Right now the Chuck Wagon Gang should be on the road playing churches, fairs and festivals as they have over two centuries. The perennial touring gospel quartet is used to meeting fans who regal them with stories of how earlier generations of their families gathered around the radio to hear “I’ll Fly Away.”
Instead singer and family leader Shaye Smith finds herself quarantined on the North Carolina coast. Sitting next to an antique Victrola that likely played some of the early Chuck Wagon Gang’s 78’s, Smith found herself using Facebook Live to explain to her older fans how fans at home can support the Chuck Wagon Gang through streaming proceeding to give a tutorial on how it works. “If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just ask your niece or nephew. They will.”
The quartet’s songs have endured through recession, wars and American history over two centuries. In the documentary America’s Gospel Singers: The Legacy Lives On, journalist Dan Rather who hails from Texas where the Chuck Wagon originated, talked about the hope the music of the Chuck Wagon Gang provides.
The Chuck Wagon Gang’s latest album No Depression In Heaven (The Gospel Songs of The Carter Family) (Mountain Home Music Company) helps to connect the past to the present with an album that features such standards as “Honey In The Rock,” “There’s No Depression In Heaven” and “The Old Gospel Ship.”
Shaye’s great-grandfather D.P. “Dad” Carter founded the Chuck Wagon Gang in Lubbock in 1936 with his son Jim and daughters Rose and Anna. They’d go on to sign with Columbia Records and sell over forty million records. At one time they were the label’s longest running act.
One night some time in the Fifties, the Carter Family and Chuck Wagon Gang were on the same bill. A.P. Carter, a founding member of the Carter Family, and Dad Carter, sat backstage trying to trace their family trees and see if they were related. AP, Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter were from Virginia and Dad and his clan from Lubbock, Texas.
But by the night’s end the two men were unable to find something that linked the two families. They left concluding they shared the same name but weren’t related.
For Shaye Smith, who has been serving as the Chuck Wagon Gang’s present day leader for more than twenty-five years, the similarities were striking.
“In all my years and I have been doing this for twenty-five years, I had never researched the Carter Family,” she shared with me. “We are Carters too and everyone has asked, ‘Are you related to Mother Maybelle?’ It had almost become a frustration, you know like a comparison. It was just amazing that they had started ten years earlier. It turned out there were so many similarities in style and the way the music was put together in its simplicity.”
Smith’s Uncle Roy had been performing in the Chuck Wagon Gang forty-five years when he encountered health issues. When he called his great niece, he was trying to bow out or as she described it, “put the wagon in the barn” with dignity.
“He called and said, ‘Hey do you want to come out and sing for a few months?’ I said, ‘Sure why not? It’s only going to be a few months.’ But here it is twenty-five years later. I didn’t expect to be part of it this long but sometimes God’s plans aren’t your plans and you have to kind of go with the flow. Here I am.”
Smith and her compatriots had visited the Carter Family property and performed at the Carter Fold, built adjacent to where AP Carter ran a pharmacy that is now a museum. They all talked about the awe of stepping out onto that stage and thinking about what had come before them. The new record was a way to reconnect the Chuck Wagon Gang with their roots.
“The inspiration came from our desire to go back to the late twenties/early thirties Americana-folk-country and western framework and trying to reestablish ourselves as who we really are and what better way to record music of the Carter Family.”
She is somewhat mystified that in all the years of history, the group has never recorded any songs by the Carter Family. That includes a catalogue of 800 songs performed over 84 years. She enlisted a friend to help begin a six month process to select the dozen songs that made the record.
The singer is struck by pictures taken during the depression. For her family of poor itinerant cotton farmers, seeing the Carter Family during the time had an immediacy. “I’m thinking ‘they’re just like my family.’ We’re not related but for the first time I felt this kindred spirit there because they were all going through the same thing during that time frame. It was kind of somber I guess you could say.”
Smith relates to the legacy of reaching people who needed hope. Growing up she heard stories from her grandmother of how difficult it was. “It’s so hard to fathom and so hard for people to grasp. I want younger folks to understand what they went through to make music possible.”
Smith’s passion for preserving the history of the Chuck Wagon Gang is rooted in the group’s steadfastness over time. “There’s not many groups who can say they haven’t changed in 80 years,” she reflects. “I think we are who we are because we haven’t changed. It’s not that people haven’t tried to change us. There have been folks over the years who have said, ‘Let’s do this—let’s change that to make you more relevant.’”
Smith recalls one who suggested changing their trademark intro, the signature guitar strum that precedes the start of each song.
“If anybody cares about that strum,” she says adamantly, “I care about the strum. That’s our trademark. When you hear that dum-da-dum, you know it’s going to be the Chuck Wagon Gang.”
What you will hear in concert—one guitar and four voices of Smith, Melissa Kemper, Stan Hill and Karl Smakula—seems somewhat distant given the present times. But the Chuck Wagon Gang will be on the road again at some point. Smith took a break from the road for a few years to raise her children and use her education degree to teach choir. But she felt unfulfilled and headed back on the road again. “I think my kids have come to understand ‘That’s just what Mom does.’”
Smith, who once sang opera and Broadway tunes, said there were no expectations she would be leading the Chuck Wagon Gang. Reflecting on her history, she says there have been a lot of bumps in the road. “As Uncle Roy said, “It’s survived in spite of its members.’ It’s survived and I think that’s divine intervention. It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than any person who has been a part of it.”
Shaye Smith is unsure who will succeed her when her time comes. She says there are a lot of family members but it’s hard for her to speculate who will step into her shoes, She carries on with the belief there will be somebody.
In the face of the world’s uncertainties, Smith finds solace in her faith. On the Facebook message to her fans, she ended it by reading some of her favorite scriptures.
There have been challenges before. She describes the passing of her Uncle Roy as a tough hurdle to get over. There were a lot of personnel changes in the 2000s. “Sometimes you think, ‘My goodness what am I doing here? Is it really worth it? But then a fan comes up with tears in their eyes and says ‘Oh my goodness. I almost didn’t come here tonight. Please don’t ever stop singing.’ That’s your reassurance I’m doing the right thing. It’s hard, you miss your family. But it’s what you do. It’s what you’re supposed to do.”