshine-y personality. She rode her horse to Bella Vista High School and in competitions. Before she hit it big, she spent time as a featured singer on KROY. Someone even named a rose that grows best in the Sacramento area after her.
Anderson’s biggest hit was “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden,” which crossed over to the pop charts. This hit was written by her mother Liz Anderson, who also wrote “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” – Merle Haggard’s first #1 hit, which topped the charts in 1967. Johnny Cash had a hard time selling his recording-in-prison-concept until after this song about a criminal charted; is it possible that “Fugitive” lead the way?