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Smokey Wood & Wood Chips

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"Got money in my pocket/whiskey on my mind." So sings country swing pianist Smokey Wood on his "Sweet Little Girl of Mine." And this bit of lyric goes a long way in spelling out Wood's honky tonk ethos of fun, liquor, and good music. He hit his prime for a brief period in the late '30s, fronting a band that can be counted alongside Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys as one of the earliest of the western swing bands to emerge in Texas and all across the West around World War II. Known as the Houston Hipster, after the city he made his mark in, Smokey Wood might not be one of the best-known country figures, but he certainly is one of the most undeniably enjoyable to listen to. Born on September 16, 1918, in Harrison, AR, Wood (born John Bryce Wood) was raised by his father Zack, a railroad engineer, and mother Maude, a piano player. He spent the majority of his childhood in Oklahoma before moving to Houston in 1935 at the age of 17. Wood set out from Muskogee, OK, bringing his band the Oklahoma Playboys with him. Proudly wearing their jazz influences in a country guise, Wood and his early musical cohorts -- mandolin player Leo Raley, guitarist Randall Ray (Leo's brother), and fiddler Buddy Ray, among others -- initially found it hard to break into Houston's musical scene; with influences like Fats Waller (also a favorite of Bob Wills'), Jimmie Lunceford, Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Stephen Foster -- not to mention a slew of blues and country acts -- Houston's musical powers didn't quite know what to do with the group and generally ignored them; their hillbilly, jazz, and pop blend even kept them out of the local musician's union early on. Left to their own devices, Wood and company started to make a small name for themselves playing in Houston's many beer joints -- they scraped together a living off of their one dollar a night fee and tips. Eventually the band got some air time at radio station KXYZ. Wood would later start playing with Floyd Tillman, Hezzie Bryant, Charles Keeshan, and Leon Selph under the name of the Blue Ridge Playboys, an outfit that lasted close to a year. The band then changed their name to the Georgia Flyers, moved over to station KTRH, and changed their name again to Modern Mountaineers. It was about this time that the boys in his band realized that apart from music, Wood's great love was for the wacky tobaccy, or as it's better known: marijuana. According to some accounts, Wood was high most of the time and would even smoke on the bandstand when the notion grabbed him (and when the cops weren't close by, one presumes). And to further put things in perspective, Wood's love was so steadfast -- and big, too -- he usually kept at least a pound or two around for safe keeping and spared his lean budget in the process by growing some plants of his own. Smokey, indeed! So, with Wood perennially in good spirits, Modern Mountaineers came together around 1937. And to compliment his own predilections, Wood found a bunch of hard-drinking players to swing those blues away. Along with the top fiddler J.R. Chatwell, pedal-steel player J.C. Way, and guitarist Lefty Groves, the band included the Chu Berry-inspired tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Hal Hebert and bassist Rip Ramsey. While gigging around the Houston area in their own Pierce Arrow bus, Wood and the Mountaineers got their first big break when a Dallas producer offered them the chance to cut some tracks. Trying to avoid any copyright fees, the band was persuaded to record all original material at their March 1, 1937 session in San Antonio. Taking a bit here and there from the hits of the day and various country and jazz sides, the Mountaineers cut several tunes that day, the results of which being some of the best vintage country swing committed to wax. Think of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller mixing it up with the likes Wills and Spade Cooley and you get the picture: the songs jump along on Wood's pumping piano and Grove's mightily riffing guitar work (shades of Django Rheinhardt), while Hebert and Chatwell tastefully -- and with a bit of the old lowdown, too -- weave in and out of the proceedings with their respective tenor and violin lines. And capping it all off, there's Way's sly steel guitar work and, of course, Wood's laconic vocals and timely spoken counterpoint in the vein of Waller and Wills. Unfortunately, this would be Wood's only outing with Modern Mountaineers. Precipitated by business manager Roy Thames' dislike of Wood's voice and the ever-growing presence of pianist and vocalist Sock Underwood, Wood decided to leave the group to pursue a day job at a Houston filling station, which also happened to do a mean business shifting large quantities of Wood's favorite herb. Bouncing back into recording studio, Wood got another chance from the Dallas record company that sponsored the Mountaineer sessions and ended up cutting ten tracks on September 12, 1937 in Dallas. With Way along for the ride on steel guitar, Wood was joined by various local musicians on another round of top-notch tunes. Called the Wood Chips, the group reeled off such highlights as Wood's "Traveling Blues" (after Jimmie Rodgers' "Traveling Blues"), "Trucking Blues" (a weed paean that takes a tip from Cab Calloway's "Kicking the Gong Around"), and the wonderfully gin-soaked "Moonlight in Oklahoma." Once again, for copyright concerns, Wood borrowed from the collective musical bag, while changing things enough to claim authorship on most of the songs. This session with the Wood Chips would not be Wood's last, but it would mark the beginning of the long and often wayward sojourn he would take until his death some 35 years later. In addition to taking time out to marry and have a child, Wood roamed around the Southwest, CA, and even in the Northeast for a spell. Besides conning music store owners out of instruments and driving a few of his friends crazy with his proto-hippy ways, Wood did find time to work as radio announcer in Oklahoma and California and as promoter in various parts of the country. He eventually made it back to Texas, raised fighting cocks, dabbled in painting, and continued to play music. He even found time to run a flea market in Waco. Wood's certainly didn't stop playing with other bands, though. From the late '30s until his passing in 1975, he even had some high-profile gigs. At one point, Bob Wills asked Wood and Mountaineer-alum J.R. Chatwell to build a group around his fiddle-playing father, Uncle John Wills. Spending more time living it up than working, Wood and Chatwell were soon without a gig and making their way back to Texas. Wood's biggest shot at the big time, though, came in 1945, when he landed a gig with Spade Cooley as the singer was riding high on his hit "Shame, Shame on You." After a botched attempt to get Cooley to finance a music school for Wood to run, the Houston Hipster ambled back to Texas yet again to fish, smoke weed, and drink beer. During these ill-fated ventures, Wood continued to play solo for money and found intermittent work with the bands of Cliff Bruner in Beaumont, Bill Mounce in Houston, and Adolph Hofner in San Antonio. He also spent some those 20 years from 1940-1960 touring the carnival circuit with Buddy Ray and playing one-off gigs and solo shows. In the last years of his life, Wood sadly was living amongst fellow drifters out at his home in Meridian, TX. Besides cock fighting and growing his plants, Wood did have a lengthy gig with Houston saxophonist Joe Sanchez. In fact, his last recordings -- a cover of "Lucille" b/w "Spirit of '76" -- were made with Sanchez. Then, having drunk himself to ill health and not interested in seeking a doctor's help, Wood finally died on January 6, 1975 of what is presumed to have been heart failure. Unfortunately, not much in the way of Smokey Wood recordings are available. Save for The Houston Hipster collection on Rambler, which includes most of his 1937 recordings with Modern Mountaineers and the Wood Chips, and a few Western swing compilations, the likelihood of other Wood recordings is probably small. Between his Sanchez sides, some cuts from his time with Cooley, Bruner, and Hofner, and maybe even some rare tapes of his many solo outings from the honky tonk circuit, someone might be able to come up with a decent collection to further chronicle the Houston Hipster's rocky career. ~ Stephen Cook