The Prairie Ramblers: Summer Shade’s forgotten, famous musical treasure
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Metcalfe County has been long known for its rich musical history, but amongst many well-known groups and solo artists, one such musical act that rose to stardom has been nearly forgotten: The Prairie Ramblers.
Founding members “Chick” (Charles Gilbert) Hurt, and “Happy” Jack Taylor came from the hollers and hills near Summer Shade and Willow Shade, Kentucky. The two friends joined forces with fiddler and lead vocalist Tex Atchison, and Floyd “Salty” Holmes, a multi-instrumentalist. Tex and Salty were also Kentuckians. Tex hailed from Racine, where legendary Bill Monroe was born, and Salty was born and raised in Glasgow.
Thus, in the beginning, the group was known as the Kentucky Ramblers.
The early days
Like many of the American musical acts that found fame, the Kentucky members of the group came from a long line of musicians.
“Chick’s Dad was an old-time fiddler,” said Chick Hurt’s only child, Nancy Perrigo.
Chick was the fifth-born child and baby of the family.
As the story goes, it was Chick’s father who first gave him a guitar.
“Grandpa was at a farm sale and he bought a guitar, for probably a dollar. He brought it home to the children and said ‘whoever plays it first gets it’,” Nancy said. Chick played it first.
He eventually learned to play most instruments with strings.
For entertainment in the days before television with limited radio access, the Hurt family would gather around the telephone on the party line and play music for everyone in the community who wanted to listen.
“They had a microphone before it was a common thing. They’d play for hours,” said Nancy.
Chick’s first public appearance was playing music with his brother Herbie (Herbert) and sister Ada Lou.
As a teenager, Chick Hurt crossed paths with “Happy” Jack Taylor who also hailed from Summer Shade and the two became fast friends.
The two played small, local gigs together but adulthood responsibilities were calling.
“It was the depression era and Dad went to Illinois for work,” said Nancy. He worked there at a gas station with his brother-in-law, and as fate would have it Jack was also in Illinois.
Taylor asked Hurt if he wanted to play music like they did growing up and he replied, “Well, if I’m going to starve to death it might as well be doing something I love.”
The Ramblers came to be.
One might think with Kentucky roots that the Prairie Ramblers would cling to the old-time music traditions handed down from Appalachia. Although there were certainly elements of such, the group had a great, versatile range that drew inspiration from many genres, making them groundbreakers in the golden age of radio.
The group began collaborations in 1931 and soon made their radio debut on WOC out of Davenport, Iowa.
By 1932, the group moved to WLS Chicago.
The name Kentucky Ramblers didn’t last long. They were soon renamed the Prairie Ramblers by Prairie Farmer, an Illinois radio show for early-rising midwestern farmers.
Cowboy music was making waves across the country, and their focus began to change in that direction along with the new name. Pop style cowboy music and Western swing became their signature sound.
The station and the Prairie Ramblers would make country music history with innovative programs such as the National Barn Dance.
It was about that time that Patsy Montana became a member of the group.
“I adored Patsy,” said Nancy. “They held auditions for a female singer. She auditioned and never went home.”
Patsy’s voice and presence added a sizzling dynamic that helped lilt the group to higher heights.
Soon the group did its first recording for RCA-Victor’s Bluebird label at the end of 1932.
The Prairie Ramblers has the distinction of being the first group to feature a female singer, and as a result, sold 1,000,000 records. According to Nancy, the group recorded over 300 albums.
“They changed their clothing, too. They wore jeans with checkered neckerchiefs, they look more like the western motif,” Nancy said.
From the early 30s until the early 50s when the popularity of radio began to fade, the Prairie Ramblers dominated the radio music scene.
“People wanted to hear them. They were very popular,” said Nancy.
When rock ‘n’ roll came along, WLS was said to have thrown the old records out the window.
Fortunately, the two founding members Chick and Jack had an undying bond and a knack for reinventing themselves.
They became the Polka Chips in Chicago and later made their TV debut on the Chicago parade.
In the early 1960s, both Chick and Jack turned their attention to the restaurant industry, and each opened a restaurant of their own.
Chick’s Chicken served roasted chicken and fish, and Jack opened a slightly more formal restaurant. Both liked to use their eateries as a place to entertain.
At one point, the two friends even lived side-by-side in Cincinnati, Ohio, and often drove the same style of car: big Buicks.
Along the way, they made some impressive connections and left a lasting impression on country music. According to Garrison Keillor, Chick’s influence on Bill Monroe helped establish the signature.
In Des Moines, Iowa they got to know a young radio announcer known as Ronald Reagan and later befriended none other than Roy Rogers.
“Roy Rogers used to come over to our house, “Nancy said. “He hid his motorcycle there, it was a thing he loved to do. Dad always had a motorcycle. Roy Rogers was a very nice man.”
In 1962, Jack and his wife passed away as a result of an automobile accident. In 1967, at the age of 66, Chick Hurt followed his friend home.
However, the legacy lives on.
“The audience felt the joyful harmonies and arrangements were out of this world,” said Nancy, who has done an outstanding job of keeping track of the life and times of the Prairie Ramblers.
“It was a good life,” she said.
From the perspective of a grown-up little girl, it isn’t memories of the limelight that she holds the nearest to her heart; It is simple family memories at home, and recollections of her father’s charismatic personality that endure.
“Charlie Gilbert was very charismatic and people just gathered to him. He was amusing and funny,” Nancy said.
Tales of practical jokes, pranks, and “cutting up” are still part of her memories.
Her favorite memory is of her father singing to her. “Smile A While”, their radio show theme song, was a favorite.
“When I was a little girl my bedroom was across the hall from mom and dad’s room.
Daddy would wake me up singing, ‘Come on… get up… and smile a while…’ I guess my favorite memory is being his daughter.”
People interested in learning more about the Prairie Ramblers can visit the Country Western Hall of Fame in Nashville, where Chick’s boots are on display.
This year the Prairie Ramblers will be honored at Summer Shade’s Annual Founders Day, to be held May 11. Leading up to the event, 99.1 The Hoss will be playing Rambler’s tunes each day.
Founder’s Day promoter Ron Underwood is excited to celebrate such a fascinating group with Summer Shade roots.
“It is just a wonderful story. Two teenage friends, escape the poverty of the depression, create their own band, and help create what is now Western Swing, and Bluegrass and their band is a huge hit!” Said Underwood.
“It is just not right that we let the story of these two be buried, they deserve at least the same notoriety as Lonzo and Oscar, and even the Kentucky Head Hunters.”