Eighty years of hope and harmony, faith and family.
Eighty years of what American roots music titan Marty Stuart calls “Unbreakable, steady, unmovable, truth.”
Eighty years that have brought accolades and honors for a group that began singing on local radio in 1935, and that went on to play Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Grand Ole Opry.
Eighty unparalleled years with the same patented, instantly identifiable sound for the Chuck Wagon Gang, and momentum continues to build. Some say that’s really no surprise.
“This group was designed for the ages,” Stuart asserts. “For the eternal ages.”
Stuart penned each song on the Chuck Wagon Gang’s latest album, Meeting in Heaven, and he is among the choir of celebrated figures who praise the history, legacy, and contemporary relevance of the Gang in America’s Gospel Singers, The Legacy Lives On, the documentary film that aired on PBS, beginning in the fall of 2015.
When farmer D.P. ‘Dad” Carter formed the group in 1935, with son, Ernest, and daughters Lola and Effie, he could not have conceived of PBS documentaries, or of fan letters from presidents. Dad was simply looking for a way to spread the good word, and a way to buy medicine for Effie, who was sick with pneumonia.
The group found work on a small, Lubbock, Texas radio station. Word soon spread about the group’s harmonies, well-spaced and emphatic, and on November 25 and 26th of 1936, the Chuck Wagon Gang was recording for the American Record Corporation, run by now-famed producers Don Law and Art Sathery. In short time, the Gang’s contract and master recordings were purchased by Columbia Records, a company with which they ultimately recorded 408 masters.
On Columbia, the Chuck Wagon Gang became what WSM air personality, music historian, and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs calls, “America’s foremost country-gospel singers.” They sold millions of records and songbooks, enduring numerous personnel changes while retaining ties to the original quartet. Current owner, manager, and alto singer Shaye Smith is the granddaughter of original alto Anna (“Effie”) Carter and of Howard Gordon, who played deft and discreet electric and acoustic guitar for the Chuck Wagon Gang in the 1950s and ‘60s. The quartet still performs with accompaniment from only one guitar, now played by bass-singing Jeremy Stephens.
“Singing Chuck Wagon Gang music, there’s nothing to hide behind, and nothing to lean on,” Smith says. “It’s bare-bones, just voices and guitar, and that’s what creates that unique sound. It’s like the hard beginnings they all came from: Raw and tough, and you have to put it all out there.”
In today’s Chuck Wagon Gang, Smith and Stephens are joined by sonorous soprano Julie Hudson, and by tenor Stan Hill, who remembers lying in bed as a child, listening to Chuck Wagon Gang records while he was supposed to be sleeping. Hill was far from the only musically inclined child to draw inspiration from the Gang.
“(Hearing them) set all of the wheels in motion for me,” said Duane Allen of Country Music Hall of Fame quartet the Oak Ridge Boys. “I wanted to sing in a four-part harmony group like that.” Each Chuck Wagon Gang member is a student of music history, fully aware of the legacy they uphold together, in harmony.
“The history is part of what makes us unique, and it’s a story that needs to be told,” Smith says. “This never would have started at all if my grandma hadn’t gotten sick. This story started out of crisis. It’s one of those good old American survival stories: Work hard, come out of the pit… it’s an encouraging story.”
That story, and this music, has moved Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, and generations of gospel singers and open-eared listeners. For eighty years, the Chuck Wagon Gang has offered hope and harmony, faith and family.
“Life moves on hope,” says Dan Rather, the legendary broadcaster who has been a Chuck Wagon Gang fan since childhood. For him, and for many more, the group is “an echo of an America that was, and a reminder of how important the values of that America remain.”