Salty Holmes

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Born Floyd Holmes in Kentucky, this country artist was known for his performances and work on his own, as well as his Mattie and Salty collaboration with Jean Chapel, sometimes called the female Elvis…
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Born Floyd Holmes in Kentucky, this country artist was known for his performances and work on his own, as well as his Mattie and Salty collaboration with Jean Chapel, sometimes called the female Elvis Presley. Chapel was also a mentor to Tammy Wynette, but obviously didn't agree with the principle of "Stand By Your Man." She gave Salty his walking papers in 1956 after just about a decade of marriage. With Chapel, who was his partner on the Grand Ole Opry, Holmes entertained thousands of country fans through television, radio, and concert appearances. One of their most famous records was entitled "What Am I Gonna Do" and was cut in 1951 for the King label. Holmes also had a perfectly reasonable career on his own, beginning with his efforts as a harmonica virtuoso, activities which earned him the nickname of "the Harmonica Maestro." Some of these performances have been preserved on anthologies of early American music such as the Yazoo set Harmonica Masters. While some harmonica champs of the era concentrated on imitating pigs and anonymous wounded animals, such as Kyle Wooten, others did trains and Holmes' speciality was the so-called "talking" harp. "I want my ma-ma" is the "Polly want a cracker?" of harmonica speech, with the early-'40s recording "I Want My Mama Blues" by Salty Holmes & His Brown County Boys as convincing as anything country blues harmonica player Sonny Terry ever came up with along these lines of communication.

The harmonica manipulation was apparently not in vain, as a later Holmes recording effort boasted "I Found My Mama." This song was a double hit in the '50s for Holmes, released in his own version and as a cover by Rosemary Clooney. Holmes also played the jug, thus making him responsible for the bass line in certain old-time instrumental combinations, and he was also quite proficient at the guitar. He formed a band called the Kentucky Ramblers in 1930, and less than three years later it was broadcasting over WLS in Chicago under the name of the Prairie Ramblers. At this point, a new female vocalist had been hired and it was none other than Patsy Montana. Critics have raved about this band's versatility ever since, seeing it as a premature version of many trends such as western swing as well as one of the hotter string bands around. The Prairie Ramblers remained together through 1952 with a repertoire that included mountain tunes, cowboy ballads, gospel, and pop. The group made history in one clear-cut way, providing Montana with the chance to be the first female country singer to score a million-selling record, "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."

Members changed occasionally, but rambling most steadily were Jack Taylor, bass; Chick Hurt, mandola; Alan Crocket or Tex Atchison, fiddle; and Holmes on guitar and harmonica. The music of this combo certainly helps make a case for Holmes as one of the very few artists comfortable in old-time music, the newly developing country & western style and straight out cowboy music as well. From his base at the radio station, he made friends and contacts with stars from the latter genre such as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Red Foley. In 1936, he accompanied Autry out to Hollywood to make movies, a trip he repeated in 1944 with a tally of several appearances in B-movie westerns as the result. His film career includes Arizona Days with Ritter and Saddle Leather Law with Charles Starret. The former film actually features one of Holmes' wildest harmonica routines to be documented. He plays two harmonicas at the same time, one with his mouth and the other with his nose.

Meanwhile back at the recording studio, his Prairie Ramblers cut more than 100 sides between 1933 and 1940, working as both a basic unit for Holmes to front as well as an accompanying group for records by both Autry and Montana. A photo of Holmes with the group is part of the exhibit on cowboy music at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Holmes is also listed in the harmonica hall of fame in Holland. Following his 1947 marriage to Chapel, he continued a career in radio which had him moving about like a member of the military: New York, Davenport, Cincinnati, and finally to the Grand Old Opry. He made early inroads for country music on the new television medium by appearing on The Old American Barn Dance, one of the first country music television series. The program, directed by Fred Niles, ran on the Dumont Network during the summer of 1953. Footage that remains from this half-hour showcase has turned into a valuable archive of live performances from country stars of this era.