Bob Burns was from rural Arkansas, and in the early 1900s, he developed a new instrument, the bazooka, which one might think of as a poor man’s trombone. He found success in radio and film in the 1930s. By the mid thirties, he was quite popular. In 1938, he was the host of the Academy Awards. He had his own radio show from 1940-1947. His “Arkansas Traveler” persona was a proper nod to his background. Here’s an episode in 1943 with Spike Jones: YouTube link. Note the use of the song “Down In Arkansaw” at the beginning. I’ve written about this song in the blog before. It was first recorded in 1921, and covered by some of the top hillbilly artists in the 1920s, but the author of the song was originally from Wales. I did a quick cover on kalimba on my YouTube channel based on the 1913 sheet music.
Bob Burns has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, but despite the fact that he was from the rural south and made his fame with a hillbilly character and showing up in western movies, he rarely draws mention in country history discussions.
In WWII, a military weapon became known as the bazooka because of it’s resemblance to the musical instrument. Bazooka bubble gum began in 1947, and it is still made.
I mentioned Spike Jones earlier. Country Music Hall Of Fame member Cindy Walker also worked with Spike Jones, and “The Big Palooka Who Played Bazooka” is on my new Bazooka Playlist. Cindy Walker became so well known for her songwriting that her own career as an artist in the forties is often overlooked.
The other act of interest to country fans on the bazooka list is Bob Skyles and his Skyrockets. This Texas family band (actual name Kendrick) had a touring medicine show in the twenties, and recorded dozens of songs from 1937-41: (link to more information about this group). Also, here’s the Handbook of Texas profile.
Unfortunately, most of the Skyles records aren’t on YouTube, but several are. A few of the songs even have bazooka in the title. This group used many instruments.
Keep in mind where country music was in the mid thirties. There were several big regional scenes, plus plenty of smaller ones. You can see for yourself on this Wikipedia list of Opry members in chronological order that it wasn’t until 1937 that the Opry added a flurry of future legends. There were a few major names before, but also a lot of mostly local acts who are unknown by most today. The Opry’s biggest star, Uncle Dave Macon, was born in 1870, so he was getting up there in years. Texas and Chicago both had major scenes, too, but they were producing major new stars, and singing cowboys were all over the movies. Not only was Nashville not yet completely dominant, but one can make a case that Nashville was even trailing the other major scenes in the mid thirties in terms of creating new superstars.
One of the most popular acts in the Chicago scene was the Hoosier Hotshots, who used oddball instruments and combined hillbilly and jazz influences. You know who else combined hillbilly and jazz ? Western swing in Texas. Yet, Texas didn’t have an act quite like the Hotshots. Along came Skyles and the Skyrockets in 1937. They literally recorded a song called “We’re Not The Hoosier Hotshots.” I found a few of Skyles’ bazooka songs for my bazooka playlist, and there are more songs with bazooka that aren’t currently on YouTube.
I’ll also mention that Skyles and the Skyrockets recorded a couple of songs with “Honky Tonk” in the title in 1938. Although there were “Honky Tonk” titles in the 1910s, the generally accepted first “country honky tonk” title was Al Dexter in late 1936. More precisely, Al Dexter recorded Honky Tonk Blues in San Antonio on November 28, 1936, and other Honky Tonk-titled songs in Dallas in 1937. One of the other important early country honky tonk recordings was Jimmie Davis with the Brownies (Milton Brown’s group after Milton Brown passed away in 1936) on February 19, 1937 in Dallas.
Honky tonk became associated with a style of country music, rather than just songs with the words “honky tonk” in the title. Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You” is often cited as a prominent example. The Texas Troubadour first recorded this song in Fort Worth on April 26, 1941 (source: UCSB cylinder archive). Ernest Tubb joined the Grand Ole Opry on February 13, 1943. If you’re making a timeline of the shift of power to Nashville, then this move belongs on there.