Chuck Wagon Gang makes annual Pigeon Forge homecoming

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 06:45 PM

Shaye Smith planned to teach choral music to high schoolers. Then came the chance to join the Chuck Wagon Gang, the legendary Southern gospel group founded in 1935.

“In 1993, I was living out in Fort Worth, Texas, and my grandmother’s youngest brother, Roy Carter – he sang bass with the group for 45 years – was the manager in charge,” Smith said. “He called and asked if I wanted to sing.”

Without hesitation, she said yes. She told him, “Singing is what I want to do.”

Smith is the granddaughter of the late Anna Carter Gordon Davis, the Chuck Wagon Gang’s original alto singer. In 1935, Anna got sick, and her father, David P. Carter, raised money for her treatment by singing on Lubbock, Texas, radio with Anna’s siblings, Lola and Ernest.

That was the beginning of the Chuck Wagon Gang, which for decades has been entertaining and inspiring fans with songs like “After the Sunrise” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” In 1998 the group was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame.

David Carter, who was known as Dad, will be honored at the Chuck Wagon Gang’s seventh annual Homecoming, which takes place today and Saturday at the Smoky Mountain Convention Center in Pigeon Forge. This year is the 50th anniversary of his death.

At tonight’s performance, Carter will be remembered in a presentation by country music authority Eddie Stubbs, who is a Grand Ole Opry announcer and hosts the evening shift on Nashville’s storied radio station WSM-AM 650.

“I can’t help but think that Dad Carter would be extremely proud of the great-granddaughter he never knew,” Stubbs said. “He must be looking down from heaven, proud she’s continuing this with the other members. They are staying true to what his vision was.”

The group’s lineup has changed since 1935, but its sound hasn’t. The current members – Smith, Julie Hudson, Stan Hill and Jeremy Stephens – sing four-part harmony accompanied only by Stephens’ guitar.

“For a group to survive 75 years without changing anything is amazing,” Smith said. “God’s hand has been on the group the whole time.”

“It’s amazing how much the current group sounds like the original group,” Stubbs said. “There’s no bells and whistles. What they have is simplicity, honesty and integrity.”

The Chuck Wagon Gang is “one of the most elite groups in gospel music,” said Stubbs, who noted that from the beginning, the group also appealed to country fans.

“When they were signed in 1936, their contemporaries on what became Columbia were people like Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Bill Monroe.”

Even today, Stubbs said, “I get requests for Chuck Wagon Gang music every week at WSM in Nashville.”

“It’s amazing how many people the music has touched,” said Smith, recalling the work of Chuck Wagon Gang members who came before her. “It’s taken me years to understand the scope of what they did.”

Among the people the music has touched: country star Marty Stuart. He is set to produce a Chuck Wagon Gang album of songs he wrote.

“He loves Chuck Wagon Gang music because his mom and dad did,” Smith said. “He’s a big fan of old-time music of all genres.”

Stuart encouraged Smith, who had worried that in a changing gospel music market, the Chuck Wagon Gang’s music was on the verge of irrelevance.

“I was panicking,” Smith said. “What will we do to stay in demand? So it was perfect timing to cross paths with Marty. He said, ‘What you do is so relevant and important. The uniqueness of what you do is what’s kept you going all this time. You don’t need to change anything.’”

The recording project came about after Stubbs hosted the group on live radio. “Bless his heart, he’s been a tremendous friend,” Smith said. “I think he told Marty, ‘You need to listen to these guys.’”

“The Chuck Wagon Gang have been around since the 1930s, and their name is extremely well known, and a lot of people think they’re an old group,” Stubbs said. “But there are a lot of great things on the horizon for the Gang. A lot of people are discovering them.”

When the group appeared on WSM’s “Intimate Evening With Eddie Stubbs” broadcast, the audience at the Country Music Hall of Fame gave seven standing ovations, Stubbs said.

“That’s more than any act we’ve had on the program,” he said. “We’ve had Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Merle Haggard.”

The Chuck Wagon Gang is “a real special group with enormous talent,” Stubbs said. “You can’t hide the truth. And the Chuck Wagon Gang sings the truth.”

kburns@themountainpress.com