Listeners to Hillbilly at Harvard over the years will have heard the name Tex Logan from time to time, not only when we played the familiar fiddle tunes “Katy Hill” and “Natchez Under the Hill” from the—what was a word we used before ‘iconic’ became fashionable? ‘landmark’, maybe—Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, the rough-hewn Folkways album that Mike Seeger produced back in 1959, but also when we talked about The Lilly Brothers’ long domicile at the Hillbilly Ranch in Park Square. Why? Because Tex talked them into coming to Boston.
Neither Ol’ Sinc or I ever met Tex, nor even heard him play in person. He was the stuff of local legend or rumor: a fiddler who somehow combined music with a brief sojourn at MIT and then disappeared, like many amateur musicians with ‘real’ careers. Except he was no amateur. True, he had no hit records, not even a few singles to titillate collectors, and over the years could well be said to have accomplished more as electrical engineer and mathematician, yet he was a country musician through and through, and a professional to boot.
For the details and the quotes below, I have borrowed from Richard Thompson’s excellent remembrance in Bluegrass Today.
Benjamin Franklin ‘Tex’ Logan came from Coahoma, Texas. His father played the fiddle; Tex gave up for a while and played the trumpet until high school, but
. . . Then one day he had a dawning realization that the secret to fiddling was having rhythm in the bow. So he retrieved his fiddle and persevered until, “I could kind of play Arkansas Traveller. That’s how I got going pretty good,” Logan once recalled of the event.
Logan then bought some used records from a juke-box supplier in neighboring Big Spring. Among them was the Bill Monroe recording of Katy Hill, featuring the super-charged fiddling of Tommy Magness. Logan’s excited response led to his younger brother Homer playing the record to waken Tex each school-day morning.
From then on there was a constant tug-of-war between his academic pursuits and playing music. Tex graduated from Texas Tech University, but even before heading east to MIT for a research assistantship, he spent the summer of 1946 playing with Hoyle Nix’s western swing band. At MIT he played square dances on the side, and with a 12-string guitarist named Dick Best, got on WMEX radio, where local favorites Jerry (Howorth) and Sky (Snow) heard him and invited him to join them. Jerry and Sky disbanded in 1948; Tex went back to Texas, and then to country-music radio hotspot Wheeling, West Virginia, where he worked with Red Belcher and the Kentucky Ridge Runners, which included Everett and Mitchell B. Lilly,* and with the Coal River Valley Boys, featuring Don Stover.
Here’s a tune called “Dewdrops” [correction: not
“Coleman’s March”; commenter Terry McGill points out that the YouTube uploader got the wrong side of the 78; maybe the labels reversed?] from Red Belcher (banjo) with Tex Logan on the fiddle on Page Records (Johnstown, PA; thanks to a discographic blog by Dick Grant: http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.com/2014/03/red-belcher-by-dick-grant.html; and thanks to an anonymous someone called ‘scootersage’ for uploading this old 78-rpm record to YouTube):
After a brief stint with Hawkshaw Hawkins (and someone called Big Slim, the Lone Cowboy [identified as Harry C. McAuliffe, by commenter Steve Bartlett]) Tex returned to MIT in 1949, and from then on it was fiddling on the side in Boston, with Frank and Pete Lane (The Lane Brothers), on WCOP radio’s fondly-remembered “Hayloft Jamboree.” Much of the ‘country and western’ music in New England at the time was heavily skewed to the ‘western’ side. When in 1950 The Lane Brothers were asked to headline a new club in Boston, Frank Lane said that they played in “a more hillbilly style. He proposed the name Hillbilly Ranch as the name of the new club, and it stuck.” (Clifford R. Murphy, Yankee Twang, p. 66).
Tex was a student, so in the summers he was able to return to Wheeling, where he worked with the wonderful Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan, already stars on the Wheeling Jamboree (and later on the Grand Old Opry). He recorded 15 sides with them for Columbia Records, playing fiddle, piano, and harmonica. Here’s one of those songs. “All on Account of You”; Tex is playing harmonica—there’s a fiddle break, but I can’t tell if it’s Stoney or Tex playing:
(thanks to YouTube uploader ‘mrblindfreddy’)
The Hillbilly Ranch catered to sailors on shore leave, and offered steady work for musicians. Tex had been playing with The Lane Brothers, so
When Frank Lane was drafted in military service, [Tex] Logan and Pete Lane went off to Raleigh, North Carolina, in search of Curly Seckler, a former Foggy Mountain Boy. They encountered Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs whose then mandolin player Everett Lilly indicated that he was thinking of re-joining his brother Bea and suggested that Logan might want to play with the Lilly brothers.
Unable to find Seckler and offer him a job with them, Logan and Lane returned to Boston. Shortly afterwards, Everett Lilly did quit playing with Flatt & Scruggs and he returned [sic—had he been up before?] to Massachusetts, whereupon Logan, the Lilly brothers, Pete Lane and Don Stover formed the Confederate Mountaineers, the first bluegrass band in Boston.
The band performed as many as seven nights a week at the Hillbilly Ranch and other clubs in the immediate area, and worked on the “Hayloft Jamboree.”
In the early ’50s, of course, ‘bluegrass’ was still associated mostly with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. I have a vague recollection of B Lilly dissociating The Lilly Brothers from the term (and complaining that Bill stole “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only A-Sleepin'” from them), and of course Ralph Stanley has always insisted that he and Carter played ‘mountain music’, not ‘bluegrass’. Then, too, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper were a country and western band when Tex worked with them. Only much later was Wilma Lee inducted into the IBMA’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame [see correction below] (and, regrettably, the Coopers are still not in the Country Music Hall of Fame). But Everett had worked with Flatt and Scruggs, and Don Stover was becoming one of the leading—if unappreciated—practitioners of ‘Scruggs-style’ bluegrass banjo, so arguably they were “the first bluegrass band in Boston.”
In any case, Tex Logan, with the Lillys and Don Stover imitated The Bluegrass Boys. They dressed up, says Jim Rooney in his memoir In It for the Long Run, in “riding pants, high boots, and Confederate officers’ hats,” and played the Hillbilly Ranch and on WCOP’s “Hayloft Jamboree.” They were a huge influence on the young Jim Rooney, and long after Tex Logan left for New Jersey and Bell Labs, they were a magnet for country and bluegrass fans in the region, including of course a typewriter repairman from Waltham, Joseph Valenti, who became known as Joe Val.
Tex Logan died April 24, 2015. We’ll hear from Rooney in the next installment. /CL
* Note: B Lilly’s middle name was Burt. His preferred handle was ‘B’, often spelled ‘Bea’. But I remember someone asking him how it was spelled, and he said, “Just a big ol’ ‘B’.” So that’s how I spell it.
UPDATE: Part II is HERE.
UPDATE 2: Fred Bartenstein writes to say that Wilma Lee Cooper is not in the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame. My mistake; her obituary in The New York Times says, “In 1994 the International Bluegrass Music Association presented Ms. Cooper with its Award of Merit.” Says Fred, “I should know. I co-wrote the book.” The book is: Fred Bartenstein, Gary Reid, and others: The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductee Biographies 1991–2014. You can buy it from Fred’s website, HERE.