Merle Travis once said, "I get out a couple of Roy
Lanham albums and play them. Then I listen to some of my recorded efforts
and come up with this sort of remark: 'Dadblame, buddy, that's awful!'"
Travis, the father of the fingerpicking style that bears
his name, always minimized his own vast talents, but his comment on
Lanham's abilities is no exaggeration. Lanham, who has served the Sons
Of The Pioneers for 25 years, is only the second guitarist in the group's
entire 52-year history. What many western music fans don't realize,
however, is that Lanham is also a jazz guitarist of impeccable taste.
Few remember the Whippoorwills, the superb vocal/instrumental
group Lanham led in the '40s and '50s. Fewer still know of Lanham's
career in the studios. Mainstream jazz players have long admired his
masterful single-note improvisations and luxuriant chord-melodies done
in four-part harmony. Yet his two outstanding (and out-of-print) jazz
LPs were barely noticed.
Veteran western swing bandleader Hank Penny, another friend
of over 40 years, marvels at his versatility: "He could play single
string lead guitar, and play real funky on one chorus and play it in
full chords on the next chorus. And he wouldn't have to stop and think
and look down on his guitar neck."
Roy Howard Lanham was born in Corbin, in eastern Kentucky,
in 1923. His interest in guitar came early, and one of his first influences
was the obscure country player Harry C. Adams. "He was on WHAS
in Louisville," Roy explains. "He played acoustic and was
a good, snappy, fast country guitar player, although he played some
things like 'Sweet Georgia Brown.'"
Roy learned the rudiments of playing on his brother Arvil's
Stella guitar. "He was left-handed, and he saw I was going to learn,
so he strung it up right-handed," Roy recounts. "I got my
own guitar when I was about eight. It was a Cromwell, one of the first
arch-bodies that they had."
In the fall of 1939 he met Grandpappy And His Gang from
the popular Mid-Day Merry-Go Round on WNOX Radio in Knoxville, Tennessee,
When the group came through Corbin. "Grandpappy" was comedian
Archie Campbell, later of Hee-Haw fame. He invited Lanham to join the
group, and the guitarist began working on WNOX on October 19, 1939.
Moving to a larger radio station broadened Roy's musical
tastes, particularly when he met he Stringdusters, a WNOX pop/jazz quartet.
Its nucleus was guitarist Homer Haynes and mandolinist Jethro Burns,
whose skills as Django Reinhardt-influenced swing musicians were apparent
even then. "I would hear then on the air, and I loved what they
played," says Roy. "They copied the Hot Club Of France. I
would go home and try to play as good as I could."
The Stringdusters disbanded when Haynes and Burns left
to work as comedy duo Homer And Jethro. In 1940 Lanham formed a Stringdusters-like
group just before moving to WDOD in Chattanooga. In the band were mandolinist
Doug Dalton and guitarist Bynum Geouge. "I started out basically
as a rhythm player, copying Homer," he explains. They called it
the Fidgety Four, in anticipation of finding a bass player, and in Chattanooga
they picked up bassist Red Wooten.
Singer/composer Gene Austin heard the group and hired
them as part of his troupe, which was touring as a tent show. He changed
the group's name to the Whippoorwills because of the first line of his
classic composition "My Blue Heaven."
By then Roy had been impressed by Charlie Christian and
particularly by George Barnes, who was among the first jazz guitarists
to use an amplified instrument. "He played jazz and country tunes,"
states Lanham. "I just liked Barnes's ideas. Anybody else who played
the same notes would sound different, but I liked the sound he got out
of his amplifier. He played with a lot of authority."
The Whippoorwills briefly returned to Chattanooga but
left when Austin re-hired them to work in hotel ballrooms. Lanham modeled
the Whippoorwills' four-part vocal harmonies after a pop group called
the Merry Macs. "They sang like the Pied Pipers, Hi-Los, and the
Four Freshmen," he says. When they were in Cincinnati, Austin bought
the entire band new instruments. He paid $324.00 for Roy's blond Gibson
L-5, his "first good guitar."
When the Whippoorwills disbanded in October 1941, Lanham
went to Atlanta and joined the Shades Of Blue, a trio built around a
female pianist and blind steel guitarist Billy Galloway. "He played
like George Barnes on a single-neck steel," marvels Roy. "When
I took a chorus, he would play a bass line. We played all jazz."
Roy installed DeArmond pickup on his L-5 and bought a
Kalamazoo amp, his first electric setup. In Atlanta, he also met his
idol, George Barnes, who'd been drafted and assigned to Camp Wheeler,
Georgia. One night they jammed, and Hank Penny remembers, "Barnes
was so impressed with Roy's playing. Roy imitated him, and it just fascinated
George that somebody could do this thing so well." Atlanta guitarist
Sheldon Bennett piqued Roy's interest in chord-melodies. "He played
chord stuff in three parts," says Roy; "I added a fourth part.
I play most of my songs in four-part harmony."
In 1943 he returned to Cincinnati and joined 50,000-watt
WLW as a staff musician. He played guitar and bass with the station's
country and pop acts, which included Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, and Grandpa
Jones. His friendships with all three men lasted for decades. That same
year Syd Nathan, a local used record dealer, founded King Records (later
a major R&B label). Roy played with Hank Penny's band, the Plantation
Boys, when Nathan recorded the group in 1944. Lanham played on King
sessions until he left Cincinnati.
Some of his best work was on the Delmore Brothers' early
country boogie recordings for King, records that pointed the way to
rockabilly. "On 'Freight Train Boogie,' it's me and Jethro Burns,"
he says. That phenomenal solo features the two playing driving rhythm
against one another, at one point even quoting from Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's
Ball." "Jethro and I used those little licks that me and Doug
Dalton used with the Whippoorwills," Roy remembers. Lanham can
also be heard on such Delmore classics as "Hillbilly Boogie,"
"Steamboat Bill Boogie," and "Barnyard Boogie,"
as well as their more conventional country recordings. By that time
he also moved his DeArmond pickup assembly onto his newest guitar, a
blond Epiphone Emperor.
In 1945 Lanham was on Chet Atkins' first recordings for
the new Nahsville-based Bullet Records, done at Bucky Herzog's Cincinnati
studio. The A-side, the excellent after-hours number "Guitar Blues,"
featured a rhythm section and clarinet. "Chet Atkins And His All
He stayed in Cincinnati until late 1947 and moved to Dayton,
Ohio, where the Whippoorwills reorganized. Dalton returned, and three
new members joined: rhythm guitarist Gene Monbeck, bassist Dusty Rhodes,
and singer Juanita Vastine, known professionally as "Sweet Georgia
Brown." Their smooth vocal harmonies on both country and pop tunes
anticipated Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks by over 20 years. "When
Georgia joined us," he recalls, " she sang the lead, and we
had four-part instrumental and five-part vocal.
"What I thought was unique with the Whippoorwills,
and nobody was doing this, was talking country tunes and putting jazz
feeling behind them," He continues. "There'd be no really
bad country music today if all of the people who recorded played good
chords. But they oversimplify it."
Through 1948 and '49 they toured the Midwest and spent
a year in Springfield, Missouri, at KWTO Radio, before being called
to Los Angeles in 1950 to join the cast of western comedian Smiley Burnett's
transcribed (pre-recorded radio show. They did between 300 and 400 Burnette
shows and also worked on George Morgan's transcribed radio show in Springfield
and on Roy Rogers' tours.
Lanham was also doing one or two sessions a day. He began
a relationship with the Fabor and Abbott labels that lasted into the
'60s. He worked on Johnny Horton's and Jim Reeves' early Abbott sides,
including Reeves' hits "Mexican Joe" and "Bimbo",
and played on Mitchell Torok's hit "Caribbean." "Abbott's
president, Fabor Robinson, had me almost on a retainer," remembers
Lanham. "I used to arrange for his artists." He used his Epiphone
on an instrumental single for Radio, a Robinson subsidiary. Both "Klondike"
and the flipside, "Attitude," were rock-oriented. He also
played on Johnny Burnett's hit "Dreamin'" and on his brother
Dorsey Burnett's "Tall Oak Tree."
But the mid '50s were bittersweet. The Whippoorwills never
really caught on, and in 1955, after Cliffie Stone hired Roy to replace
Jimmy Bryant in the house band of the Hometown Jamboree television
show, they disbanded. On the show Roy played instrumental duets with
Speedy West, as Bryant had.
Lanham, who'd met Leo Fender in 1952, had abandoned hollowbody
instruments for Fenders by the mid '50s, when Leo gave him a Stratocaster.
"Since he gave me my first Fender guitar, I haven't played anything
else," he declares. And that loyalty to Leo has stretched through
Music Man and G&L instruments, both co-founded by Mr. Fender.
Roy also played a part in the career of the teen vocal
group the Fleetwoods. Bonnie Guitar, an Abbott artist and Seattle native,
discovered three Seattle high school students who'd recorded "Come
Softly To Me." They sang unaccompanied, with only car keys clanging
rhythm. Bonnie brought the tape to Roy in L.A. to see what he could
do with them.
"I tuned my regular guitar down - my E string down
to a C - and played a bass line," he details. "Then I played
little fills and rhythm to the tracks. I tuned all three of the overdubs
to their voices. "Mr. Blue's was the next thing we followed up
with, and I got Si Zentner to play trombone; we added a drummer, and
I did the same thing thing with 'Mr. Blue,' I tuned my guitar down for
a bass line and just played rhythm and fills."
Both songs, released on the L.A-based Dolton label, were
enormous pop hits in the post-Elvis era of 1959 and Dolton asked him
to do an album The Most exciting Guitar was recorded
at Western Recorders in Los Angeles in 1959 with Red Wooten and drummer
Earl Palmer. The songs ranged from "A Smo-o-th One" and Woody
Herman's bop classic "Lost Weekend" (which featured shimmering
chord-melodies) to "Steel Guitar Rag" and "Old Joe Clark."
On "These Foolish Things" Roy used Joe Maphis' Echosonic tape
His session work continued. In 1960 Lanham played on Loretta
Lynn's first recording, "Honky Tonk Girl," did western bandleader
Spade Cooley's final LP, and played on Ned Miller's hit "From A
Jack To A King." Then in the fall of 1961 Karl Farr, the Sons Of
The Pioneers' original guitarist, died during a performance. Farr, who
often played Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang-style jazz duets with his violinist
brother Hugh, was charter member. Roy joined the Pioneers that September.
He was not on unfamiliar ground. "Before I joined
the Sons Of The Pioneers, I did their albums," he says. "That
was me, Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, and Jimmy Wyble. We used three
or four guitars and played different rhythms. A couple of us would play
single-note things, and some things we did ensemble."
In 1962 he recorded The Fabulous Roy
Lanham for Sims Records at Western Recorders. This, too, mixed country
and jazz. Dusty Rhodes was added on rhythm guitar, Muddy Berry on drums,
and Red Wooten on bass. Between work with the Pioneers he demonstrated
Fender equipment, particularly at the NAMM (National Association of
Music Merchants) shows. "I'd represent Fender and play for all
the dealers," he recalls. "Barney Kessel would be there, and
Chet Atkins would be there for Gretsch. Homer And Jethro and I would
jam with Speedy West."
In 1961 and 1962 he re-introduced two legendary Fender
instruments: the Bass VI 6-string bass and the Jaguar. "I used
to do solos on the Bass VI, and I still have it. I wish they'd had it
out when I did 'Come Softly to me.' I still have the first Jaguar they
made. I introduced it in Chicago when it first came out."
Since the '60s Lanham has remained
with the Pioneers, serving as comedian and playing a brief country guitar
medley onstage. He still squeezed in occasional sessions throughout
the '60s, including some Monkees dates. The Pioneers now work in the
Missouri Ozarks during the summer and in Nevada in the winter, and Roy's
interest in jazz continues unabated. A whippoorwills reunion, however,
despite renewed interest in string jazz, isn't likely. "I think
the Whippoorwills are history," he reflects. "I was trying
to take good music and make it sell, and we just couldn't do it."
Lanham's explanation of his phenomenal technique is simple:
"I alternate between chord style and single-string style. I don't
use my pick when I'm playing chord style; I use my thumb and three fingers.
People ask me what happens to my pick when I go from a single-string
to a chord chorus. A lot of guys stick the pick in their mouth, but
I palm mine between my first two fingers.
"I used to play with a real stiff pick," he
continues, "but on the fast country things I do now, I use a thin
Fender pick. I'm using Fender light strings [with an unwound third]
on my G&L. I always used a wound third, up to the last couple of
years, but when I played chords I'd mash it out of tune. Now, with the
G&L, it plays in tune, like it has more vinegar." He also says
proudly that "my speed's almost like it was 40 years ago."
Roy also fingerpicks Travis-style, a legacy of his long
friendship with Merle. "Barney Kessel came out to our house in
the early '60s," he recalls. "He always told me, "Take
off your boots and hat, and you can be a great jazz player." He
wanted me to teach him the Travis-Atkins style, so I showed him the
basics of the thumb and fingers. He felt he needed to know that to be
a well-rounded guitar player."
Lanham owns two Music Man Stingrays (one with a Fender
Jaguar neck installed) and currently plays Leo's G&L electric. Everything
is stock, with one exception:"it had three knobs on there, and
Leo took one of them off, so I have just one for tone and one for volume.
It simplifies things, and it's better all the way around." He and
the rest of the Pioneers use Randall 2000 amplifiers.
Aside from Roy, few mainstream jazz-oriented players (save
Jimmy Bryant, Ed Bickert, and a couple of others) have favored solid
body instruments. "I can get jazz sound our of the solidbodies,"
he proclaims. "It's all in the tone, and a lot of times it's in
the picks, the tone on the amp, and the tone on the guitar. I keep the
Randall in the middle- everything set above 5- and it works out pretty
However, he has been looking at hollow-body instruments
again. "A Baptist preacher here in Missouri is a musician, and
I just played his Gibson ES-335 TD. It's a fine guitar, and I might
try to get hold of one of those. I don't know if it was just that particular
one or whether they're all good, but I really enjoyed it. It has a different
feel. Where I might fluff a note or two on my guitar, I wouldn't on
Among his other instruments is a Fender-style electric
with a curly maple body, built by a student at the Roberto-Venn Luthiery
School of Phoenix, which is run by Roy's friend Bob Venn. He also uses
a Fender Kingman acoustic with Fender medium strings. He is no fan of
effects, however. For a time he used a chorus, but he admits, "I'm
not using it anymore. I don't care for them."
Lanham had open-heart surgery in 1980, but was back onstage
within two months. In 1983 he went to Phoenix to work with pioneer steel
guitarist Bud Isaacs, Duane Eddy, Thumbs
Carllile, Jethro Burns, and fiddler Johnny Gimble, in an event Isaacs
called the Great American Jam, which he's trying to sell to cable TV.
More recently, he worked on the final LP by the late western swing bandleader
Tex Williams, of "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!(That Cigarette)" fame,
before Williams died in 1985. And he'd also like to record some jazz.
"I think I should get something out, "he concludes.
"if I did, I'd put out some real good ballads, like Johnny Smith.
I still like to play. I've thought of putting out a Duke Ellington album-composition
like 'Prelude To A Kiss,''Caravan,' and things like that. And I'd like
to do an album with Chet Atkins."
From Guitar Player Magazine,
Vol 21, No. 3,
Article by: Rich Kienzle
Reproduced by permission of:
Rich Kienzle, author.
A SELECTED ROY LANHAM DISCOGRAPHY
Click here to purchase Roy Lanham CDs.
| Solo Albums:
Most Exciting Guitar, Dolton, BST 8009;
Fabulous Roy Lanham, Sims, 105.
| With the Sons Of The Pioneers:
Sons Of The Pioneers,
Bear Family (Eduard Grunow Strasse 12, 2800
Bremen 1, West Germany), BFX 15071;
20 Of The Best Of The Sons Of The Pioneers,
British RCA, NL 89525.
| With others:
Rompin' Stompin' Singin' Swingin',
Bear Family, BFX 15102;
| The Fleetwoods:
The Fleetwoods' Greatest Hits,
| Ginny Wright:
| Tom Tall:
Hot Rod Is Her Name,
| Spade Cooley:
Roulette/Murray Hill, 25145.