Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
We first learned about Harry Blevins from an old article about the WVOK Dixie Jamboree radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. Harry was born in Bibb County, Alabama and his family lived there until the beginning of World War II. The family then moved to Birmingham. An old article notes he started his musical journey when he was just three years old, playing an old broom, singing tunes to anyone that would listen.
When he attended West End High School in 1949, he learned to play the ukulele and later the guitar. Upon graduation, he attended the University of Alabama in 1953 and 1954.
The Dixie Jamboree appears to have went on the air when the station began around 1947. The shows emcee and host was Dan Brennan. Othell Sullivan and the armless steel guitar player, Ray R. Myers, were stars on the show in the 1955 time frame.
One of the members of Harry's band wrote to share his memories of that time and era, Floyd Lowery.
Floyd was playing with the Ace Plunkett and the Dixie Drifters when he first met Harry Blevins. He was just 16 years old at the time. The WVOK Dixie Jamboree aired on Saturdays. Floyd indicated they got no pay for their radio efforts, but the radio work led to personal appearances.
The Dixie Drifters group broke up when their guitar player was drafted and the fiddle player was called to active duty with the Naval Reserve. Harry talked with Floyd and asked him to join his band and play steel guitar for him. At the time, the two only lived about two miles apart, but attended different high schools.
Harry would tell the audiences the band was available for personal appearances. Folks would write the station and hire them in some instances. The band would get a per cent of the admissions for their shows or dances. In some of their best arrangements, the band got about 60 or 70 per cent of the admissions and it was split evenly among the band members.
In one appearance, Shorty Sullivan had the group go with him and play a round and square dance in Double Springs, ALabama because he was getting ready to leave his band and go on the road with his kin folk, Lonzo and Oscar. But he was killed in an automobile accident that also killed one of the wives.
The band's arrangement was that they would take five dollars off the top for the one that did the driving (Floyd indicated it was usually him or Harry) and their take from those appearances would be about eight to twelve dollars each, which was fairly good money back then.
The band also did other appearances such as a store promotion where they would play on a flat bed trailer and would get a flat rate such as $40.00 for their appearance.
While in the U. S. Army, Harry Blevins and the Steel City Playboys made an appearance at the Palmetto Panorama - A Salute To South Carolina on January 20 and 21, 1955 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The band members included George Spellman, Harry Blevins, Jimmy Townsend, Ernest (Allen) Maury, George Layne and James Harding.
Mr. Lowery tells us they planned the sets they did for the radio show and rehearsed them as well. The same was true for their personal appearances. The band tried to learn the current popular songs of the day as well as favorite standards. If a fan hollered out a song request, the band would try to play it if they knew it.
Harry's group also included some comedy as part of their show as many groups did back then. Harry would play the part of the straight man while Floyd would play the comedic part and dress in baggy pants with freckles and teeth blacked out. Mr. Lowery tells us he learned a lot watching people such as Hardrock Gunter and Charlie Best with the Golden River Boys.
The guitar player's father booked a lot of vaudeville show and told the band a lot of corny "Hee Haw" type of jokes the band could use.
Floyd told us he played some 'honky-tonks' when he was young, but did not remember playing any with Harry. But Mr. Lowery remembers that Harry asked a guy during a break in a set in Double Springs, Alabama if it was a dry county. The guy told Harry that sure enough, it was dry as dust. Not missing a best when someone then asked where "Joe" was, Harry replied, "Oh, he walked out into the woods there to get a drink of that dust."
Floyd recalled the night that Harry's dad bought a new automobile; a Mercury. It was probably sometime late in 1952 as it was a 1953 Mercury. As they were driving back from an appearance in Double Springs, Harry got upset that Floyd was only doing about a 100mph. In short order to emphasize that perceived "slow" speed, a Kaiser passed them as if they were sitting still on the road. But, a short time later, a car with blue lights caught up with them. The group had to follow the police car back to Jasper, Alabama. They had to pool all of their money to get Harry out and drive them home. Floyd recalled that Harry was probably more upset that the Kaiser had passed them than because they were pulled over by the police.
Floyd eventually left the band because Harry turned down the opportunity to play on the National Network Talent show. Why? Well, it seems no one would let them drive their car to New York City to do the show. It upset Floyd and others in the band. They were even willing to take a bus to New York. That may have been around the end of 1952.
Floyd mentioned that Harry continued his musical endeavors when he joined the U. S. Army. He noted that Allen Maury played non-pedal steel guitar with Harry during that time and that "..no one played it better than Alan."
We are a fan of the steel guitar and its place in country music's history. So, we asked Floyd to tell us a bit about his own experiences with the steel guitar over the years.
Floyd began with a non-pedal steel in his early career. Around 1969, he began playing a pedal steel guitar and then took up the dobro for a television show around 1984-1985 on the Country Boy Eddie Show that aired over Channel 6 in Birmingham, Alabama.
We asked Floyd a few questions via email and he began by telling us he felt no one played "our instrument" better than Jerry Byrd. He recalled he met Jerry in 1976 at Scotty's International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, Missouri. When Jerry kicked off his set at that show, Floyd said he was in the first row to his left and remembered Jerry telling the audience how they used to make up songs as they were recording. He looked at Floyd, smiled and then winked and began playing "Steeling The Blues". Floyd said he walked on air the rest of that convention.
Floyd said he had made friends with another steel player back in Birmingham by the name of Julian Thorpe. When he got back to Birmingham, Floyd told Julian he had met someone that was a master of the steel guitar. Julian was proud and thought no one could play better than him and Floyd kind of knew his attitude. He replied to Floyd a bit sarcastically, "Who did you meet that was so damn good?" Floyd simply said, "Jerry Byrd". At that Julian just nodded his head, smiled and said, "Oh, okay."
Floyd's first guitar was a round hole box guitar with the strings raised up with a metal piece so the strings would not touch the frets. It cost all of ten dollars in 1948. A boy in his class at school came in one day and said he was taking guitar lessons and Floyd knew then he wanted to learn to play.
Floyd's uncle Billy Tucker was playing fiddle at the time with Happy Wilson and the Golden Boys over radio station WAPI. Floyd wanted to be on the radio too and thought he would just going to learn to play regular guitar and at the time did not know what a steel guitar was.
He learned the steel guitar using the A tuning. The strings were tuned E C# A E C# A. His teacher used a system with a sheet of paper that had six lines representing each string and the numbers on the line would tell you which string to pick.
Floyd noted that he did this for about four or five months and started to feel like it was time for him to learn how to read music. So, he looked around town and found a teacher that would help him do that.
While Floyd was playing for the teacher during his lesson, the instructor would be writing the music for the song he would learn in the week that followed. That instructor also sold him his first electric guitar. He thinks it was a Supro and cost about $87.
Floyd practiced a lot. And upon reflection, probably to the point of neglecting his school studies.
In a few months, Floyd traded his guitar for a six-string GIbson guitar with a stand so he could stand up and play. He was feeling rather proud of himself at that time.
Some fellow got his home phone number from the guitar teacher and asked him if they could get together and play some music. He jumped at the chance. He started to learn chords and what to play and also when not to play. His guitar playing skills grew to the point where he was learning to play songs by ear and not by lessons and other people began calling him to play with them.
Ace Plunckett was one of those callers and got him to go with him and work on radio station WBRC on a network that spanned about 20 radio stations. But after only two weeks, Ace joined the U. S. Army and as Floyd notes, "...that was that."
Floyd began to play with a couple of friends and then they decided to try their luck at WVOK. Of the three of them, one played bass, another rhythm guitar and vocals and a steel player.
They were in the talent contest that Othell Sullivan won - they were playing with Ace Plunkett and the Dixie Drifters. Ace's steel guitar player had joined the U. S. Air Force, so Ace asked him to take his place.
The band did the Dixie Jamboree. At this time, Harry was only fifteen years old. They also had an early morning program. But some of them were still in school. So after the program, Floyd and the fiddle player went to school. Floyd notes the band was getting a lot of experience and doing many appearances. His dad got him a Fender double neck 8-string steel guitar. Brand New. It cost $275. Floyd noted he tuned one neck to the A6th tuning and the other neck was tuned in the E6th tuning.
Floyd tells us with the E6th tuning, he could do all the Don Helms (the steel guitar player for the legendary Hank Williams) licks.
But he told us he never really got the hang of the C6th tuning and the Jerry Byrd licks back then until he started playing a pedal steel guitar. He notes that Allen Maury that is seen on the picture with Otehell Sullivan could really play like Jerry Byrd on the steel guitar. Floyd indicates he probably copied Don Helms more than anyone else back then. Hank Williams was really popular back then.
Ace and his band began traveling to Decatur, Alabama on Saturday nights where they were trying to start an Opry type of show. The announcer for the show invited the band to his studio and had them record a few songs and said he had the connections to get them a recording contract.
But the Korean War was to play a part in the band's history. As we noted before, the guitar player was drafted and the fiddle player was called into active duty in the Naval Reserve. The band broke up. Harry Blevins called him.
Harry sent a tape and picture to the Horace Heidt talent show in New York City. They were invited to appear. But Floyd notes that either Harry's dad or Floyd's dad would not let them drive the family car to do the show and Harry did not want to travel by bus. Floyd got upset and quit the band.
Floyd went on to play for Wally Horton for a time.
Floyd graduated from high school in 1953 and enrolled in the University of Alabama. While there, Harry contacted Floyd and asked him to join the Army. Harry claimed that he had it in writing that if the band finished basic training, they would get to play music for the next two years. Floyd was cynical and thought they would get out of basic training and be sent where ever the Army needed them. That's when Harry called Allen Maury and he became a part of Harry's group in the Army.
Allen Maury later told Floyd that indeed, the Army cut orders that would split the band and send them to different places and jobs. But Harry's dad made contact with Senator John Sparkman of Alabama who got the Army to honor the commitment they had made to Harry. The band played for two years and worked with Roger Miller.
Jimmy Hardin later worked with Roger in Nashville for a short time and died when he was in his 30s.
Harry got his release from the Army and became a disc jockey in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Floyd heard he gained a lot of weight and weighed about 500 pounds at the time of his death in his 30s.
Allen Maury's talents got him an offer to work with Mary Robbins when he got out of the Army. But Allen turned it down and went back to Jasper, Alabama where he opened a drug store and got his license as a pharmacist.
Floyd got out of country music for a time since Elvis had come on the scene.
But he never really gave up music. Some of his neighbors began coming over to his house and they began to playing music in his basement around 1968. It wasn't too long after that they were playing in the local night clubs. The drummer of that group told Floyd that someone had a pedal steel guitar for sale. Floyd paid the guy $450 and the guy said he would come over and show him how to set it up and tune it. And that was the last time he saw that person.
Floyd said it took him about two days to figure out how to set it up. It was an eleven string single neck MSA steel guitar. He told us the pedals were really hard to push.
Floyd met a guy that also played steel guitar and had a music store. He made a 12-string guitar and Floyd traded him for it. Floyd was working with the U. S. Post Office delivering mail around 1977 and felt his arches were falling, so he ordered two MSA 12-string pedal steel guitars.
Eddie Long (who worked with Hank Williams, Jr. for a long time) helped him set them up but he never learned the changes for the C6. He could play some of the C6 sounds, but not the changes. The B6 is what you get when you drop the Es on the E9th tuning.
Floyd retired from the post office on disability around 1980 and mostly just played music from that point until about three years ago. He sold one of his MSA's and traded one for a new one before he basically retired for good.
I play a lap steel myself and am not that conversant with the nuances of a pedal steel, so I'll simply quote what Floyd said about the way his pedal steel was setup.
"Here is the way it is set up from the small strings - chromatic E9th/B6 F# D# G# E B G# F# E B G# E B I have cut back to 4 petals and 5 knee levers - Petal one pulls 6th string G# to A# - Petal 2 pulls 5th string and 9th string B to C# - Petal 3 pulls 6th string and 10th string G# to A - Petal 4 lowers string 3 and 6 to G. Knee levers L for left and R for right N for knee lever U for up LNL raises 4th and 8th strings to F LNR lowers 2nd to C# and 8th string to D - RKL raises 4th to F# and lowers 12 to A - RKR lowers 4th and 8th strings to Eb or D# LKU raises 1st string to G# and lowers 5th string to Bb or A#."
Floyd said he loved that tuning because to him it was simple. He found the more you put on a pedal steel guitar, the more chance it would bind up and start sticking somewhere down the line.
When he retired from the post office, one of his steel guitar friends who was playing on the local Country Boy Eddie television show called him. This friend was an engineer on one station but playing on Eddie's show on another station at the same time. The other station told him he had to quit playing if he wanted to keep his job, so he recommended Floyd to Country Boy Eddie.
He started playing on the show and after about a month or two on the 6am show, Country Boy Eddie told Floyd he would earn more money if he got a dobro and also play on the 5:00am show in that first hour. Floyd went to Atlanta and got him a dobro. Floyd tuned it to suit his style from the little strings down to the big ones E C# B G# E B. To him, you don't hear the bass strings that much and you can pull a minor chord with that C# in the tuning or if you are playing in G on the 3rd fret and want to pull a C just hit the first two strings.
A couple of favorite tunes that Floyd enjoys playing on the steel are "Sleepwalk" and "Misty". And he always seems to play "Crazy" when he pulls out the steel.
He also noted that he loved not having the D string tuned in to the E9th because you are not constantly having to try to remember to skip over it and you can kick it in with a knee lever when you want it. To Floyd, the pedal steels are easier to play than the non-pedals. No slanting of the steel bar for one.
Floyd told us that Harry, Jimmy Hardin and Chubby Hubbard are deceased.
Harry was also part of a band known as the "Circle A Wranglers". That band did a lot of work. In one article we have seen, it was said that the band traveled over 800,000 miles in TWO years while doing personal appearances at theaters, hospitals and service clubs. During that time, they worked with Mercury Records recording artist Curtis Gordon. The group won the "All Army Talent Contest" two years in a row. That led to them doing a film in New York for the Army called "Get Set Go".
Around 1955, Harry's path crossed with another young and up and coming talent at Fort Jackson, South Carolina - Roger Miller. Roger joined the Circle A Wranglers and played fiddle and also did vocals. Roger moved to Nashville after he did his military service stint.
An undated article notes that Harry went into the military service in 1954 and were initially assigned to Special Services at Fort McPherson, Georgia. Harry worked with the Army's original "Circle A Round-Up" show that was featuring PFC Faron Young and the Circle A Wranglers. After Faron was released, Harry became the featured artist for over two years. The show was heard each week over 165 radio stations throughout the southeast.
Timeline and Trivia Notes
Steel City Playboys and Circle A Wrangler Group Members during the years included:
Credits & Sources