Theron Hale

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Of the old-time and early country music bands that nationally became popular in the '20s, the ones with the most outlandish in "hillbilly" get-up wound up leaving the strongest impressions. But there…
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Of the old-time and early country music bands that nationally became popular in the '20s, the ones with the most outlandish in "hillbilly" get-up wound up leaving the strongest impressions. But there was another side to the type of musical talent presented in the early days of the Grand Old Opry. Besides the rowdy and raucous hoedown bands, there were groups that played the old-time string band repertoire with more of the feeling of a chamber group. The various groups of talented musician Theron Hale -- such as Theron Hale & Company or Theron Hale & Daughters -- are a good example of this approach and a comparison of photographs of the Hale groups with hillbilly bands such as Paul Warmack & His Gully Jumpers or the Binkley Brothers' Clodhoppers shows quite a contrast. Simply put, many people would run in fear if they ran into the members of the latter groups walking down the street, at least if they looked as weird as they do in their hoedown costumes. Hale and associates, on the other hand, look quite polite and sedate, a bit like insurance salespeople or members of a church group who are going door to door. It would not be accurate to assume that all the hillbilly groups were made up of rural types from a farming background, with Hale and the chamber old-time groups coming out of a more urban, professional white-collar climate, despite the stereotype that is reinforced by publicity of the era. Hale worked as both a farmer and a salesman, while the leader of the hillbilly band Dr. Humphrey Bate & His Possum Hunters was every bit as professional as his title would suggest, and not one of those malcontents who uses the term "doctor" as a satiric stage name. Much of the hillbilly look was prompted, pushed, and promoted by Opry broadcast honcho George D. Hay, but he apparently did not have his way with Hale and succeed in turning this group into the "Squirrel Eaters" or something of the sort. Hale hailed from about 100 miles southeast of Nashville, where by 17 years old he was already acquiring fame regionally as a banjo picker, with students such as Homer Davenport of the Chattanooga Young Brothers band. He moved to Iowa as a young man, then came back to the Nashville area where he established a band featuring himself on fiddle, which was the main instrument he performed with on broadcasts, seldom taking his banjo out of its case. The other members of this trio were his daughters Elizabeth Hale on piano and Mamie Ruth Hale on the second fiddle and mandolin. In 1926, this group was invited on to the Opry for the first time, and was featured regularly on the show until the early '30s. The slow, melancholy and beautiful pieces featuring twin fiddle harmonies were the most admired parts of the group's repertoire, and provided the type of contrast between the silly and the sentimental that country music thrives on. As a result of the emphasis on slow material, the group was rarely asked to play at dances, but Hale and family mostly seemed to play for their own enjoyment anyway. Some of the recordings the group made are in an up-tempo vein, however, such as "Hale's Rag," the rare example of an original rather than traditional number from this era, and a version of "Flop Eared Mule" in which the ears of said beast sound starched rather than floppy. The Document compilation Nashville: 1928 features a nice batch of Hale's recordings, including versions of "Listen to the Mocking Bird" and a wonderfully stuffed"Turkey Gobbler." The use of the piano was not really as unusual in string bands as some old-time music fans seem to think, and certainly most fiddlers were as happy to have a pianist pumping chords at them as a guitarist or banjo player. When Mamie Ruth Hale decided to get married, it was the final curtain for this particular lineup. In his later years, father Hale continued working on a more casual basis with players such as Sam and Kirk McGee.