Honky-Tonkers

“Honky-Tonkers & Western Swingers,” by Orin Friesen. Rowfant Press, 2021. 202 pages, $19.95.

When I first heard that there was a new book about the history of country music in the city of Wichita, I thought, “How could there be a book about such a narrow subject? Nashville, yes, but surely not Wichita by itself.” Boy, was I wrong.

I figured I would buy this book just because my friend Orin Friesen wrote it. It’s titled “Honky-Tonkers & Western Swingers – Stories of Country Music in Wichita, Kansas.” When I read it, I found it was packed with interesting tidbits and fascinating connections. Once I started, I couldn’t wait to read more.

Orin’s knowledge of country music is phenomenal. Not only has he done extensive research about the country music scene in Wichita, he lived it. Orin is a Nebraska farmboy who grew up loving his dad’s old-time country music and is a talented musician himself. Orin came to college at Wichita State and entered the country-western, folk and bluegrass music scene before beginning a long and accomplished career in the Wichita radio market. His book shares remarkable elements of music history.

For example: Did you know that Hawaiian music was all the rage in the U.S. during the 1920s? Did you know that the first time an electric guitar was featured on-stage anywhere in the world was in Wichita, Kansas? Did you know that prior to the major corporate radio station purchases of the 1990s, Wichita was the base for the largest chain of country music stations in the world?

Orin’s book chronicles country music in Wichita from its beginnings. Through the decades, the genre was variously known as hillbilly music, then country-western, and now country. Orin points out that the word Wichita is an Indian name said to mean “scattered lodges,” and the first significant country music band to hail from Wichita was a Choctaw Indian group called Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band.

Wichita was home to a musician named Gage Brewer who had befriended a vaudeville performer that was seeking a louder guitar so his music could be heard in larger arenas. Through Brewer, such an “electric” guitar was first featured on stage in Wichita in September 1932. Wichita also played a role in the development of the country music instrument known as the dobro, which took its name from the brothers who developed it: The Dopyera brothers.

Hundreds of musical performers and groups grew, came and went through Wichita. Some became house bands which played live on local radio stations. One of the first was the Ark Valley Boys, who would back up Gene Autry when he performed in Wichita. Orin’s book tells of many other musicians and their connections with Wichita and other performers: Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Dean, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Roy Clark, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and many more.

I especially enjoyed Orin’s inclusion of the creative names of the many groups that performed in Wichita through the years. These began simple enough such as Tex Ferguson and the Drifting Cowboys, but they got more creative from there. Other group names included the Oklahoma Swingbillies, the Spark-O-Life Gang (named for a feed company), Bobby Wiley and the Rhythmaires, Corky’s Corral Gang, the Melody Playboys, the Wandering Okies, Bill Boyd and his Buckshots, the Emeraldites, the Saddleboogie Band, and Elmo B and the Other Three. (They just don’t name groups like that anymore.)

The book includes the story of a Wichita audio technician who was doing sound for one music group and encouraged them to let his wife sing with them. She had grown up on a dairy farm in Barber County. That performance eventually led to her music career in Nashville, but it wasn’t an overnight success. She had to work as a waitress and sold T-shirts at Garth Brooks concerts before getting her big break. The Wichita soundman was John McBride, and his wife, Martina McBride, would go on to become a four-time Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year and sell 14 million albums.

This entertaining and informative book touches on related genres of western swing, honky-tonk, bluegrass, gospel, country rock, and cowboy music, even up to current times. For readers with an interest in Kansas or country music history, this book is a treasure.

Ron Wilson is a rancher and writer near Manhattan.

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