The Vagabonds

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There are so many musical groups named the Vagabonds that it almost seems like it would be guaranteed that a member of such an ensemble would be a vagabond, wandering the world gig-less or from one crummy…
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There are so many musical groups named the Vagabonds that it almost seems like it would be guaranteed that a member of such an ensemble would be a vagabond, wandering the world gig-less or from one crummy job to the next, always wishing a bit more invention had been used in the choice of an ensemble name. Music groups called the Vagabonds even have to contend with competition from a notorious motorcycle gang of the same name, although the existence of the lulling standard "Song of the Vagabonds" must be some consolation. Maybe the situation wasn't always so bad; the late-'20s country band the Vagabonds is not as well-known as other early Grand Old Opry acts such as Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, the Delmore Brothers, or Roy Acuff, but the group's influence was every bit as great on country & western music. All told, these Vagabonds are credited with being the first band to blend pop and country, start a publishing company, print and sell its own souvenir booklets, and drag the strange and loud electric guitar on-stage at the Opry. Groups such as the Vagabonds and the Delmore Brothers represented a new level of professionalism compared to other early Opry acts, most of which had been promoted, sometimes fraudulently, as hillbillies who used moonshine for deodorant and only played tunes they had learned by ear, as taught by their great granpappy. Vagabond bandmembers Herald Goodman, Curt Poulton, and Dean Upson were each the sons of ministers. Upson was the founding member of what would be an enormously successful vocal harmony trio at WLS in Chicago in 1925. Poulton joined up in 1928, with the Vagabonds name already in place and Goodman came on board two years later when the group began working a program on KMOX out of St. Louis. By the following year, the trio's performances had attracted the attention of Harry Stone, one of the new-fangled Opry's A&R fellows. He signed the group up, a move regarded as something of a turning point for the venue, with Opry George D. Hay apparently pitching a fit. The Vagabonds came with no obvious hillbilly persona, either visually or musically. While the heavy gospel content was sanctioned by the old-time and early bluegrass crowd, some of the group's material was more along the lines of Tin Pan Alley song structure, including ragtime, than the typical Appalachian fare. The group was also a vocal harmony ensemble rather than a string band, again upsetting Hay, who much preferred the latter. Goodman, Upson, and Poulton were all trained musicians who read and arranged music, quite different than the by-ear players who made up the usual Opry cast. The Vagabonds and the similarly talented Delmore Brothers traveled to Chicago together to make their first Bluebird records for the RCA Victor label, beginning what some regard as a new era in country music, marked by professional musicianship. To some, it was the Vagabonds who brought pop music to the Opry in 1931, meaning the disgusted sneer inspired by the countrypolitan crowd of Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, and others should really have been on someone's face decades earlier. The Vagabonds strongly influenced the genre's merchandising concepts during its run of 78 releases and Opry appearances, printing the city's first souvenir songbook as well as opening the doors of Old Cabin Music, the first of what would be many, many Nashville country music song publishing companies. Best-remembered of the group's original song material is "When It's Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley," written by either Goodman alone or in conjunction with the others, but in either case a bundle for the publishing company. The group proved so popular that it was slotted into the other programming on Chicago's WSM and began experimenting with some of the earliest amplified guitar sounds. The Vagabonds remained a popular act for many years, although predictably the members had a tendency to wander off. First it was Goodman who left to front his own band, the Tennessee Valley Boys, with whom he established another strong Opry link. Upson, exhausted by the roadwork, went to work in a non-performing capacity for WSM and later became the commercial manager at KWKH in Shreveport, LA. Poulton was the final holdout, eventually disassembling the group to become involved with promotional work.