Vintage Guitar Magazine 7/96
by Jim Hilmar

The Whippoorwills
Sizzling Strings

This month's column features the superb instrumental skills of a truly outstanding group of players. This versatile group of musicians regularly handled an amazing eclectic repertoire. From pop-flavored ballads like "Blue Raindrops" and "Tweedle O' Twill," to western songs like "Skyball Paint" and "Prairie Echoes," to cool bluesy tunes like "Trouble, Trouble" and "Hard Life Blues," to folk/country classics like "Arkansas Traveler" and "Alabamy Bound," and of course great jazz/big band instrumentals like "Air Mail Special," "Eager Beaver," and "On The Alamo" - these folks could handle it with ease! If outstanding close harmony-style vocal groups, like the Hi-Los or The Manhattan Transfer were also virtuoso stringed instrumentalists, you'd have a group like the subjects of this month's "Spotlight."

In the late 1930s, Roy Lanhm (a future country-jazz guitar genius) was a budding teen-aged guitarist. At the tender age of 16 or so, Roy joined comedian Archie Campbell's group (known at that time as Grandpappy And His Gang) and began playing on WNOX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee. At WNOX, Roy met "Homer" Haynes and "Jethro" Burns of The Stringdusters. The Stringdusters creative blend of pop/swing and Django Reinhardt-style jazz captivated young Roy.

In 1940, Roy formed the precursor to The Whippoorwills - The Fidgety Four. And interestingly enough, The Fidgety Four began as a trio. The original three members in The fidgety Four included founder Roy Lanham (leader/guitar/vocal), Bynum Geouge (pronounced "googe" as in scrooge - on guitar/vocal) and Doug Dalton (mandolin/vocal). Future Whippoorwill member Dusty Rhodes told me the reason the Four were fidgety was because they were constantly looking for a fourth member.  And that original fourth member was  bassist/guitarist Red Wootten, who was added when Roy, Bynum and Doug moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to work on WDOD radio.

When The Fidgety Four began working with singer Gene Austin and his revue, he christened them "The Whippoorwills" after the memorable like "When the whippoorwills call..." from Gene's huge circa 1927 hit "My Blue Heaven." World War II interrupted The Fidgety Four/Whippoorwills career. During of the 1940s, Roy played jazz in Atlanta (where he met his idol, George Barnes) and later performed on WLW radio in Cincinnati, as a staff guitarist. While at WLW, he met many country players/performers that would go on to stardom, including Merle Travis, Joe Maphis and Hank Penny. He also got his first taste of studio work, appearing on many King Records sides, including most of the classic Delmore Brothers "boogie" songs. About this time he recorded at least one record for London Records with a group called The Tennessee Jaybirds.

In late 1947, Roy moved to Dayton, Ohio and reorganized The Whippoorwills. Bassist/vocalist Donald "Dusty" Rhoads, vocalist Juanita Vastine (known as "Sweet Georgia Brown") and rhythm guitarist/ vocalist Gene Monbeck joined Roy and Doug Dalton to form the classic Whippoorwills lineup, whose members were all Ohio and Kentucky natives. This lineup remained intact until the late 1950s.

In 1950, Roy's friend, and fellow WLW alum, Merle Travis (who had really hit it big in Los Angeles) convinced The Whippoorwills to come west. This marked the start of a very active phase for the band. The Whippoorwills recorded at l east two records co-billed with Merle: "Trouble, Trouble"/"El Reno" (recorded in July, 1950, and originally issued on Capitol 45 F1241) and: "Hunky-Dory"/"If You Want IT, I've got it" (issued on Capitol 45 F3247). They also backed Merle on a number of other sides as well. They performed as regular cast members on Smiley Burnette's pre-recorded radio show.

IN 1952, The band "subbed" for The Sons of the Pioneers on the Lucky U radio show (heard on ABC radio), which earned them a lot of exposure. Unfortunately, despite significant exposure, a loyal group of fans and an extremely high level of musicianship, the group (who recorded at least one single, "Blue Raindrops" / "I Must Have Holes In My Head" on Vita Records #1005) never caught on in a big way and by the late- '50s The Whippoorwills disbanded.

This month's "Spotlight" LP is an exceptional all-instrumental effort. Recorded circa 1958 in a "demo studio" in Los Angeles, Sizzling Strings features some top notch playing by The Whippoorwills - which at this time included Roy Lanham (guitar), Doug Dalton (mandolin), Dusty Rhoads (bass) and Jimmie Widener (who replaced Gene Monbeck on rhythm guitar.) This was an impressive lineup.

As noted earlier, Roy Lanham (who passed away in 1991) was one of the finest country-jazz guitarists ever. Doug Dalton picked a very swingin'). And the rock solid rhythm section of Dusty Rhoads and Jimmie Widener had a superb playing credentials. Like Roy, both Dusty and Jimmie were active studio players. Dusty was a guitar player first (he owned/used a Stromberg) and like Roy Lanham, was a huge fan of George Barnes. Dusty also sang with Merle Travis on Merle's Capitol Records hit "Re-Enlistment Blues" (from the classic movie From Here To Eternity), and at one time roomed with country/jazz guitar/fiddle giant Jimmy Bryant.

As a bass player, Dusty would go on to work with jazz/studio guitar giants Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts on numerous recording dates. And Jimmie Widener's background is no less impressive. Starting in 1942, he spent seven years with Bob Wills, a year or so with Spade Cooley and eight years with Tex Williams. And Jimmie had quite a career in the southern California recording studios. He and Bill Strange were two of the most in-demand rhythm guitarists of the late 1040s and '50s. Jimmie worked numerous sessions for Columbia, RCA and Capitol Records - including backing Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant on killer tunes like "The Night Rider" and "Shuffleboard Rag."

By the time Sizzling Strings was recorded, The Whippoorwills had been playing many of the songs on this LP for years. And it shows in the quality of the erformances. All of the material on this wonderful LP features sterling arrangements with effective use of dynamics, main melodies (whether solo or close harmony) that are impeccably played, solo segments that are traded effortlessly and a rhythm section that both anchors and powers these tunes right along. As far as string bands go, I can't imagine it getting much better than this, unless of course, Homer and Jethro sat in with Roy, Doug, Dusty and Jimmie.

"Summit Ridge Drive" opens Sizzling Strings and it's cool bluesy number. Close harmony melody work from Roy and Doug, combined with the tight rhythm work of Dusty (a huge pulsing bass line), and Jimmie (his "fours" function like a snare drum at times) make for some very fine listening. And Roy's trademark four-part harmony chord backing is very cool. "Stomping At The Savoy" starts with a bit of a hoedown intro and then switches to a tasty, swinging hillbilly jazz number. Doug handles the lead line while Jimmie strums some big time fours all the way through. Near the end of this one, there's some nice mandolin/guitar close harmony work. "Sophisticated Swing" is relaxed and oh-so-tasty. Jimmie's big percussive rhythm guitar work (played on an Epiphone Emperor bought for him in 1946 by Bob Wills) and the sparse and tasty mandolin and guitar solos make this one I could listen to all day long.

An exceptional version of Les Paul's often-covered "Lover" features some mind-blowing tempo changes recorded with out special tape effects. The band marches through a standard tempo, then a double-time segment, and then takes the double-time tempo and pushes it to a dizzying speed. In fact, Jimmie told me that they had some problem with the final ultra up-tempo segment, so they took a break and went out for a few drinks. When they came back the engineer queued the tape and they nailed it. (in fact, Jimmie told me that the rhythm parts on his LP were some of the most demanding he's ever played. So demanding that his wrists ached!)

"TeaForTwo" is totally swinging! Doug takes the lead line with some fine chord comping from Roy. And they join up for some tasty close harmony work on the bridge. And of course there's a big time rhythm section push. "Air Mail Special" gets a first-rate, rousing rendition. This one is loaded with cool picking, energy and drive. There's fine close harmony work stunning solo work and Dusty and Jimmie powering everything along. "If I Had You" is a real favorite of mine. This tasty ballad is a very fine melody. And the ending on this one is cool - a series of descending chords courtesy of Jimmie and his Epiphone. Very, very fine!

"Slipped Disc" is another song with a very catchy melody. More close harmony work from Roy and Doug gives way to some neat solo trading. Doug's solo is especially tasty. Stan Kenton's "Eager Beaver" gets a superb toe tappin' treatment. Doug's lead line and solo work is as sparse and tasty as it gets. And Dusty's "bubbling" bass line applies just the right amount of rhythmic push.

Here's an update on several members of The Whippoorwills who are still with us:

Dusty Rhoads is very active and always pickin'. He's still a working bassist (primarily a jazz player, until 1994 he played with the late jazz guitar great Lloyd Ellis) and he constantly performs in the New Orleans/Mobile/Pensacola music circuit. Doug Dalton has battled some serious health problems but is still alive and pickin'. He's retired and occasionally picks that mandolin of his with groups in the Dayton, Ohio area. Juanita "Sweet Georgia Brown" Vastine(what a wonderfully smooth/sweet voice) is nearly 80 now. She lives in Ohio. Jimmie Widener (who's also had some health problems) is retired on a 40-acre ranch in Oklahoma. He still plays with The Texas Playboys. Original Fidgety Four member Red Wootten lives in California.

For more information on Roy Lanham see my "Spotlight" in the June '94 issue of VG.

Sizzling Strings is available (in MONO) on NRC Records LP LPA-6.

The author listens to a wide range of musical styles, but his special interests are in the instrumental jazz, "cowboy jazz," and country vien. Steel guitar, too. Some of Jim's favorite artists include Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland, The Collins Kids, Jerry Byrd, Duane Eddy, George Benson, Marty Stuart, Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton, Joe Maphis, Jimmy Bruno, Roy Lanham, Howard Roberts, Buddie Emmons, Gary Potter and others in the jazz and country styles. If any of these artists interests you, or if you're interested in guitar music in general, feel free to write to

Jim Hilmar
7903 18th Ave SW,
Seattle, Wa. 98106
(206)767-7840

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