The origins of the Chuck Wagon Gang, a gospel quartet, date to 1935 in Lubbock, Texas. David Parker Carter (b. September 25, 1889; d. April 28, 1963) and his wife Carrie Brooks Carter (b. February 7, 1891; d. April 1, 1984) were itinerant sharecroppers with nine children. The Carters were a musical family who loved to sing, and in an attempt to escape their marginal existence, Dave Carter put these musical talents to use by auditioning with two of his children for a fifteen-minute program on radio station KFYO. Signed on the spot, the Carter Quartet consisted of Dave singing tenor and his son Ernest (b. August 10, 1910; d. February 2, 1971) singing bass and providing guitar accompaniment. Daughters Rosa Lola (b. December 31, 1915; d. May 13, 1997) and Effie (b. February 15, 1917; d. March 5, 2004) sang the soprano and alto parts. Sponsored by Martin’s Bakery, the program soon became one of the most popular in the KFYO listening area.
Less than a year later in 1936 Carter decided to move the family to Fort Worth in hopes of securing a better paying radio job. After auditions at several Cowtown radio stations, WBAP, a 50,000-watt broadcaster, hired the group. The Carter Quartet now had its own Saturday morning program sponsored by Morton Salt. It wasn’t long, however, before the Quartet switched not only sponsors but also names. The new sponsor was Bewley Mills Flour, and the new name, chosen by Bewley Mills, was the Chuck Wagon Gang. Cy Leland, the group’s agent and announcer on WBAP, decided spiffier individual stage names were in order too: Ernest became “Jim,” Rosa Lola became “Rose,” Effie became “Anna,” and Dave Carter became “Dad.”
Although their early repertoire included all types of songs, the gospel tunes soon caught the listening audience’s attention which was not surprising since Dad and wife, Carrie, grew up in the shape-note, singing-school tradition. The Carters also taught their children to sing in four-part harmony. Perhaps the most distinctive feature was Rose’s lead soprano, closely supported by Anna’s alto (the use of female lead was unusual for a commercial quartet, especially in the 1930s and 1940s).
WBAP listeners loved the harmony too, especially on the sacred numbers, and Bewley Mills responded accordingly. The sponsor first set aside the Wednesday radio show strictly for religious songs, but by the late 1930s the Chuck Wagon Gang devoted each of its five weekly broadcasts to singing gospel hymns. At one point, Bewley Mills offered a free photograph of the Gang to listeners who completed and sent in a coupon packed inside the sacks of Bewley’s Best Flour. WBAP received more than 100,000 requests for the photographs.
Within months of signing with WBAP Carter inked an additional contract for the group to record for ARC (American Record Corporation, later purchased by the Columbia Broadcasting System which established Columbia as its main label), which further broadened the audience. The Chuck Wagon Gang made its first recordings on November 25–26, 1936, on a portable unit set up in a San Antonio hotel room. This became the first of sixty-one recording sessions for Columbia, and the Chuck Wagon Gang remained with the label until 1977, a record of longevity unmatched by any other white gospel singing group and few recording artists in any field. During this period Columbia sold more than thirty million copies of the Chuck Wagon Gang’s recordings.
Western ballads, folk songs, and parlor tunes, regularly featured on the early radio broadcasts, also comprised a significant portion of the early recordings. Some of the group’s most popular gospel numbers, songs they were still singing years later, such as “A Beautiful Life” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” were also recorded at this time. Although the next session in 1937 included secular tunes, the Columbia releases, just as the radio program, soon became devoted exclusively to the sacred numbers. And in the years leading up to World War II, the Chuck Wagon Gang found itself among a select few white gospel groups recording for a major record label.
The Chuck Wagon Gang’s gospel repertoire drew largely from the shape-note songbooks published by the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company in Dallas, even though the group was never employed by the company. Unofficially, then, the Gang played an important role in bringing Stamps-Baxter songs to an even wider listening audience. Albert E. Brumley, author of perennial favorites “I’ll Fly Away” and “Turn Your Radio On,” contributed regularly to the Stamps-Baxter songbook series, and the Chuck Wagon Gang took a special liking to his compositions. In fact the group was the first to record “I’ll Fly Away” in 1948 and eventually recorded some two dozen of Brumley’s songs, even devoting an entire album to his music.
It is worth mentioning that the guitar, not the piano which was prominently featured by so many of the gospel groups of the era, remained the only instrumental accompaniment on the Chuck Wagon Gang recordings until the acoustic bass was added in 1959. And even later, when additional instruments were incorporated in the sessions, the chording guitar introduction provided a distinctive, familiar calling card.
Radio and records made for a potent combination and, while many Texans best remember the radio broadcasts, recordings are responsible for taking the Chuck Wagon Gang sound far beyond the boundaries of the Lone Star State. East of the Mississippi River, radio evangelist Rev. J. Bazzell Mull began spinning the Gang’s discs as early as 1942 on his show, Mull’s Singing Convention, which was broadcast over WNOX in Knoxville. In addition Mull hawked the group’s records on the air, selling them along with Bibles and songbooks. Such enthusiastic support gave the Chuck Wagon Gang unsolicited access to many households in the South. By the late 1940s Columbia Records was also regularly “servicing” the group’s records to radio stations that played country music. The continued country music connection made it possible for the Gang to rely solely on the radio program and record sales for their livelihood, again something only a small number of other white gospel quartets could do during this period.
In 1942 Dad Carter accepted an offer of $140 per daily show to move the Chuck Wagon Gang to Tulsa and radio station KVOO. Never completely happy in Oklahoma, the family was back in Fort Worth in less than a year, at which time World War II interrupted the group’s professional activities (each member old enough to do so soon became involved in the war effort). In 1945 the Gang returned to the airwaves on WBAP; however, the group did not make it into the recording studio again until 1948.
The post-war years also brought a new phenomenon to the Southern gospel music scene: the all-night singing package show. Introduced in the late 1940s in Texas by Wilmer B. Nowlin, a Methodist promoter from DeLeon, and further east by Wally Fowler, a quartet singer, songwriter, and promoter from Georgia, these shows provided the opportunity for fans to see several of their quartet favorites in person in a lively atmosphere full of glorious singing. The Chuck Wagon Gang received an invitation to venture across the Mississippi River for the first time to appear in Augusta, Georgia, on one of Fowler’s “All-Night Sings.” Here far beyond the range of WBAP, the Carters learned just how popular their Columbia recordings were. With additional concert successes, one thing became clear: to stay on the tour circuit meant giving up the radio program. In 1950 the Chuck Wagon Gang signed off at WBAP for the last time.
The next year Jim decided to retire, and his younger brother Roy (b. March 1, 1926; d. August 4, 1997) took over the bass singing duties. Anna’s husband, Howard Gordon, also joined as guitarist. But it was Dad Carter’s decision to call it quits in 1955 that proved to be the most significant change. Dad made his final recordings on September 5, 1955, in the Jim Beck Studio in Dallas. This was also the Chuck Wagon Gang’s last Columbia recording session in Texas (the next session took place in Nashville in 1956). Coupled with a move to Knoxville, Tennessee, to be nearer the tour schedule venues, an important chapter in the Gang’s career closed. The group, albeit with numerous personnel changes, continued to record and tour into the twenty-first century and celebrated its seventy-fifth year in 2011. Undoubtedly, though, the glory years for the Chuck Wagon Gang were the ones spent based in Fort Worth. Dad Carter was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1997.. The group (including all past members) was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1998. The Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted Anna Carter in 2005 and her sister Rose in 2006. Roy Carter was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2011. The original Chuck Wagon Gang is also honored in the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame. A documentary chronicling the history of the group, The Chuck Wagon Gang: America’s Gospel Singers, The Legacy Lives On, was released on DVD in 2014. In 2018 the original lineup was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.