in her first heaven is a collection of recordings, songs, and stories about women musicians from Kentucky
Blanche Coldiron -- 4. The Radio Star
Shortly after, Blanche went back on the radio—broadcast in earnest, this time, as an entertainer. Blanche the Mountain Girl, she was billed, to an audience larger than her own living room.
Asa Martin, a Winchester-born guitar player, bandleader and radio personality of some local fame, was in search of a new banjo player, in 1938 for radio shows on WLAP in Lexington, and tours around central Kentucky. His previous banjo player, Stringbean Akemon, had left the Kentucky tour to play on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became one of the show’s enduring stars.
Asa knew Blanche’s brother, Ossie, a fiddle player; Ossie told Asa his sister played banjo. “I don’t remember now where they took her, to his house, or where he came up to our house, but he heard her play, and he wanted her to come,” said Irene.
Blanche’s parents took more convincing than Asa did. “My mother wouldn’t let me go,” Blanche said, because “I was only fifteen. Unless my brother went with me. She said, ‘I want to see Asa first, want to talk to him,” Blanche recounted, laughing. “Well she give him the low down, give him instructions so he really treated me with respect, he did. I can say that about him.”
Ossie was brought on board, as a part of Asa’s band, playing the fiddle; at that, Blanche was granted permission.
They played on the radio, WLAP—call letters which stood for “We Let Anybody Play,” early morning round up shows with Asa, music thrown in with the news and the weather, advertisements, comedy, and drama. Evenings and weekends, they’d play engagements throughout the listening area, live concerts in mostly small communities.
Asa would pick her up, in his Packard, Blanche remembered. She would stay with Asa, and his wife, in Lexington, on the days of their radio shows, and in preparation for their road shows. “And my brother stayed some, we’d come down—we practiced at night, at Asa’s house. Especially the night before we played the next day. And we got to going on the road, road trips we called it. On the road again!” she sang, laughing.
They piled into Asa Martin’s Packard, instruments and all. “We had this big old bass fiddle—they called them bull fiddles, then… It was extry large, was tied on the side, the neck over the fender, tied over the running board there,” Blanche described. The rest of the instruments went in “a big old, homemade trunk,” rigged to the back of the Packard. In the car, the musicians—Asa, Ossie, Blanche, and, depending on the tour, the Wagers Sisters from Clay County, one Betsy Holland, and Dudley Tharp, from Powell County. They’d drive through the countryside, back roads. “You know, we travelled on these, they called them WPA roads, and they have white crushed gravel on them. That was a black Packard when they start out, but when they get there they’d be white.”
Many of their adventures on the road, it seemed, were adventures with the roads, winding through rural Kentucky. “We were going to play one morning,” recalled Blanche, of one occasion in particular. “I think we played 11 o’clock… going down through Clark County. This old farmer was driving a herd of cattle along, and just as we started to go by, this herd of cattle crossed the road…. and all this big herd of cattle going behind us and in front of us, and we was sitting there, you know.” A stuffed car, the bass strapped precariously on top. “Thought that it’d be crushed any minute, but they got by, never even touched it. That was a close call. I tell you, everybody was still as a mouse.”
Another time, driving through farm country, they hit a rooster. Put differently, it flew and hit them, on the windshield. ”The feathers flew everyway,” Blanche said. “Broke the rooster alright, but didn’t break the windshield.”
Blanche remembered playing a gig, where they had to walk over a hanging bridge, instruments in tow. One time, the rocks up the road, rather, the creek, which would take them to their show proved too much for Asa’s Packard. “We couldn’t get through them rocks with that car,” Blanche remembered. “We thought, well gee, we can’t play tonight, you know. Well the word went [out], I guess by grapevine, cause they didn’t have telephones up there. [Asa] went into this little old store, well they said, there’s a fellow here that’s got a big old truck of some sort. It was a big old rough job. I don’t know how Asa and the boys got up there, but this guy took us girls in the cab with him. He had a big old log chain in the floorboard—that was so funny, going up over this big old rocks, and our heads a-hittin’ the top of the truck, Well as we passed, he’d stick his head out and say, “The Kentucky Hillbillies will be here tonight!” you know. Every house he’d come across, he’d stick his head out and holler that. Well I’m telling you, they was a packed house tonight. Course, schools weren’t very big, you know… it probably would seem like a small crowd if it had been in the ones we have now. Gee, I’ll tell you what we lived through.” She told the story, laughing hysterically at the memory.
Theirs was a variety act, with a rotating cast of characters. Performing sometimes under the name of “Sweet Tater and Dynamite,” sometimes billed individually, or as Asa Martin’s Band, Ossie played fiddle, Asa played guitar, and Blanche “the Mountain Girl” on the banjo, and Dudley Tharp, at times on guitar. They were joined by the Wagers sisters, Opal and Beulah, who were from Clary County, and later performed on WNOX in Knoxville, and would play guitar, and sing. Sometimes on tour, was Betsy Holland, who also sang.
“I remember a comedy tune we did… Asa, the Holland girl, and me. I remember a comedy tune we did, Monkey doodle, or something. Some comedy. We used to sing that. Monkey doodle work his noodle, he was jungle king… it went in two keys or something… we had three part harmony, and a lot of it sounded pretty good but it was comical, you know, I remember that.” It was an old vaudeville tune, by Irving Berlin, in three part harmony. Their repertoire was varied; showtunes, and vaudeville numbers. Swing tunes, and then the breakdowns, hoedowns, fiddle tunes and old songs from the hills of Kentucky, turned into performance numbers.
“We’d string up across the stage… Asa and Ossie and me and Dudley… but I’d hold this instrument and… let’s see, how did we do that… we played one and note the other one. That’s kinda difficult.” Standing in a line, each musician would play one instrument with their right hand—strumming or bowing—and fret the instrument of the person next to them, with their left, a crowd-pleasing trick practiced by many a string bands, at the time.
There were a number of acts on the same circuit, in an era that is considered by many to be a golden age of southern string band music, at least commercially speaking. Bands were flourishing on local radio, and on larger shows like the Grand Old Opry, and other smaller barndance radio shows, throughout the Southeast. They’d play short sets on the radio. They’d announce their upcoming engagements, to listeners, and, with their radio audience attentive, they’d draw crowds at small one-room schoolhouses, in communities throughout central Kentucky.
The audiences, folks from that community, would crowd into the little schools turned theaters, paying 35 cents for adults, 25 cents for children, to see in the flesh, those they’d heard on the radio—the girls on stage all dressed in Calico. “They were green. I remember that,” said Blanche, of the dresses her mother had made the girls.
They’d rely on the audience to offer them a place to stay. The girls would be the first to be offered, families offering them beds or floors to sleep on. The boys, then, would sleep in the car. “They’d call it the Packard hotel,” laughed Blanche. It was a moment where, Blanche later told Sue Massek, her friend and banjo student, being a girl made life a bit easier. Sue said, “they always put [the girls] up someplace, and they were real chaperoned, whereas the guys often would sleep in the car and go off and get drunk… well I don’t know, she never said go off and get drunk,” she conceded, “but she said they had less restrictions, and also less accommodations.”
The tour circuit Blanche travelled with Asa was a route made by a number of acts, one which produced a number of stars who had extended performance careers, going on to play larger venues, radio stations with larger audiences. Cousin Emmy was one such star, a banjo player whom Blanche remembered. “We seemed to be following her,” she said. “Everywhere we’d go, she’d just been.” Places like McKee, Pig Creek, Big Creek, Goose Rock, West Irvine, Blanche said, listing them off as she remembered them.
Her family never came out to her shows; Asa’s Packard full of instruments never came, to perform in Powell County.