With a surname that sounds like a call to action by a strict father, Dean Upson might be completely unknown even to country music fans. But many of the decisions and moves he made during his career had a great impact on the development of the genre. Whether one wants to regard Upson as the train's conductor or the little guy who comes up with a hammer and bashes the locomotive gears back into place, country music would not have arrived at its present destination without him. Aggravated by shreeves hawking high-priced souvenir booklets at gigs? Blame Upson, because a group he founded, called the Vagabonds, introduced this merchandising concept in Nashville. Speaking of Nashville, if one is impressed with its lanes of music publishers, thank Upson because once again it was the Vagabonds who opened the city's first country music publishing firm, Old Cabin Music. Upson's band was also credited with being the first to blend pop with country and play some form of electric guitar on-stage at the Grand Old Opry. With all these accomplishments under his belt by the end of the 30s, one might assume it was time for Upson to kick back. Instead, he became involved in radio management and production, once again making country music history. In this capacity, he even helped make a star out of the original Hank Williams.
The son of a minister, Upson started what would be an enormously successful vocal harmony trio in 1927 for a series of broadcasts on Chicago's WLM, the main force behind national broadcasts of the Opry. It took a few tries to get the right combination of musicians in the group and Upson wound up with two fellows with more in common with him than just being skilled musicians. The other two Vagabonds were also minister's sons. Curt Poulton joined in 1928, while Herald Goodman came on board in 1930, when the group began working a program on KMOX out of St. Louis. In 1931, the group caught the ear of Harry Stone, an Opry A&R dude. The show's big boss, George D. Hay, didn't like the idea of signing the Vagabonds, but in this case, his objections were the scissors and Stone prevailed. Hay preferred his musicians to stink of horse manure and come to the gig chewing tobacco and even if the Vagabonds had agreed to dress as hillbillies like some other early Opry attractions, Hay was still more fond of string bands than harmony vocal ensembles. These were not the sort of players Hay was used to, either, as the Vagabonds were all trained musicians who read and arranged music. The group's material, which included ragtime, was more along the lines of Tin Pan Alley song structure then the typical Appalachian fare, earning the Vagabonds a reputation as historic purveyors of pop music on the country scene. In the early '30s, the group traveled with the Delmore Brothers to Chicago to cut their first Bluebird sides for the RCA Victor label. "When It's Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley," credited to either Goodman alone or as a co-writer with Poulton and Upson, was the biggest hit for the group and has resulted in a stack of cover versions. Goodman was the first Vagabond to vamoose, leaving to front his own band, the Tennessee Valley Boys, and go in a pre-bluegrass direction. Upson, exhausted by the roadwork, left the band in the hands of Poulton, who eventually abandoned it and created a songwriting partnership with Fred Rose. Meanwhile, Upson had gone to work in a non-performing capacity for WSM, then became the commercial manager at KWKH in Shreveport, LA. This job, it turns out, would be a hayride -- as in Louisiana Hayride. The transition between the Chicago station and the new Bayou digs overlapped with a musical collaboration with Homer Bailes, one of four siblings who made up the fine bluegrass "brother band" the Bailes Brothers. The combination of Bailes and Upson recorded some sides, last of which was a session for Columbia in late 1947 which seems to have vanished completely. Homer Bailes and Upson are sometimes credited as co-founders of the famous Louisiana Hayride show, but this is a bit of an over-statement. Station manager Henry Clay and producer Horace Logan were also involved, yet the role of Upson appears to have been pivotal. Ironically, several long historical essays on this program fail to mention Upson's background in the Vagabonds.
Besides the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana show became the most important of the incredibly popular live country music programs that began broadcasting in the '30s and '40s and was considered to have had its so-called "glory years" from 1948 through 1960. Both Logan and Upson had a knack for recognizing young talent, such as a gangly 24-year-old from Montgomery, AL, named Hank Williams. An examination of the Hank-tory also presents an opposing explanation of what happened: Williams was dropped in their lap, but at least they had the musical acumen to recognize his genius. It was Rose, songwriting partner of Upson's old bandmate Poulton as well as Williams' manager, who decided his client had to leave his sweet home Alabama and find a regular radio spot from which to promote his records. To a savvy businessman such as Rose, the connection with Upson, now the commercial manager of a station with a popular country music program, was certainly the key to the arrangements made in order for Williams to debut on the Louisiana Hayride in the summer of 1948. Six years later, Elvis Presley made his national debut on the show. Sometime after that, it can be assumed, Upson finally took a break from innovating.