Curt Poulton

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When Curt Poulton joined a harmony vocal group in 1928, he may have regarded the venture as good, clean fun, especially since the members were all sons of ministers. Poulton probably didn't realize he…
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When Curt Poulton joined a harmony vocal group in 1928, he may have regarded the venture as good, clean fun, especially since the members were all sons of ministers. Poulton probably didn't realize he would be making country & western history, but more than half a century after the fact, the role the Vagabonds played in the early days of the Grand Old Opry has largely been forgotten. While some early country acts, such as Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys and Roy Acuff, are practically household names, in many households the best-known Vagabonds might be the motorcycle gang. Nonetheless, the Vagabonds that Poulton joined up with are credited with being the first band to blend pop and country, start their own publishing company, print and sell their own souvenir booklets, and play some form of electric guitar on-stage at the Opry. Groups such as the Vagabonds and the Delmore Brothers also represented a new level of professionalism compared to other early Opry acts, much to the chagrin of Opry honcho George D. Hay, who apparently preferred his musicians to stink of White Lightning homemade moonshine, or at least pretend to, and in any case thought harmony vocal groups were not as exciting as string bands. The members of the group were not the sort of players Hay was used to, either. Herald Goodman, Poulton, and Dean Upson were all trained musicians who read and arranged music, quite different than the by-ear players who made up the usual Opry cast. At station WLS in Chicago in 1925, Upson became the founding member of what would be an enormously successful vocal harmony trio within just a few years. Goodman came on board in 1930 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 despite a class "A" temper tantrum from Hay. While the Vagabonds' heavy gospel content was sanctioned by the old-time crowd, some of the group's material was more along the lines of Tin Pan Alley song structure than the typical Appalachian fare, including jazzy-sounding ragtime. For this reason, it is sometimes stated that it was the Vagabonds who brought pop music to the Opry. Poulton later established a songwriting partnership with Fred Rose, one of the masters of making country go pop or pop go country, at least at the cash register. In the early '30s, the Vagabonds traveled along with the Delmore Brothers to Chicago to cut their first Bluebird sides for the RCA Victor label. The group's industrious activities influenced country music merchandising concepts, including the printing of Nashville's first souvenir songbook, as well as the start of Old Cabin Music, the first of hundreds of 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, and a big pile of chips for the publisher either way. The song was first performed on the Grand Ole Opry by the Vagabonds in 1932, recorded by the group the following year, and quickly passed into tradition. By 1936, it was cut by a Library of Congress field worker in Crossville, TN, and it has since been covered by many artists, including Tex Ritter, Hylo Brown, Ola Belle Reed, and Irish performer Cyril Poacher. The group proved so popular that Poulton found himself slotted into the other programming on Chicago's WSM. The Vagabonds remained a popular act for many years, although predictably the members liked to roam away. First it was Goodman who left to front his own band, the Tennessee Valley Boys. 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. The high point of his songwriting relationship with Rose was the cowpoke anthem "We'll Rest at the End of the Trail," cut by the king and queen of the cowboy world, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, in 1936.