Smokey Dacus, original drummer with Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, is credited as the first to play drumset in a country band. Modern Drummer founder/publisher Ron Spagnardi chose to not publish my interview with Smokey Dacus as a feature. Ron’s decision remains one of very few regrets from my MD days. If memory serves, only key points from the Dacus interview were included in the Country Drummers segment of my feature MD series, A History of Rock n Roll Drumming. The remainder of that interview is one of many manuscripts in a box in my closet.
[SKF NOTE: I did find the Smokey Dacus transcript. It is now available on this blog starting here.]
Smokey was in his early 80’s, I believe, when I interviewed him by phone. He and a few other original members of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys were making a comeback of sorts, touring a bit, and recording new music on an independent Texas label.
When Bob Wills asked Smokey to play drums in the new Texas swing band he was putting together, Smokey said he thought Wills was crazy. Country bands just didn’t use drummers. To his credit, Smokey agreed to join the band. Then he ran into another challenge: what to play. No one else was doing what Smokey was doing. His first role model, Smokey told me, was drummer Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. But Greer’s style of drumming wasn’t quite right for the Texas Playboys.
Smokey’s signature style came about by accident at a gig in a huge arena similar to the venue pictured in this YouTube video. The pianist and upright bassist kept playing for the dancers while the rest of the Texas Playboys took a break. Smokey walked to the other side of the arena. From that spot, he said, the only thing he – and the dancers – could hear was the bassist slapping his bass strings on the backbeats, the 2 and 4 beats. No one, he realized, could hear the Greer-like wire brush playing and snare drum press rolls Smokey had been playing. That gave Smokey an idea.
When he returned to his drumset, he picked up one drumstick and one wire brush. He used the stick for keeping time on his cymbal and hi-hat. Smokey used the wire brush to play backbeats on his snare drum. He also played drums sitting on his trap case – a container on wheels, like a big suitcase made of strong, thin material used to store the snare drum and the drumset’s metal hardware. Smokey said when he needed a backbeat accent louder than his wire brush on his snare, he would bring his drumstick off the cymbal and smack the stick on the backbeats against the side of his trap case.
“I looked like I was riding a horse!” he laughed.
And that’s the story of one of the great innovations, by one of the great innovators, in drumset history.
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