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"Gonna Take My Guitar"
By Shane Hughes and Bobby Hodge
North Carolina was, for a few decades at least, a haven for traditional country music.
Although the Carolinas were not necessarily an anchorage for a burgeoning music scene,
many performers who later earned a deal of success originated from the North Carolina
locale. William and Earl Bolick (The Blue Sky Boys), The Callahan Brothers (Walter and Homer),
J. E. and Wade Mainer, Buddy Jones, Lulu Belle and Scotty and particularly Charlie Poole,
with his band The North Carolina Ramblers (comprising ace fiddler Posey Rorer and picker
Roy Harvey), all from North Carolina contributed to the pre-pubescent country music
scene of the nineteen twenties and thirties. Similarly, the post-war country scene
would not have become so prolific without the talent of such North Carolina born
performers as Cecil Campbell, Earl Scruggs, steel player 'Shot' Jackson, Don Gibson,
Clyde Moody, Arthur Lee 'Red' Smiley (of Reno and Smiley fame), Del Reeves, Carl
Story and Doc Watson. Pop music also benefited from the prime recordings and
compositions of North Carolina natives John D. Loudermilk and, to a lesser extent,
Billy 'Crash' Craddock. However, as with every other state, North Carolina produced
more than just a handful of obscure artists for every performer that found fame.
This obscurity does not translate into a lack of talent, though, as the subject of
this issue's Hen's Teeth column proves. Bobby Hodge was little known outside of
his adopted home of Wisconsin, but he persevered with a career in country music
and achieved a level of personal success that many other obscure acts only hoped
to attain. Since leaving North Carolina in 1950 and moving to Wisconsin, Bobby
plunged into Wisconsin's country music scene with an impetuosity that ensured
he became well known on the local scene. Eventually, Bobby's reputation as a prime
honky-tonker filtered further west into neighboring Nashville and he was rewarded
with an invitation to appear on the venerable Grand Ole Opry and a recording contract
with Don Pierce's Nashville label. Subsequent years saw Bobby cut some high quality
sides for Wisconsin's leading label, Cuca, and more traditional country recordings for
various Nashville companies before he retired and moved to Florida. Bobby seems content
with his achievements, which is as much of a personal reward as anyone could have asked
for. But, to place Bobby's career in perspective we must return to the beginning - North Carolina.
Born on the outskirts of Gastonia, North Carolina on July 16, 1932, Bobby spent much of his youth
living with his mother, step father and grandmother in a two room 'shotgun type' house. With
the country still reeling from the Great Depression, Bobby's rural upbringing was far less
than auspicious, as he explains, 'We were very poor and my first job as a 15 year old was
spent sweeping in a cotton mill in Bessemer City NC'. Music became a major interest for
Bobby during his adolescent years and also proved to be a cheap way of escaping from
the hardship of a poor household. By the age of fourteen, Bobby had taken up the guitar.
His grandmother had bought him his first guitar for three dollars and, through observing
other local luminaries playing at live gigs, he learned rudimentary chord progressions.
Bobby recalls that the first song he taught himself to play was Gene Autry's 'Don't Fence
Me In'. After a year of self tuition, Bobby had garnered the talent and ambition to strike
out and begin a career as a country singer. In 1947 he joined a local group fronted by
Bill Darnel, called the Rainbow Rangers. Darnel offered the fifteen year old Bobby a spot
as featured vocalist with the band. Unfortunately, Bobby was not paid for his services.
Shortly after he had enlisted in the Rainbow Rangers, the group gained a fifteen minute
segment on radio station WGNC's Hillbilly Time In Caroline. Even though Gastonia's WGNC
was only a 500 watt station, it's Hillbilly Time… program had attracted other young up
and coming country performers from the surrounding area, such as Earl Scruggs and Don
Gibson, both of whom had their own respective fifteen minute segments on the show.
Bobby remembers that Don Gibson was residing in Shelby, North Carolina at the time 'and had
to pass thru (sic) Bessemer to get to the radio station in Gastonia and many times I was his passenger'.
Bobby's debut as a country singer may not have been the auspicious occasion that he
had probably anticipated. After working as a delivery boy for Western Union for
three months, he enlisted with the Army during December 1949 and was transferred to
Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina for basic training. After twelve weeks of boot
camp, Bobby was to be shipped east to Fort Louis, then on to Korea. He only just managed
to avoid a tour of the east Asian trouble spot by applying for a minority discharge, 'as I was not
17 until July 16th I informed the Army that I was not 18 and that I had entered the Army
as a minor with my mother's signature and they gave me a minority discharge'. This
false start was followed by another, when, after his discharge, Bobby found work
with the Bum Rineheart Stable and moved to Detroit to work at the Hazel Park track.
By this time Bobby had developed a firm ambition to pursue a career in music, but,
working at Hazel Park also sparked another fire - horse racing. His passion for
thoroughbreds would not truly emerge until after his retirement during the nineteen
seventies, though. Bobby had a greater enthusiasm for country music and he was keen
to make a name for himself.
Quitting his job as a horse trainer in Detroit, Bobby headed to Stoughton, Wisconsin to visit
an aunty and uncle. While he was there he took the opportunity to audition at a few
different radio stations, hoping to gain a slot and to try and kick start his music career.
Bobby's luck finally changed when he walked through the doors of nearby station WKOW,
'As I carried my guitar, without a case, into the studios of WKOW in Madison - general manager
Mike Henry came out of his office and asked me what I was doing with the guitar. I told him
that I sang and played hillbilly music. He called the program director and a few office
girls and asked me to sing a couple of songs. After I sang a couple of songs with my
strong southern accent, he told the sales manager Bob Loomer to go to Stoughton - where I
lived to sell several $5.00 commercials, to individual businesses.'
Bobby had gained another radio spot, ensuring he would receive greater local coverage. By this
time Bill Darnel's Rainbow Rangers had disbanded, so Bobby decided to adopt the moniker of the
Rainbow Ranger. He was given a thirty minute slot on WKOW's Stoughton Presents program
each Saturday afternoon beginning on March 31, 1951. Bobby stayed with WKOW for
several years and even hosted a weekly television show on Madison's WKOW-TV channel 27.
Later the same year, Bobby met his current wife Mary in Madison. During December '51
Mary had auditioned to sing on the Rainbow Rangers show.
'She sang pop music and since I had no knowledge or exposure to pop music I told her to
audition with the piano player who followed my show, and since he did not use guest singers,
she came back and told me he was not interested in a 14 year old girl singing on his show.
Since I was still a teenager, I asked her for a date, and that included sitting at the airport
on a Saturday night and listening to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville on our first date.'
Bobby and Mary married on July 23, 1954 in Stoughton and are still very much happily married.
After several years of performing on WKOW as the Rainbow Ranger, Bobby had gained
enough exposure to build a reputation outside of Madison and Stoughton. He received
invitations to perform all over Wisconsin and even into neighboring states. According
to Dick Grant, Bobby toured various southern states with the Dairylands News stage
show. When I interviewed Bobby during 2001, he did not mention Dairylands News.
However, renowned Wisconsin singer Larry Lee Phillipson told me that he remembered
watching Bobby perform at clubs in Milwaukee and West Allis, not far from where he
(Larry) was gigging regularly. This rising success also inspired Bobby to finally make
his first recordings. In 1958 he laid down a melodic honky tonk weeper, 'You've Broken
Another Heart'. Probably recorded in Madison, this self-penned composition reached
above the uninspired country-politan fare emanating from Nashville in the later half
of the decade. Despite the quality of his tune, though, Bobby may have been wise in
not seeking a label to release it. Compared to many of the discs hitting the market
from other local labels as Cinch and Dinamo in Wisconsin, 'You've Broken Another
Heart' may not have stood a chance.
Bobby's next outing, and his debut commercial release, proved to be very much the opposite.
Cut in the living room of his home in Madison, Bobby was backed by a group of, presumably,
local musicians who ably backed him on the honky tonk stomper, 'Gonna Take My Guitar'.
The line up of steel, standard lead, bass and drums coerced in such a transcendent
fluidity that the record could not be faulted. Bobby's hitherto latent songwriting ability
was now at a peak. The avid listener could easily visualize Carl Smith or even Faron
Young launching effortlessly into this tune on a live show, like the Opry or Hayride.
Coupled with an early rendition of another self-penned tune, 'So Easy To Leave', 'Gonna
Take My Guitar' was issued on the Madison based Rebel label, probably during 1958.
At the time of writing, the author was unable to confirm if Rebel was actually
Bobby's own label, or a concern managed by another party. No other releases on a
Rebel label based in Madison and bearing a similar number sequence could be located
at the time of writing.
The release of his Rebel disc probably secured Bobby more local gigs, but it was,
conversely, his one and only release for the decade. He would not record again until 1961,
when he traveled to Nashville to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and cut a session for Don
Pierce's Nashville custom label. Just how Bobby came to be on the Opry and record for Pierce
is due, in no small part, to the efforts of amiable steel guitarist 'Shot' Jackson. Bobby has
fond memories of meeting Jackson and working on the Opry.
'In 1961 Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys came to Madison and was on a country music
show in Madison. I went backstage and introduced my self to Roy and asked if I could sing a song
on his show - he informed me that he did not use guests on his personal appearance shows.
The response was great and I wound up singing two songs. I made friends with his steel guitar
player, Shot Jackson. A couple of months later, Shot called me and invited me to come to
Nashville and record with Roys Smoky Mountain Boys. So I went to Nashville in 1961
and at Starday Records and with the Smoky Mountain Boys including Shot Jackson
on steel, Howdy Forrester on fiddle, Brother Oswald on bass, and Melba Montgomery
on rhythm and recorded two songs I had written called Gonna Take My Guitar [actually 'Carolina
Bound'] and Your (sic) Always Welcome To Cry On My Shoulder.'
When I queried Don Pierce about Bobby's session for Nashville, he only had vague memories
of the singer and his recordings. Don verified that, since Roy Acuff lived next door to him,
he utilized Acuff and his band for recording sessions for Starday and the Nashville
custom subsidiary. However, he seemed to think that Tommy Hill had arranged the date,
probably at the instigation of 'Shot' Jackson, and Pierce consented to go ahead with
the session. As Bobby was an unknown artist, Pierce assigned Tommy to produce the
session and the two tunes cut were issued on Nashville, rather than the parent Starday
logo. 'Carolina Bound' was superlative in every aspect and easily eclipsed Bobby's
first working of the tune on Rebel. Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys were able to unwind
and solo with freedom, too. Jackson's steel runs were particularly effective, as was
Forrester's impeccable fiddle work. Brother Oswald kept the beat rolling like a
cannonball and Melba proved that she was more than just a rhythm strummer.
With a new verse added, it was plain to see that Bobby was now in his prime as
a songwriter. The flip was a comparatively upbeat Cliff Brizendine composition, 'You're
Always Welcome To Cry On My Shoulder'.
With a release that was sure to sell nationally, Bobby's future success seemed certain.
The Grand Ole Opry loomed.
'A few months after the release of Carolina Bound I was invited by the manager [of the Opry] Ott Devine
to guest on the Grand Ole Opry on WSM at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I guested many times
in 1961 and 1962 and then [I] was asked to move to Nashville, because of the long drive from
Madison to Nashville which was 650 miles each way and I was driving it every weekend.
Since by that time I had three sons and my wife worked at [the] Oscar Mayer Meat Plant
as a data entry clerk, I chose not to move to Nashville and we ended the relationship with the Opry.'
During the year or so he stayed with the Opry, Bobby toured occasionally with other acts
from the show, proffering him the chance to spread his reputation deeper into the south.
On his return home to Wisconsin, offers to record again were waiting in his mail box.
His next port of call was James Kirchstein's Cuca group of labels in Sauk City. Bobby would
maintain a sporadic relationship with Kirchstein, seeing a few releases on Cuca during the mid-sixties.
His first issue on the label was a cover of the popular blues, 'Sitting On Top Of The World'.
Although Bobby credited himself as the writer of 'Sitting On Top', the songs lineage stretched
back to February 1930 when the Mississippi Sheiks (Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon) recorded
the initial version of the song under its better known title. Macon Ed and Tampa Joe cut a variation
of the theme in 'Everything's Coming My Way', while the Alabama Sheiks and Georgia Tom,
among others, recorded the song under its true title. 'Sitting On Top ' soon became an oft
recorded number, appearing in the repertoire of jazz and western swing bands and, with the
emergence of the Big Beat, rockabilly artists (namely Curtis Gordon's version on Mercury).
Bobby may have picked up the song from any of these sources and inserted his name as the
composer to avoid copyright infringements. The flip was a reprise of 'So Easy To Love',
a song that Bobby obviously had much faith in and, surprisingly, wasn't as much of contrast
with other Cuca releases from the same year.
In definite disparity, though, were the recordings Bobby made for Dave Dudley's Minnesota based
Golden Wing label in 1964. Dudley had formed Golden Wing in 1961 after he was injured in a car
accident and successfully sued for damages. With the settlement he started Golden Wing and
quickly set about recording various Minneapolis based performers. The following year he
was offered a song with an interesting truck driving theme, 'Six Days On The Road'.
The tune had originally been pitched to Jimmy C. Newman, who turned it down.
Newman suggested that the writers pass the tune on to a friend of his in Minneapolis,
Dave Dudley. Dudley didn't hesitate in recording 'Six Days..' and gathered a group of
Minnesota's most talented country gentlemen to cut the tune at Kay Bank in Minneapolis
during '63. It was this same band that backed Bobby on his Golden Wing outing the
following year. Led by the uniquely talented guitarist Jimmy Colvard, Bobby and the
band cut the Red Johnson/Bud Auge tune, 'Taxi Cab Driver', which Dudley had recorded
at Kay Bank a year or two earlier. Bobby also cut the stylistically original 'Alligator
Man' that featured some compelling picking from Colvard. Not long after, Golden Wing folded
when Mercury threatened Dudley with legal action over the similarity of his label name
to their budget Wing subsidiary. To circumvent the situation and continue releasing records,
Dudley changed the name of the label to Golden Ring. Ironically, shortly after the name
change Mercury contacted him again, this time to offer him a recording contract based
on the growing success of 'Six Days'. With Golden Wing now just smoldering embers,
Bobby's chance of breaching the country market dissipated. He continued to record
intermittently, cutting a Christmas record for Cuca in 1968 and renewing his relationship
with the Nashville establishment by rounding out the nineteen sixties with a few releases on Stop.
The new decade brought a few potential opportunities to within Bobby's reach. In 1970 he
appeared in Chicago with veteran hillbilly Dolph Hewitt and other WGN acts, whilst waxing a
few discs for Volunteer in Nashville. However, by 1972 Bobby had decided to leave the
business behind him and retire to Florida. He sold the Melody Club, which he had been operating
in Stoughton, and headed south to the warmer climates of Tampa.
Bobby just couldn't keep himself from the music he loved, so he purchased a night club in
Oldsmar, Florida where he performed nightly until 1984. His former passion for horse
racing began to re-emerge around this time, too,
'Since our lounge was so close to the racetrack, most of the customers were owners, trainers,
jockeys, grooms and people who worked at the racetrack. One night an owner of his only race
horse called Stay and Play wanted to sell me the horse for $250 as the horse was not going as
fast as his money. I bought the horse and chose a local trainer who had other horses at the
track. Running the horse about a week later in a race he ran third and I made $130 and
I thought what a great business this is!'
Bobby found as much pleasure running his thoroughbreds as he did performing country music.
In his retirement he found that he could have the best of both worlds, as St. Petersburg Times
writer Jackie Ripley surmised, 'Later Hodge was able to consolidate music and horses so that
while his ponies were going through the paces in towns like Atlantic City and Charleston, he
was playing clubs on Atlantic City's Boardwalk and in venues like Heritage Hall in Harper's
Ferry'. During the late nineties Bobby opened another club, Bobby Hodge's Longhorn, in Tampa
where he still performs every Friday and Saturday night.
Disappointments may have dogged Bobby during stages of his career, but he has no
complaints. He was offered more opportunities than many other struggling performers
could have hoped for, and he made the most of his chances. He may not have had a hit record.
After all, it seems that he didn't need it. Bobby's talent speaks volumes and surely out
shines any chart statistics. Just listen to 'Gonna Take My Guitar'. That's the proof right there.