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Synthetic Country:

Arthur Fields, Fred Hall, and the
Creation of the “Hillbilly” Stereotype


By
Allan Sutton


Excerpted in part from Recording the 'Twenties,
available from Mainspring Press.
   


Rex Cole’s Mountaineers — the creation of New York entertainers Fred Hall and Arthur Fields in partnership with businessman Rex Cole — was one of the first acts to develop and exploit the unfortunate “hillbilly” stereotype that later found expression in the likes of the “Lil’Abner” comic strip and the long-running TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies.
   

Rex Cole's Mountaineers, in an undated publicity photograph. Arthur Fields is at the lower
right, with Fred Hall behind him. Rex Cole, a New York businessman, lent his name to
the group but was not a performing member.
(Mainspring Press collection)


Country music was in a state of transition in 1928. Increasingly, the old-time fiddlers and rural string bands that had dominated the record catalogs were giving way to more modern performers like Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmie Davis—charismatic characters who dressed sharply, wrote much of their own material, and were influenced by diverse musical styles. However, much of the public, particularly in the North, was not ready to give up its image of country musicians as isolated backwoods bumpkins.

In response, several key figures began to fabricate a stereotypical image of the “hillbilly” that is still with us today. George Hay, creator of the Grand Ole Opry, was responsible for recasting many of its early stars in a “hillbilly” mold in the late 1920s. Under Hay, Dr. Bate & his Augmented Orchestra was renamed The Possum Hunters, while the Binkley Brothers became The Dixie Clodhoppers. Opry stars who had previously performed in suits and ties, as most country performers of the period did, were instead made to appear in straw hats and patched overalls, preferably toting a jug. But despite the costuming, Hay’s stars were largely authentic country-style musicians, many of whom worked in Southern cities or towns.

In Beverly Hills, KMPC station manger Glen Rice decided to assemble his own hillbilly act in the late 1920s. Rice concocted an elaborate tale of his expedition to the Santa Monica Mountains, where he stumbled upon a group of Arkansas exiles who had been out of touch with modern civilization for a century. In fact, Rice had ventured no farther than the wilds of Hollywood, where he recruited a mix of professional musicians and aspiring actors and recast them as “Ol’ Jad” and his extended family. Dubbed the Beverly Hillbillies, Rice’s synthetic mountaineers made their first broadcast on April 6, 1930 and would be hugely successful into the 1930s. 1 Nineteen days after their radio debut, the Beverly Hillbillies were in Brunswick’s Los Angeles studio for the first of many recording sessions.


(Mainspring Press collection)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, songwriter-publisher-band leader Fred Hall was making tentative forays into the country-music market. Hall was conducting a popular dance orchestra in New York that played upbeat ersatz jazz, liberally laced with comic effects and featuring the somewhat outdated vocal stylings of Arthur Fields. In August 1928, two of Hall’s musicians, Al Russo (guitar) and Thomas Vodola (violin), went to the Edison studio to accompany pop singer Jerry Macy on two country-style tunes Hall had just composed. The records were issued under the pseudonym of “Pop Collins (Old Timber) and his Boys.” 2

The loss of recording files for many minor labels makes it difficult to determine exactly when Hall began the transition from pseduo-jazz to pseudo-country in earnest. What can be verified is that by May 1929, Columbia was recording Arthur Fields — Hall’s songwriting partner and primary vocalist — under the pseudonym of “Eddie Powers” for its low-priced Harmony s
eries. 3 The material was Fields & Hall tunes with titles like “A Mother’s Dying Wish” and “Pappy’s Buried on the Hill,” cobbled together from traditional elements to suggest authentic folk tunes.

Hall’s standard dance orchestra made its last Okeh records in January 1930. 4  In the same month, Hall pared down his orchestra to form a small backing group for Fields’ hillbilly numbers. Apart from Fields and Hall, the personnel are not be found in surviving recording files, although the Brunswick ledgers for one session list the instrumentation as violin, guitar, bass, accordion, harmonica, and trumpet. 5 Several notable discographers, including Brian Rust and Tony Russell, have suggested, based on aural and circumstantial (but not recording-file) evidence, that members included such Hall regulars as Philip D’Arcy or Thomas Vodola, violin; Al Russo, guitar; Charles Magnante, accordion; Andy Sannella. steel guitar and reeds; and Leo McConville (trumpet). 6

There was a period of overlap between the demise of Hall’s standard dance orchestra and its final recasting as a “hillbilly” band. Hall’s full orchestra recorded for many months after the first Fields and Hall hillbilly recordings for Columbia. Columbia began recording Hall’s new hillbilly group in January 1929, under the pseudonym of “Eddie Younger & his Mountaineers,” for Clarion, Diva, and other low-priced labels. 7 By June 1930, the American Record Corporation was recording the same group as “Sam Cole & his Cornhuskers” for its line of dime-store and mail-order labels. 8
  

Fields & Hall on the budget labels — (Left) On Brunswick's inexpensive Melotone line, disguised
as the "Colt Brothers." (Right) On a 1939 Varsity reissue of an early 1930s Crown recording.
In an unusual reversal of standard practice, Varsity (which usually used pseudonyms on
Crown reissues) gave the true artists' identity, whereas Crown had disguised Fields
& Hall as "Gunboat Billy & The Sparrow" on the original issue.
(Gilbert Louey Collection, Library of Congress)


A New York refrigerator distributor named Rex Cole would finally catapult Fields and Hall into the hillbilly arena full-time. Cole was neither a musician nor a mountaineer, but a successful New York distributor for General Electric who had an interest in broadcasting. Probably aware of the success of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and acts like the Beverly Hillbillies on radio, he decided to air his own hillbilly act in New York. How Cole came to decide upon Fred Hall is not known, but the upshot was that in the spring of 1930, Cole signed on to sponsor Hall’s new hillbilly act over station WEAF.

Cast in somewhat the same mold as Rice’s Beverly Hillbillies, the act would be billed as “Rex Cole’s Mountaineers.” Fields was retained as primary vocalist, along with a small group of musicians believed to have been from Hall’s dance orchestra. The material would be written by Fields and Hall, who were reinvented for the show as Long Tom and Joe Colt, respectively. Hoping to exploit yet another new market, the group would also make occasional excursions into pseudo-cowboy fare, calling itself Buck Wilson & his Rangers.

    

A late 1930s Canadian radio transcription featuring Fields & Hall (uncredited on the
label) after the breakup of the Mountaineers, performing five pseudo-country tunes.
(Gilbert Louey Collection, Library of Congress)
   

The first advertised broadcast by Rex Cole’s Mountaineers was made on July 23, 1930, over WEAF. The show was touted as a program of “original back-woods compositions played an sung to ballroom tempo... for a pleasant relief from the ultra-modern.” 9 Cole’s Mountaineers soon settled into a regular fifteen- (or at times, twenty-) minute afternoon time slot at 5:45 on weekdays, following WEAF’s afternoon children’s program. 10 The Mountaineers also starred in at least one film short and made occasional live appearances. One that received some press coverage was a benefit for the Salvation Army at Madison Square Gardens on May 26, 1931, along with 200 other radio stars. 11 The Mountaineers proved so popular that in 1931 WEAF renewed the Fields & Hall contract for $175,000. 12

Unlike Rice’s Beverly Hillbillies, which made some attempt to honor the musical traditions they were scavenging so successfully, Fields and Hall often lampooned those traditions and pandered to their audience with the most blatant stereotypes. For their film short, various band members donned bib overalls and false beards, passed around a jug, and waved a shotgun, anticipating the worst excesses of “Lil’l Abner” by a decade. It was an act aimed at middle-class Northern urbanites, allowing them a laugh at the expense of rural folk, much as Len Spencer’s “rube” routines had done a decade or two earlier.

The Mountaineers made their last documented network broadcasts during the week of March 18, 1934. 13 They seem to have continued working for about another year, playing small-time vaudeville and movie houses. One of their last appearances was as a warm-up act before the showing of Clark Gable’s “After Office Hours” at Loew’s Paradise Concourse, a Bronx movie theater. 14

Fields and Hall, minus the Mountaineers, continued to do radio work in the same vein for several more years. They were even heard on Canadian radio in the late 1930s, in a pre-recorded program (made in New York's NBC studio) on which they re-created several of their "Rex Cole"-era hits and discussed their decision to become "hillbillies."

Few country music fans today have ever heard of Rex Cole’s Mountaineers, and even fewer mourn its passing. Yet, it is a group worth worth remembering for the role it played in popularizing what was thought of at the time as "country" music — albeit in bastardized form — with an urban audience.


NOTES

1  Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, p. 78. University of Chicago Press (1997).

2  Many sources have erroneously attributed these records to Arthur Fields. Macy’s identity, and those of his accompanists, are confirmed in the Edison studio cash books (Edison National Historic Site, Orange, NJ).

3  Columbia recording files (5/9/1929). BMG-Sony Archives, New York.

4  Okeh recording files (1/11/1930). BMG-Sony Archives, New York.Hall’s remaining Okeh issues would be pseudonymous hillbilly releases, leased from Columbia.

5  Brunswick-Balke-Collender recording files (1/16/1931); in Laird, Brunswick Records, Vol. 2. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (2001).

6  See, for example, Russell, Country Music Records: A Discography (1921–1942), pp. 341–345. New York: Oxford University Press (2004).

7  Columbia recording files (1/9/1930). BMG-Sony Archives, New York.

8  Thomas, Billie W., and Allan Sutton. The Plaza-ARC Discography, Vol. 1, p. 371. Denver: Mainspring Press (2006).

9  WEAF ad for Rex Cole’s Mountaineers. New York Times (7/23/1930), p. 24. It is suspected that the group made some earlier broadcasts, but documentation remains to be located.

10  “Radio Programs Scheduled for this Week.” New York Times (miscellaneous issues, from 8/24/1930).

11   Don’t Miss This Show” (advertisement). New York Times (5/26/1931), p. 36

12  “Art Fields and Fred Hall Re-sign with Rex Cole for Another Year.” Metronome (March 1931), p. 24.

13  “This Weeks’ Radio Programming.” New York Times (3/18/1934), p. X10

14  Loew’s Paradise Concourse advertisement. New York Times (3/26/1936).


DOCUMENT HISTORY: Initial web posting March 5, 2007. Revisions and additions posted December 5, 2009; and January 10, 2010. Material from the Gilbert Louey collection was photographed by the author at Mr. Louey's residence in Hanover, PA, in August 1988. Portions of this article also appear in revised form in the author's Recording The 'Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–29.
   



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