A number of Texas musicians received some of their earliest professional experience playing for the old-time traveling medicine shows, a popular form of American entertainment from roughly the 1870s to the television age. The list includes such artists as Bob Wills, Gene Autry, T-Bone Walker, Charline Arthur, Prince Albert Hunt, Cliff Bruner, and Cowboy Slim Rinehart.
The shows were sometimes as small as a lone pitchman and a banjo player or guitarist. In a 1929 Saturday Evening Post reminiscence, medicine showman Nevada Ned Oliver wrote that the larger shows presented “full evenings of drama, vaudeville, musical comedy, Wild West shows, minstrels, magic, burlesque, dog and pony circuses, not to mention Punch and Judy, pantomime, movies, menageries, bands, parades, and pie-eating contests.”
According to Oliver Barnes, son of a champion fiddler/banjoist and medicine showman named Frank Barnes, a twenty-two-year-old Bob Wills bested Barnes in an impromptu fiddling contest in Wills's hometown of Turkey, Texas, before briefly joining the show on the road at $25 a week. At fifteen years of age Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker got a job playing music for one Doc Breeding when the doctor came through Walker's neighborhood in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and sold his Big B Tonic (also called B and B Tonic), a concoction Walker later described as “black and evil-tasting.” A shy fifteen-year-old named Orvon Autry joined the Fields Brothers Medicine Show when it played his hometown of Tioga, Texas, in 1923. In the 1930s, after morphing into the singing cowboy movie star Gene Autry, the Tiogan performed in fictional medicine shows in several of his Hollywood film roles.
The father of fifteen-year-old Charline Arthur had to sign a legal release in order to let the future rockabilly queen travel with the Ray Smith Medicine Show when it came through Paris, Texas. Arthur's younger sister recalled decades later that Charline “looked like a star” on the tiny med-show stage. The Smith show was one of many selling the popular, alcohol-powered tonic Hadacol.
Though the repertoire of most early touring medicine shows reflected music currently or recently popular back East, regional fare eventually found its way into medicine show playlists. When New Mexico cowboy musicologist N. Howard “Jack” Thorp made a song-collecting trip through Texas in 1889, he performed some of the tunes he discovered (some of which would later become Western classics) with a medicine show in Waco. As Thorp recalled in his book, Pardner of the Wind, he was carrying his banjo into a downtown Waco chili joint when a man grabbed his arm and explained that “Professor Scott, the Wizard Oil King, needed a man like me. His banjo-picker was drunk, and his show was due to open on the public square in a few minutes.” The long-haired, long-winded professor “wore a scarlet coat and a huge sombrero,” wrote Thorp. “Occasionally he would fondle a pet Gila monster that he carried around...and explain that among other mysterious powers he had a strange influence over dumb animals.” Thorp played between medicine pitches and other bits, receiving $5 for a two-hour show. And he collected lyrics to the song “Buckskin Joe” from the fast-talking professor, who “recited this barroom surprise story with oratorical flourishes that would have astonished Shakespeare.”
Fiddle music was especially popular with Texas medicine show audiences. Eck Robertson, who grew up near Amarillo, and his occasional musical partner Henry Gilliland, the two fiddlers who, together, waxed the first commercial country recordings in New York in 1922, took to the medicine show circuit to refine their artistry on the instrument that some called the “Devil's Box.” Robertson, who later had a long career as the colorful “Cowboy Fiddler,” left his Panhandle home at age sixteen to tour the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and developed his natural talent as a showman with pitches and trick fiddling. Henry Gilliland played before World War I with the King-K Medicine Company show based in Cleburne, Texas. At least one incarnation of the King-K outfit featured a lone banjo with six fiddlers.
Western swing historian Kevin Coffey collected information about the Kendrick Komedy Kompany, a western swing family medicine show band that toured such Texas towns as Floydada, Plainview, Ralls, Jayton, Roby, and Rotan during the late 1920s and early 1930s. As drummer Cliff Kendrick recalled, the Kompany sold “wonder cures...mostly vegetable oil, plus a little bit of whiskey; that's where the wonder came from.” Western swing fiddler Cliff Bruner joined one Doc Scott's medicine troupe when it passed through Aspermont, Texas, where Bruner was picking cotton, in the 1930s. The entire company, Bruner told music historian Joe Carr, would pitch in to mix the product Liquidine during the afternoon, so they could sell it at that evening's performance.
Fiddler Prince Albert Hunt, whose late-1920s recordings are regarded by historians as important forerunners of western swing, exemplified the hard-partying style of some medicine show performers. Described by music historian Marshall Wyatt as “adept at comic and stunt fiddling,” Hunt often performed in blackface with Chief Wahoo's Medicine Show. A fast-living rounder who claimed to be “drunker than a hoot owl” during some of his recording sessions, Hunt was killed by a jealous husband while leaving a Dallas dance hall in 1931.
Medicine show songster Hunter Gassaway, who was likely a member of a Fort Worth family named Gassaway that provided tonics, liniments, and soaps wholesale to traveling troupes, also lived it up until he was killed crossing a street in 1945. As “lovable a character as ever the police ran in for drinking,” Hunter had “followed the medicine circuit since the turn of the century.” As his Fort Worth Star-Telegram obituary noted, Gassaway was:
known through this area for his rich singing of the old South's songs,
Negro spirituals, and folk ballads....On the little torch-lit stages in
country towns he caught up his standing listeners with the songs of
Stephen Foster and the rollicking verses of levee toilers before the
'doctor' passed among them with the medicine bottles aloft. Police
figure he had been arrested more than 300 times in the last 23 years
for drinking—just drinking. He never gave them 'trouble.' He came to
the city jail singing, and he sang in his cell to his cellmates.
West of Fort Worth, one medicine man utilized music therapy in a different kind of theatrical atmosphere. Sometimes called the “Indian Adept” or the “Long-Haired Doctor,” R. G. Milling practiced his own version of magnetic healing, a drugless treatment that combined massage, faith healing, mineral water, hypnotism, and showmanship. Describing Milling's pre-World War I sanitarium in a Spanish Mission Revival style hotel in Putnam (near Abilene), West Texas historian John Berry noted that, “An orchestra was kept to furnish background music for all occasions and to help soothe the nerves of the many patients who came to drink the water and take the baths and treatments. Various groups negotiated with them to play for dances, usually held on Saturday nights or on special occasions. The ballroom floor was of maple. It was beautiful and also very slick when a little cornmeal was added.” In 1990 Milling's naturopath granddaughter recalled that fiddle bands from nearby Ranger were often employed at the sanitarium. Postcard photographs of the part-Cherokee healer and patients include musicians holding banjos, fiddles, baritone horns, and harp guitars.
With the advent of radio by the 1920s, medicine shows took to the airwaves. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Mineral Wells-based company Crazy Water Crystals sponsored musical programming not only on Texas radio stations but also on Mexican border stations and on stations in Georgia, the Carolinas, New York City, and Canada. Artists like Bill Monroe and Hank Snow got some of their early professional experience on programs sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals.
Though the shows had generally receded into history by the television age, their legend and lore remained a potent cultural force. Marty Robbins often told interviewers that stories told by his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, about performing in medicine shows, helped inspire him to go into show business. (Another Heckle descendant maintained, however, that Texas Bob was a cowboy poet who never performed in medicine shows.)
Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson paid tribute to the medicine shows on his 2000 CD, Seven Decades. His song, “Medicine Man,” recalls his experience while growing up in Waco in the 1930s of seeing “old Doc Tate...elegantly attired in a high silk hat, split-tail coat, and ruffled shirt,” expounding “on his miracle tonic from a large gaudy wagon” as “musicians, dancers, and rube comedians performed on the wagon's fold-down stage.” The late Doc Toler of Martindale, Texas, who performed with his family band in medicine show re-creations until his death in 2005, interviewed old-time musicians who played with Doc Tate and recalled that the doctor would comb the Central Texas countryside buying moonshine to pep up his medicines.
A long list of musicians played for Doc Tate's Tate-Lax shows through the years, including mandolinist Leo Raley and singing cowboy Thomas Edison “Brownie” Ford. An oral history informant in Hurley, New Mexico, stated in 1980: “As a boy of about 15 I had the privilege of hearing three brothers play fiddles on a Dr. N.F. Tate, Tate-Lax Medicine Show, which was a very impressive and highly developed form of frontier entertainment.”
A singer and dancer named Jo Carroll Dennison performed on the Tate show as a teenager; in 1942 that showbiz experience helped her win the title of Miss America.
John Sikorski's May 29, 2010, column in the Gainesville Sun stated that, as a boy, he saw a version of the Tate show performed on the back end of a flatbed truck. The front of the truck bed held a hollowed-out section of a giant redwood tree that served as the traveling home for the show folks. Other Tate med-show vehicles would have such long cattle horns attached that even J. Frank Dobie took notice of them. At some point, the doctor opened a Tate-Lax Museum in Waco that exhibited geological specimens and other natural wonders. A 1958 note in the “Pipes for Pitchmen” column in Billboard reported that many old-time med-show folks in the Southwest were living in retirement at Waco's Tate-Lax Trailer Park.
Some were still on the road, though, like Tate protégé Benny Doss, who is said to have been recruiting musicians in the late 1950s who could approximate the performance style of Elvis Presley. Tate's products, Tate-Lax and Tate-O-Rub, must have been pretty good stuff. A 1972 notice in Amusement Business ventured that Doc Tate might still be alive at an age of about 102.