With one foot in the early history of bluegrass and the other in Western swing, this historic Texas recording group of the '20s and '30s has earned a place in American musical history every bit as heroic as the epic last stand at the Alamo. Among many distinctions, the East Texas Serenaders were one of the few early Western groups to feature cello, played by Henry Bogan. Note the use of the word "early" in the previous sentence, because by the end of the '30s, the cello had became a complete no-show in country music. The group also featured tenor banjo as well as the expected guitar and fiddle. The main recorded document of this group is the Complete Recorded Works issued by Document; but most listeners come into contact via a fleeting glimpse offered on any number of compilations, ranging from the narrow focus of old-time Texas string bands, in which the group certainly has historic presence, to massive multi-disc overviews of the entire history of American pop music, in which the East Texas Serenaders occupy a valuable niche as well.
The East Texas Serenaders posed for publicity pictures alternately as hillbilly rubes and smooth city-slicker types. Examining the music itself can help rectify the contradiction in images: the group was sophisticated and played without the sandpaper edge of other string bands from the region. The fiddler was of course something of the captain of the ship in any string band, and in this group it was the long-bow Texas fiddling style of Daniel Huggins Williams that was part of the ensemble's personality, but inevitably not as much as the group's choice of material. While most string bands of the time stuffed their repertoire faces on square dance tunes, the East Texas Serenaders avoided this part of the action like a crusty tuna salad at a buffet table. Rags, numbers that sounded like rags, and waltzes made up most of the group's repertoire, with the latter type of number becoming some of the most frequently requested material. And the keys the group played in are also part of its unique sound; like the black Dallas String Band, the East Texas Serenaders would whip out tunes in the key of F, rather than sticking to easier square dance keys such as A and G.
Fiddler Eck Robertson, who in 1922 had become the first area fiddler to actually make recordings, was an important influence in the area of an extended repertory, a musical philosophy that was more than acceptable as far as the listening public was concerned. Robertson's tiny nickname was not based on the sound of a negative audience reaction. Other groups that performed many rags and waltzes included the Texas Nighthawks, featuring the fine steel guitarist Roy Rodgers and the Humphries Brothers. Most Texas music writers point out the relationship between the Serenaders' style and Western swing, which was coming up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. An eclectic repertoire was of course what this new genre was all about, carried to greater extremes than any of the string bands and with a heavier quotient of jazz influence, as well as electric instruments.
Other members of the group included the guitarist Cloet Hamman who, despite the sound of his first name, could hardly be accused of forming a "clot" in the flow of his single-string runs, some of which sound like he is using a chisel for a pick. Banjoist John Munnerlyn was mostly a timekeeper, his instrument offering the option of being audible above everyone else in case someone got off the beat. "Before I Grew to Love You'" was his main solo feature, perhaps dedicated to the violinist who moved out of the way to let the banjo play the lead melody for a change. The aforementioned Bogan is a real oddity among cellists, keeping company with unsavory Western swing types and not even playing an instrument with all the strings on it, as his specialty was a three-string model, actually making him sound a bit similar to several North African stringed instruments used to hold down the bass line.
By the time of the group's final recording sessions in 1937, the Lester family seemed to be attempting something of a palace coup within the band. The diminutive Shorty Lester had replaced Munnerlyn, who had decided to pack up his tenor banjo and head for Houston, while fiddler Henry Lester also came in to add a doubled fiddle part on these later recordings, increasing the similarity to Western swing with one bow while retaining an allegiance to old-time sensibilities with the other. The lovely recordings by the group includes "Sweetest Flower," "Meadow Brook Waltz," "Three in One Two-Step," the most-covered "Acorn Stomp," the playful "Fiddlin' the Fiddle," and "Say a Little Prayer for Me," the latter title a seemingly more egotistical version of what Burt Bacharach came up with later. The original recordings were issued by labels such as Columbia and Decca. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi