Honey Wilds

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Revisionist history has largely erased the name of Honey Wilds from country music lore. His importance to the music's evolution remains unassailable: a Southern humorist and regular performer on the Grand…
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Revisionist history has largely erased the name of Honey Wilds from country music lore. His importance to the music's evolution remains unassailable: a Southern humorist and regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry between 1932 and 1952, Wilds was the creative force behind the Opry's first tent tours, which were instrumental in bringing rural music to mass audiences. His recorded legacy was less substantial, resulting in only a handful of songs. Regardless, the reason why Wilds' name is frequently omitted from the official record is a simple -- yet infinitely complex -- one: he was a minstrel singer who performed in blackface for white audiences during the segregation era. Rather than serving as a painful reminder of America's past, he instead fell prey to the nation's notoriously selective memory, and has essentially vanished.

Although many of the details of his life remain sketchy, it is known that Lee David Wilds was born into abject poverty in southeastern Texas in 1902. His father, the owner of a brickyard, died of pneumonia at the age of 32. Wilds grew up in a racially mixed community, learning to play the blues from the black musicians who performed at a nearby theater. He also took up the ukelele. In the mid-'20s, he joined a minstrel show, forming a duo with Lasses White, a blackface comedian and veteran of vaudeville. White, who had earned his nickname as a child because of his sweet tooth, was known for giving his partners complementary stage names, and so Honey Wilds was born.

Although music accounted for a large share of Lasses and Honey's act, the two men were primarily comedians. They performed novelty songs, often parodies of current hits. Like Al Jolson and Emmett Miller before them, their act consisted of material appropriated from African-American culture, allowing white audiences the opportunity to experience, albeit secondhand, a form of entertainment which the society at large otherwise deemed wholly inappropriate. (There also existed a parallel circuit where black performers appeared in whiteface, again as a means of crossing color lines.) Most blackface performers insisted that their work sprung not from racism but from a deep admiration for black popular culture; the validity of such statements is debatable, although in Wilds' case it appears to be true, especially given his background and adult friendships with the likes of DeFord Bailey, one of country music's few black acts.

In 1932, Lasses and Honey were offered a six-week contract to perform at the Opry. Wilds ended up staying on for over two decades, his tenure broken only by a brief 1939 foray into Hollywood; although he soon returned to the Opry, both White and their mutual friend Chill Wills remained in California. Instead of going solo, Wilds formed another duo, Jam-Up and Honey, in 1940. Following his return from the West Coast, he also began pondering methods of improving the existing touring network, which consisted typically of two or three acts hitting the road together. With the Opry's endorsement, he bought an 80-by-200 foot tent, assembled a road crew and a wide variety of entertainers, and began promoting the tour throughout the country. The Opry tent shows proved highly successful, running annually from early April to Labor Day between 1940 and 1949.

Despite close friendships with Hank Williams (according to legend, it was Wilds who nicknamed Hank Jr. "Bocephus"), Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, and other Opry staples, Wilds rarely wrote or recorded his own material, focusing instead on live performances. Among his few existing recordings include "Alabamy Bound," a traditional country-blues, and "De Lion's Cage," an old Emmett Miller routine cut with producer Owen Bradley. In 1952, Jam-Up and Honey left the Opry to accept an offer in Knoxville; by that time, the duo no longer performed in blackface, and their act gradually fell out of favor. In 1957, the team split, and Wilds dropped out of music, running a service station until 1960, at which time he began hosting a local children's television program. By 1967, he had retired permanently, and died several years later.