Smokey Dacus: Pioneer of Western Swing Drumming: Pt. 3
by Scott K Fish
SKF: When you say you are the first drummer in country music — that’s literally true? There were no country bands per se….
SD: No! There was nobody using the drums. They didn’t need it.
Well, see, in those days, Scott, there was no such thing as a drummer’s throne. You had a hell of a time. You had these folding cane chairs that you had to get, an empty Coca-Cola crate, or something to sit on. Well, I always sit on my trap case.
As Bob’s band enlarged it got a little harder to really do all that needed to be done with a sock cymbal and a brush in my left hand. Whether my right hand was playing on the sock or not — it still wasn’t there. I had to step up a notch. Well, in my system I was playing I couldn’t quite step up. So I would take my right hand, turn my stick around, hold it by the little end, and with the butt end of that stick I would slap [my] trap case right down to the right of me where I sit. Well, that made the same racket that the bass fiddle made when he slapped it, except mine was a damn sight more potent than his.
SKF: You were hitting on 2 and 4?
SKF: Instead of using your snare drum?
SD: I hit the snare too.
SKF: Snare and trap case together?
SD: Yeah. But I had to augment it a little bit. So I turned that stick over, hit my snare with the brush on 2 and 4, and hit that trap case [with my stick] on 2 and 4. I looked like I was riding a galloping horse going ninety miles an hour! But I guarantee you could feel it, you could hear it, for a half-a-mile.
One emcee at a Nashville event introduced me by saying, “Here’s the guy that invented suitcase rhythm.”
SKF: What kind of drumset did you record with in the studio?
SD: I’ll give you this example: When we did the album in 1973 — which was for the last time. That was when Bob had his last stroke, Scott. I didn’t have any drums. This kid from out of Big Springs, Texas brought his drums over there for me to play.
I was sitting there in Sumet-Burnet Recording Studio in Dallas. I set up his bass [drum] and one cymbal. I said, “Look, son, it don’t take much drums to play rhythm.” He said, “You mean you’re not going to use anything but the bass and the sock?” I said, “Hell, that’s all you need.”
And I played with both brushes on the sock. With both brushes. Then I would change and pick up a stick on the closed sock. That’s all I was playing on! Just sitting there playing real easy. This kids said, “Well, ain’t nobody going to hear you.” I said, “That’s what he’s [recording engineer] got knobs for in yonder.”
I recorded everything Bob ever made from 1935 to 1941. Every one of them. Fiddle tunes and all. You don’t have to beat your brains out in a recording studio.
SKF: How was it different in the studio in 1935-41 compared with today? For awhile you couldn’t record with a bass drum in the studio, right?
SD: Well, yeah, you could if they had a crapper [?] about 40 feet from the microphone. Because we had one microphone out in front for the whole band. The only way you balanced it was the proximity to that microphone.
If you had to sing — you got up to it. Leon played his Dobro guitar about belt level. When it come time for Leon to take a chorus he moved out front to this one microphone. Bob let it down for him, put the microphone right over top his steel guitar. [Leon] played his chorus, then he moved back. Bob would raise the microphone and Tommy Duncan [would] sing. If fiddles played, they went to the microphone. Everybody went to the microphone because you couldn’t bring the microphone to them.
In a recording studio then, the bass fiddle had to get back about 20-feet in whatever corner they could get him. And I got just [as] far as I could. Then I would put a quilt or something over the bass [drum]. Of course, I learned from the first recording session like that. Immediately afterwards I took the front head off of my bass drum. Because all bass drums had two head then.
SKF: Just to clarify, what year was this, Smokey?
SD: ’35. When I got back home I took the front head off of my bass drum. I went down to S.H. Kress & Co. and bought me a 36 square yard of this heavy muslin. Then I put it over [the front of my bass drum], put the head back on, put the rim back on, and tightened it down. Took a pair of scissors and trimmed it off. Okay. All you got then was thup. You didn’t get any ring. That worked pretty good. So I took the back head off and put [muslin] on it.
SKF: Did you play your bass drum wide open in concerts?
SD: Oh yeah. Sure. But you had to stop the ring in a recording session.
SKF: How about tuning with calf drumheads?
SD: [SKF NOTE: Smokey tells me he also played tympani with the TU Symphony.] You buy tympani in sets: an E and F. Okay, so now I was involved with tones and tuning and frequencies. I wasn’t that technical about it. There’s just some things I do, basically.
I always kept my bass drum tune to G. Basic reason for that is, that’s the one string on the bull fiddle [the bass player] will hit more times than he’ll hit anything else. I wold tune my snare, as close as you could tune a snare, to F. And tune it from a frequency rather than a tonal standpoint. So I tuned them like that and played them that way all the time.
SKF: [SKF NOTE: I asked Smokey if he ever had to contend with drums that had non-tunable calfskin heads on the bottom. He misunderstood my question. I think he thought I was asking about snare drums. Smokey’s answer about gut snares vs wire snares is interesting, so I didn’t interrupt him.]
SD: You take them damn [gut snares] off , you go to Jenkins Music Store and you buy a set of these little round wire snares, see? Then it didn’t make a damn what you did to the bottom head. You’re still going to get the same sound. You take the gut snares off, throw them away, put a set of wire ones on.
SKF: You didn’t like gut snares?
SD: No. Because we played in an armory — which is not what you’d call acoustically efficient — and [there was] a hell of downpour of rain outside. When I patted my foot on the [calfskin] bass drum [head] it would go anywhere from four- to six-inches and come back. But if you hit a snare it was kind of like hitting a wet blanket. If you kept tightening it during the night, then you damn sure better undo it before you put it in the trap case. If you don’t, you get back home and the next day it would be busted.
SKF: Right. The heads stretch.
SD: You’d better believe. So, you could allow that looseness with the little twisted coiled wire snares underneath it and still get away with it.
SKF: How did you become familiar with symphony music? Did you have a teacher when you were a kid?
SD: No. The only lesson I ever had in my life I gave myself.
When I was in junior high school, they had a high school band. They got to go with the football team. They’d go 20 miles over to Poplar City [???] —which was a hell of a trip. On a couple of occasions they went about 80 miles down to Oklahoma City. That was something else!
I figured there was some way I could learn to play in the band I could go on trips with the football team. I mentioned when I was 11-years old I learned to play on a 5-string banjo. But I was playing by ear. I knew when it was right and when it was wrong, but I didn’t know what the notes were. So I sent off to Sears & Roebuck and bought a $12.50 banjo.
I made a remark or two earlier that I wasn’t too crazy about banjos. But the reason why I ordered the damn thing is I got a $2.50 instruction book — free! It was the instruction book I wanted.
So, I took that thing and learned the notes, what I was playing, and the hardest thing for a percussionist — drummer — to play: the rest. The rest is what’s hard. I taught myself to read. I didn’t like that banjo, so I discovered I could take a [four string] tenor guitar, tune it like a banjo, and play just like I was playing the banjo. Only the sound was a hell of a lot better to me.
When I was in junior high school there was a boy that played an E-flat Bass Horn — about 8,000 yards of gas pipe that you blow through. His sister played piano. We got us a little band together. Then I got a job playing snare drum in the high school band. The bandleader wanted to have a high school orchestra. To do that you had to have what they called a trap set. Somebody’s got to play the bass and a set of traps, and I could play them. So I played snare drum in the high school band I traps in the high school orchestra.
Well, the first dang thing I know I got an offer to come up to Eagles Hall and play a dance. One night I was up there playing. I think I was about a junior in high school. My dad wasn’t too fond about that. I was playing with this old man, his wife, and somebody else. We’d play one square dance, one round dance, one Rye waltz, and one Schottish. We’d play a round like that all night long. Never played two round dances together or nothing.
So I got a job and I got paid for it. But my dad found out that I was playing up at Eagles Hall. Well, about 10:30 my dad come a walking in, got me by the damned ear, off the bandstand and led me right out that front door, downstairs, and home! That was the most embarrassing moment in my life. I was playing, I was professional, I was getting paid — and my dad got me by the ear and took me home. But I had been playing in high school quite a bit.
SKF: When did you start noticing more drummers being used in country music?
SD: Well, I don’t know how to say this because everything I’m telling you is exactly the way it was! I thought Bob had lost his mind and so did everybody else. But what Bob knew that none of the rest of us really paid any attention to — the people didn’t really dance to the piano, or the fiddle. They danced to the rhythm!
As Leon MacAuliffe tells it, Bob said he had a good band playing good together, but he needed a little more oomph for the people to dance to. So he hired me!
Well, in spite of what everybody thought, including me, it was the right way to go if you’re going to play dances. And, of course, with Bob Wills I played more Dixieland rhythm. I played on the beat and with the bass fiddle with my right foot. And with my sock, my snare, and my hand I played on the 2 and 4. When you had a hell of a strong first and third beat going out there, and you had a hell of a strong second and fourth beat…. Sometimes we played to as many as 5,000 people. And the halls were a block long. You couldn’t really hear the music, but you could feel the beat. And that’s what they danced to: the beat. So it turned out that, hell, Bob was right.
SKF: The Bob Wills band varied between 13 and 20 musicians right?
SD: Well, we started with eight. Then you kept adding. [Bob would] add one because he knew what he wanted to sound like. So he kept adding. But two or three years later, a few — I can only think of two or three fiddle bands that dared try to use a drummer. But by then I had established some kind of a pattern of what a drummer was supposed to do in a fiddle band. But until that was established, nobody would ever bother using [a drummer.]
The first time we ever went to The Grand Ole Opry they wouldn’t let the drums sit out on the stage.
SKF: You mean the Grand Ole Opry would let the band play, but you had to set up off the stage?
SD: Back behind the curtain.
SKF: How did that make you feel?
SD: And all I could use was a snare drum. Couldn’t use a bass [drum] or none of that stuff because they just would not tolerate it.
SKF: What would they say to you? What was their reasoning?
SD: They would tell Bob, “You can’t do that.” And Bob would say, “Well, okay. Let’s pack them up and go home.” Then they’d try to compromise, but not for a long time. I think Bob was the first one that ever took a horn on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
SKF: What do you think made Bob such a successful bandleader?
SD: Well, there’s a whole bunch of things you could talk about for an hour-and-a-half. But the basics were real simple. He knew people. He could communicate with the people on the dance floor. He could feel, he could sense, whether they wanted a fast tune, a slow tune or whatever. He was in communication with the people all night long.
And when you finished a dance, you don’t pack up your instruments and go out and sit in the bus. You visit with the people who are here. And we did! Thats’w why we could get down and dance with anybody that was there. We went to people’s houses and ate. We even played funerals for people. We played at a good many funerals.
So we visited with people. We weren’t in any hurry. And we knew the people we were playing to because they were faithful people to us. They were making us a pretty good living.
[For example,] we were playing in Holdenville, Oklahoma one night. And we about 2,700 or 2,800 people there that night. There were babies sleeping on pallets on the bandstand. [People] brought their babies, put them on the bandstand, and let them go to sleep. They’d come in their overalls and whatnot, but we knew 95-percent to 98-percent of the people there either by first name, last name, or both!
SKF: Obviously you’ve influenced country drummers who came after you. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys are often credited as having an influence on the early rock musicians or rockabilly music. Do you feel you had an influence on what the early rock drummers were playing?
SD: Well, yes, I do to an extent, although it’s not anything that I talk about. Have you ever seen this double album Columbia released, the Bob Wills Anthology? [SKF NOTE: Smokey reads from the album liner notes.] “Smokey Dacus is the archetypal country drummer. His influence stretches to the present. For the special approach to drums in country material which he pioneered has become standard fare in modern road and studio bands.”
Well, I had to get my dictionary and look up that word archetypal to see what the hell I was. I didn’t know if it was good or bad. The definition of that word is: “The original from which all things thereafter are copied.”
I don’t know if that’s true or false, but it is true to some extent. That’s one I don’t generally talk about much.
I played with a stick in one hand and a brush in the other, which is out of balance. Up ’til then there was only one way to play. You played with two sticks. Or if you was a hotel drummer, like I had been, you played with a pair of brushes, one in each hand. Lawrence Welk’s drummer uses them a lot today, but only on certain tunes.
But to take one in one hand and one in the other — that presents a problem. Because you get the body as well as the beat. That’s the only way I know…. I was hard-pressed to find a body and a beat back in 1935.
SKF: So what’s ahead for you, Smokey? What are you up to now?
SD: Oh Lord! A bunch of senile teenagers. Al Stricklin, the piano player, is 74-years old today. He’s older than I am. Hell, I ain’t 74. I’m in the 70’s, but I ain’t 74. What is today?
SKF: Today is the 29th.
SD: February 26th we go to Fort Smith. We play a political rally, a fundraising thing or whatever it is. From there we’ll go to Mustang, Oklahoma on the 27th. The following Saturday, March 6th, we’re in Witchita. There are a couple of other dates there in March and April. June the 26th we go to Houston, Texas. We go to Austin, Texas on June 30th for the Texas Bar Association. We play Larry Gatlin’s Celebrity Golf Tournament on June the 28th. We’ll play the Royal Oaks Country Club Pro Am in July. I go to Del Royal’s Celebrity Tournament June 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Charlie Pride’s Tournament on the 11th-13th.
We’re all retired!
SKF: Yeah, your schedule sounds retired. What do you call your band?
SKF: Are you still recording?
SD: Oh, hell yes. Maybe three months ago we went into Tyler, Texas. We record for Delta Records out in Nagodoches, Texas. My Lord, the first royalty check from Delta was more than I ever got from Capitol in all the years I recorded for them.
SKF: How many albums have you done for Delta?
SD: Of course they’re afraid we’re going to kick the bucket — which is a mighty possibility — so they’re trying to get everything in the can that they can get. In 33 hours we recorded 45 tunes. Because it don’t take us too damn long. If we can’t play it now, we never could play it. And the only rehearsing we do is oral. You know, “What are we going to record? Okay. How are we going to start it? Okay. How’re we going to end it? Okay.” And that’s it.
[Delta] released Faded Love and they released The San Antonio Rose Story, which we did in that session two-and-a-half months ago. And that was probably the hardest thing we’ve done since we quit back in ’41.
When we first recorded San Antonio Rose it was just a fiddle tune, Scott. There wasn’t any words and there wasn’t any music. It wasn’t written down anywhere. Irving Berlin wanted to buy it. He sent this guy to Tulsa and he wanted to buy San Antonio Rose. There only thing was, there wasn’t any words to it, no sheet music, no nothing.
Well, [at the time] sheet music was a big deal. So [Bob Wills] said, “Okay. Berlin said he’d buy it if we had some words to it.” Bob told Everett Stoller, the trumpet player, “Write some words to that and send it to him!” Everett wrote some words that night and we played them the next day.
And we had played it all this time but it was just all in our heads. Then we had words so we had to call it The New San Antonio Rose. By the time this happened we had two trumpets, trombone, and three saxes. Man, which was to us, a full brass and a full reed section.
So [David] Stallings of Delta Records wanted to release an album of the San Antonio Rose Story. We got two old 78’s. One of the first time we ever recorded it, when it was just a fiddle tune. When Bob played it himself.
So we sat in the [Delta] studio and listened to that dang thing for 15- or 20-minutes and said, “Okay. Let’s wax it.” We set up and recorded it just exactly, note for note, the way we recorded it the first time.
Then we got the [horn version], listened to it, and said, “Okay.” We set up and recorded the bed for the trumpets and saxes. Then Leon sung it. We did everything except the horns. [David Stallings] got these two professors [to record the original horn parts.]
It’s note for note the way we recorded it. And that’s the hardest damn thing, really, to try to play. Forty-seven years later to play something note for note the way you played it before. That gets a little touchy.
Of course, the ghosts get to walking around in the studio. You know, ‘cause we could see Bob walking all around among us while we were doing it. It was kind of ghosty and kind of scary.
And they’re getting read now to release our third album, Texas Fiddle. We’ll go back sometime this summer, sit down and play 35 or 40 more. When we were recording from 1935-1941 there wasn’t such a thing as an album. There was a 78 rpm record. It had two sides and that’s all. So when we’d go to a recording session we’d record 20, 25, 30 [songs], because there was only going to be two tunes on each one.
So we’ve got about five albums. We’ve got at least two more that we’ve cut. And then we’ll go back and do it again some this summer before something happens to us.
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