By Tom Maxwell
If you happened to be in Houston in the late 1930s, and stepped nimbly in between the signboards on Main Street, you would have found yourself in the middle of a couple dozen tall, waving marijuana plants. Smokey Wood planted them there, for his own refreshment. There’s a reason they called the man Smokey.
Smokey Wood was a rock star before rock and roll was invented. A committed pot head, he had no trouble lighting up on stage. He slept on the tour bus and spent all his money on weed. He was a grifter, a confidence man and a proto-hippie. He’d borrow gear, only to turn around and sell it. He’d skip town wearing other people’s clothes. He was a solid, if unremarkable, piano player with a nasally, conversational singing voice. The small, subculture band he led played high-energy dance music. Their enthusiasm was infectious.
The group, the best known of Wood’s many bands, was the Modern Mountaineers. Ferocious drinkers in their teens and twenties, they played with fire in their bellies. They desegregated their music, combining hillbilly and jazz influences seamlessly. Unburdened by ambition, Smokey Wood almost completely stopped recording by the 1940s. He died forty years ago. It’s high time for a reexamination of his life and work.
Smokey Wood circa 1930s
John Bryce Wood was born in Harrison, Arkansas on September 16, 1918. His father was a railroad engineer, his mother played piano. He grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Houston in 1935.
The band the teenage Wood brought to Texas was called the Oklahoma Playboys. According to Wood’s writings, his next outfit, named the Blue Ridge Playboys, “Enjoyed about nine or ten months of good musical fellowship.”
Still, Smokey wasn’t satisfied. “Decided to reorganize on my own,” he wrote, “so started the Georgia Flyers, a commonwealth group. I served to tender some leadership with the aid of a very congenial personnel. We moved to radio station KTRH, where, at the suggestion of Harry Greer, station manager, we changed to Modern Mountaineers.”
Radio station KTRH Houston
The Modern Mountaineers were a new generation of young musicians no longer bound by geography. They devoured records made by black jazz bands from New York and Chicago – giants of the piano like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson, clarinet master Benny Goodman (who was white and Jewish, but owned the idiom), and singers Joe Williams and Billie Holiday – and added those sounds to an eclectic mix of influences. (They also loved early American songster Stephen Foster, who may have preceded them by a century but still knew a good tune when he heard it.)
The 1930s was an era of small bands; groups composed of five to seven members, each the sole representative of his instrument. Blues and gospel was the emotional heart of early jazz, and enthusiasm was generally prized more than technique. This music was the forerunner of rock, and every bit as much an inspiration to the youngs and a threat to the olds.
Even without a drummer, the Modern Mountaineers were all rhythm: piano, banjo, acoustic guitar and string bass formed most of the band, with steel guitar, saxophone and fiddle taking the leads.
Jazz pianist extraordinaire Fats Waller
Smokey Wood, by this time known as The Houston Hipster, idolized Fats Waller. He may not have had Waller’s powerful left hand on the piano – who did? – but the Modern Mountaineers’ recordings have the same striding bounce, like an old tour bus with bad shocks. Later, Wood would assume Waller’s unique vocal phrasing perhaps a little too much, but not in those first recordings.
Saxophonist Hal Herbert had a fat tone, like his hero Chu Berry. He must have also been aware of Lester Young, who recorded both with Basie and Holiday. Herbert’s tenor saxophone hung on the wall of a chicken house. “I washed the chicken mess off that thing,” he remembered, “and I never had a case for it.”
Fiddler JR Chatwell had clearly listened to jazz violinist Joe Venuti. Nobody, except Michel Warlop, who cut some incendiary records with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, could flamethrow like that. When Ray finishes a Modern Mountaineers solo with a double-stop run, it’s like tossing a calling card on the table. Country fiddlers didn’t go there.
Not unusual, at least for the “territory bands” from Texas and Oklahoma, was the small amplifier used for J.C. Way’s steel guitar on the Mountaineers’ records. Amplified electric guitars wouldn’t become standard until Charlie Christian popularized the style a few years later. Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and heavily influenced by the single-note soloing of tenor players like Berry and Young, Christian recorded with Goodman’s sextet in the late 30s and early 1940s. He created his own angular sound, opening the door for harder swing and bop. (Goodman, for his part, was less interested in color than quality, and led one of the first desegregated bands of the era, hiring Christian, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.) Still, the so-called “Western Swing” bands were using amplification well before Charlie Christian, as evidenced by Bob Dunn’s distorted soloing on 1934’s “Taking Off,” recorded by Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies. The steel guitar would remain a fixture of country music and western swing, even having a hand in the beginnings of rock and roll: Billy Williamson played steel for Bill Haley & His Comets, of “Rock Around The Clock” fame. His steel solo is featured on the band’s clunky 1951 cover of Jackie Brenston’s proto-rock song “Rocket 88.”
Johnny Thames played tenor banjo for the Modern Mountaineers, keeping a Stephen Foster jangle under the jazz. The tenor has four strings, unlike the five of the bluegrass variety. Tenor banjos were popular with black and white bands – Duke Ellington’s early sides featured one, and so did Milton Brown. Thames, together with guitarist Lefty Groves and bassist Rip Ramsey formed the propulsive, not-terribly-tight rhythm section.
It’s not hard to understand why these young Southerners were listening to this wonderful jazz music, but the fact that they adopted those sounds as their own prevented them from joining the local Houston musician’s union, which only recognized two kinds of music: hillbilly and pop. No matter: the band booked club dates and performed on radio station KTRH.
Then Bill Boyd came from Dallas and took an interest. Boyd had a hit two years before with “Under the Double Eagle,” a western swing take on a John Phillips Sousa march, with his band the Cowboy Ramblers. He heard the Mountaineers and booked them for a recording session. Boyd was signed to Bluebird, Fats Waller’s record label. A subsidiary of RCA, Bluebird was a budget label, specializing in jazz, blues and country music. As it happened, the Modern Mountaineers incorporated all three styles, and Boyd must have thought they were worth taking the chance.
The session took place in San Antonio on March 1, 1937. Smokey Wood and the Modern Mountaineers cut ten sides in the Texas Hotel, not far from the San Antonio Hotel, where blues legend Robert Johnson had made his first recordings the previous year.
One song in particular, “Everybody’s Truckin’,” is emblematic of everything about the band – its influence, its firepower, and its transgressive heart. The song opens with Smokey, playing a Wallerian introductory riff, before Herbert takes an extended lead on tenor sax. Behind him, Chatwell keeps a running commentary on fiddle, and Way comes in with the occasional swoop on steel guitar.
Then Smokey sings in his laconic drawl. You can hear echoes of Fats there too – especially when he invites the sidemen to solo – but Wood is still, for the time being, his own man. Like Waller, he has a conversational tenor. Neither man was considered a “proper” singer, which is just as well: It means they don’t sound dated to modern ears. Smokey is clearly the vocal parent to later artists like Bob Dorough and Mose Allison. Allison wrote “Young Man Blues” in 1957, better known by The Who’s iconic cover. Dorough was a direct influence on Mose, and also wrote songs for Schoolhouse Rock, including “Three Is A Magic Number.” Both men turned their Southern idiosyncrasies to their advantage. It was a door to musical success that Smokey had already kicked open.
The Fornication Fox Trot smash hit of 1937
“Everybody’s Truckin’” is not a groundbreaking song. It’s certainly inspired by Fats Waller’s “Truckin’” from 1935, about a Harlem dance craze.It was more unusual to have a bunch of white boys in Texas give a shout-out to Cab Calloway both in the lyric and their song’s call and response style. But it’s what Smokey Wood sings that is so, well, revolutionary. His vocal comes in right after the tenor solo:
Everybody’s singing and truckin’
Everybody’s swinging and fuckin’
Everybody’s doin’ it now
Go listen. It’s unambiguous.
“That [song] kinda got knocked off the juke boxes,” Hal Herbert said later. “Somebody wasn’t saying ‘truckin’.’ Ever listen close? That Smokey – I tell you, he was crazy.”
Because of his nasal delivery and pothead unreliability, Smokey was forced out of the Modern Mountaineers. They stumped along without him for a year or two. He cut a few more sides at the end of 1937 with a pickup band called the Wood Chips, this time sounding more like Fats Waller and less like Smokey Wood. Then he dropped off the face of the earth to play desultory shows, con people out of clothes and musical equipment, tour the carnival circuit, run a flea market, raise fighting cocks, paint, and grow pot in an old barn.
The last time Hal Herbert saw him, decades later, they jammed like old times: “just sax and vibes – played about fifteen hours in a laundry in Pasadena, Texas. I wish I’d taped it.” By this time, Wood was drinking heavily and overweight. He died of heart failure on January 6, 1976.
“The most amazing thing happened at the funeral,” remembered colleague Bill Mounce. “[Smokey] left some music in a trunk – “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Sleepy Time Down South” …he wanted that played at the funeral. Well, there wasn’t fifteen people there, I don’t guess. I’d taken this music back to the lady in the back, and she said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t play music like that! I play church music.’”
“I said, ‘Well, okay,’ and I just left it there and went out in front. It started – and the swingingest organ music you ever heard started playing. I said to the secretary of the union, ‘Man that ol’ gal was sure putting me on, wasn’t she?’”
But Church Lady wasn’t playing the organ, as Mounce found out when he went back to see a male musician making the racket. “I said, ‘What in the hell?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m up here just trying to sell an organ. I was listening to this lady, and she said, ‘Would you play this for me?’ And I just sat down and started playing. I sold ‘em a good organ, too.’”
The Modern Mountaineers never charted, and their recordings weren’t collected on one album until the early 1980s. More polite bands, like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, defined western swing. (Bob once asked Smokey to build a band around his father, fiddler Uncle John Wills. They got so trashed before one gig that Uncle John thought they were broadcasting. “Quiet, Bob,” Wills told his son. “We’re on the air.”)
Uncle John and Bob Wills
Smokey Wood made some good records, did what he damn well pleased, and died in obscurity. Along the way, he broke a lot of musical ground, just by listening to what he liked, then playing what he heard.
Tom Maxwell a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers from 1994 to 1999 and wrote their top-20 hit “Hell.” After leaving the Zippers, he composed music for movies and television, pursued a solo career with his band Tom Maxwell & the Minor Drag and has written for Salon, The Oxford American, Our State, Southern Cultures, College Music Journal and The Indy Weekly and authored the memoir Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Visit him at tommaxwell.com.