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The Amburgey Sisters
Renfro Valley Barn Dance
WSB Barn Dance

About The Group

In the 1950s Martha Carson was the reigning queen of country gospel music. Her hit recording of her own composition, "Satisfied," was responsible for her becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry and a frequent guest on the era's most popular network television programs. At about the same time Minnie Woodruffs was the female voice heard on some of Bill Carlisle's biggest hits such as "Too Old To Cut The Mustard," "No Help Wanted," and "Is Zat You Myrtle?". Meanwhile, Jean Chapel, sometimes known as Mattie O'Neil, was about to become a successful Nashville composer who would pen songs for the likes of Eddy Arnold, Jerry Wallace, Connie Francis, and Dean Martin. What do these three women have in common?

For one thing they are sisters, and for another, they got their start in the entertainment business as an all-female string band. They were contemporaries of Lily May Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls, another all-female string band widely acclaimed for their pioneering efforts in that particular subcategory of country music. In fact, Martha, Minnie, and Mattie were at one time themselves members of the Coon Creek Girls band.

Although the contributions of Martha, Minnie, and Mattie to the all-female band phenomenon have been overshadowed by the prodigious publicity accorded the Coon Creek Girls, the band composed of the three Amburgey sisters was performing in public prior to the Coon Creek Girls' debut which took place on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance over Cincinnati's WLW on October 9, 1937. Furthermore, to Martha, Minnie, and Mattie belongs the distinction of being the first all-sister string band to perform widely on stage, radio, and records.

The parents of the Amburgey sisters were Robert Amburgey and his wife Gertrude Quillen Amburgey who were of hardy mountaineer stock. They made their home in the coal mining region of Letcher County in eastern Kentucky, near the Virginia line. Their house was the next to last one up the holler out from Neon, Ky., which appears on today's Kentucky maps as Fleming-Neon. Robert was a carpenter and a brattice man, builder of coal mine support structures. Gertrude kept house, looked after the cows and chickens that were the source of much of what the family had to eat, and tended to her children, of whom there would eventually be six; three girls and three boys.

The Amburgeys lived less than 50 miles, as the crow flies, from Poor Valley, Va., home of the legendary Carter Family. Like the Garters, the Amburgeys and the Quillens were musically talented. The Amburgeys were noted for their ability to play string instruments, and the banjo was the one that Robert Amburgey chose to concentrate on. The Quillens, on the other hand, were singers. They sang the Stamps-Baxter-type gospel material and traveled over a wide circuit of eastern Kentucky visiting churches where they performed at all-day singings and shaped-note singing conventions.

Gertrude Amburgey, who did not bestow full approval on her husband's banjo picking, persuaded him to join herself, her father, and her brother in forming the Quillen Quartet which was well received by congregations who loved the gospel harmony they performed.

Into this rich heritage of string instrument and gospel music the three Amburgey sisters, Bertha (Minnie), Irene (Martha), and Opal (Mattie Jean), in that order, were born.

"We just had a love for the string instruments," Martha says. At an early age, Minnie adds, "we were trying to sing, too. We were trying to get into the act." She says that seeing and hearing their parents singing before church audiences impressed them as very glamorous. "And we thought we wanted to do that, too," she says.

In addition to the music their family made, the girls listened to such programs on the radio as the Grand Ole Opry. As they grew older, they began to want their own instruments to play. By this time the Depression was in full sway across the country, and the Amburgey household was not spared. "Back then, people didn't have money," Minnie says. "So we started figuring out how we could get us a guitar," Martha adds. "I had a little pet calf that I traded for a little used guitar from one of our school friends. It broke my heart to get rid of her. I learned to play on this little old guitar. It had Hawaiian wigglers painted all over it and a rope for a strap. The strings were setup so high I got risings on my fingers." Martha essentially taught herself to play the guitar. "I took it to an uncle who lived up at the head of the holler who played guitar, and he tuned it for me, and he showed me two or three chords, and from there," she says, she was on her own.

Mattie was the second of the sisters to take up an instrument, and at first she played the mandolin. "She tuned that mandolin to make it sound like a banjo," Minnie says, "and with your eyes dosed you would have thought that was what it was." A man who lived in the neighborhood had a real banjo for sale, but the lack of money presented somewhat of a problem to the aspiring young musician. When it came to acquiring the means for making music, however, the Amburgeys always proved to be resourceful. The family was confident that a way would be found for Mattie to have the banjo.

No doubt at considerable sacrifice, Robert Amburgey sold some of his carpentry tools to get the money for the instrument. "He loved his tools," Minnie says, "but he sold enough to get Mattie a five-string banjo." Mattie learned to play the instrument by watching her father play. "She watched our daddy play," Martha explains, "and then she would look in the mirror till she got her fingers to doing like his did."

The addition of one more instrument would turn the Amburgey sisters into a full-fledged band, and close at hand to accept the job was the oldest, Minnie. When it came her turn to get an instrument, she set her sights on a fiddle that she saw in a pawn shop three miles away in Neon. "It had dust on it an inch thick," Minnie says. The price tag announced that the fiddle could be bought for eight dollars. "So we asked our mother if we could have that fiddle," Minnie recalls, "and she said, `I don't have any money, but go down there and ask him if he'll take eight big hens for it."' The deal was made, Mrs. Amburgey killed and dressed the hens, and Minnie and Martha toted them the three miles into town and brought home the coveted fiddle. Like Martha with the guitar and Mattie with the banjo, Minnie taught herself to play the fiddle.

She had heard the instrument on the radio and had seen it played on stage by Grand Ole Opry artists who made personal appearances in the area. "Big Howdy [Forrester, Grand Ole Opry fiddler] was my favorite," Minnie says. A month after she got her fiddle Minnie won a fiddler's contest at Whitesburg, Ky., where she played "Cacklin' Hen." The prize was 15 dollars. Mrs. Amburgey used the money Minnie won at the fiddlers' contest to buy enough material to make all three girls matching dresses. The all-female string band was now complete. "When we got all our instruments," Minnie says, "we started practicing. That old house we lived in had a hang-down light just a bulb—in the center of the room. We played like that was a microphone, and we sat there and sang our hearts out, playing and singing." They decided to call themselves the Sunshine Sisters, and even made up a theme song that they would later use on a real radio station. "We wrote our theme song underneath that lightbulb," Martha says in preface to her recitation of the words:

We are the Sunshine Sisters
Dropped in to say "Hello."
We hope you'll like our program
Of songs of long ago.
If you like our program
Send in your requests.
We are the Sunshine Sisters
We'll try to do our best.

By the middle of 1936 the Amburgey Sisters had a polished act, their reputation was spreading throughout the county, and they were in demand as entertainers. "Anywhere they'd open the door and want us to play we'd go," Martha says. "We played for all the miners' doings and churches and for politicians." She especially remembers one political campaign they were involved in. "I'll never forget that," she says. "About 14 hours a day we rode in this van which had a little P.A. system set up in it, and we sat and we sang into that microphone. My fingers were running blood [from playing the guitar]. We got 15 dollars a week."

The Amburgey sisters trio featured Mattie as lead singer, with Martha singing baritone and Minnie singing tenor. "We were doing a lot of the Delmore Brothers songs that we had learned and a lot of the bluegrass-type things," Martha says. "We also had a hymn program. We did just a variety of the old mountain songs and the sacred songs." Minnie interspersed the vocal numbers with fiddle breakdowns, playing such tunes as "Fire On The Mountain," "Cindy," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and "Black Mountain Rag."

In 1938 the Amburgey sisters made their first appearance on radio when they became members of Asa Martin's troupe of radio entertainers in Lexington. Martin was one of Kentucky's best known hillbilly performers from the 1920s until his death in the 1970s. He had a long association with a Kentucky fiddler named Doc Roberts. Martha explains how they got the job with Martin. "This guy heard about us, and he came to tell us about an amateur contest they were having in Lexington at WLAP radio station-looking for girl singers," she recalls. "So Poppie hocked a bunch of his tools to get the gas money to take us, and Mommie went with us. We won that contest, and the man there [Asa Martin] wanted us to stay and take the job as an all-girl band there at WLAP in Lexington." They took the job, but "of course we didn't get paid for it," she says.

"He told us he couldn't pay us anything, but he would pay our rent and pay for our food," Minnie adds. "We didn't get any money at all while we were there." They stayed in Lexington about a year, and according to Martha, they "got so homesick we'd cry. The old pigeons would get out on the window sills [where the girls were living] and make their mournful sounds, and we were so homesick we were about to die. But we didn't want to go back and let all the neighbors say we were failures. We were determined to stick it out." She says that they "were on the radio every day, and we were going out and doing shows in the little towns around Lexington."

The Amburgeys were working as a trio, using their real first names, but billing themselves as the Sunshine Sisters. At the time a dynamic female country singer, multi-instrumentalist, and comedienne named Cousin Emmy was working at WHAS in Louisville, 75 miles west of Lexington. "She came by Lexington," Martha says, "and offered us a job to come and work for her." Unfortunately, the job with Cousin Emmy did not work out as the Amburgey sisters had expected. They were seldom allowed to appear on the radio with her, and they did not work show dates with her. "She hired us just to bury our talent, because we were competition to her," Martha declares. After only about three months with Cousin Emmy, Bertha, Irene, and Opal returned to their home in Letcher County, but they would soon leave again.

It was now 1939, and the Amburgey sisters were more widely known as a result of their radio exposure. Again, a local acquaintance paid them a visit to tell them about another amateur contest, this one at WHIS in Bluefield, W. Va., some 90 miles east of the Amburgey home. "It was a Ford dealer's amateur hour," Martha recalls. "Our daddy had this old car that the muffler was busted in it, and it roared like a P-38. So he hocked a bunch of tools again to get gas to take us to Bluefield. We didn't have enough money to stop and go in a restaurant to get anything to eat, so our daddy stopped at] a store and said, `Children, we'll have peanut butter sandwiches.' So we had peanut butter sandwiches, riding along, that old muffler a-roaring, and poor little Opal ate too much peanut butter, and she got sick. We finally got to Bluefield [and] got us a hotel room and cleaned up. We had to walk up these stairs to the radio station, and Opal was about to vomit. She was so sick-she was green. can't sing,' she said. She was our lead singer. We told her, `You've got to.' We didn't think she was going to make it, but she performed, and we won [the contest] and got our own show on WHIS, sponsored by the Chicago House Furniture Company of Chicago, Ill."

At last the Amburgey sisters were able to use the theme song they had composed under the light bulb some two years earlier. During their stay at Bluefield, the Amburgey sisters, now becoming well known as the Sunshine Sisters, worked with such other WHIS country artists as Joe Woods and the Pioneer Boys, the Buskirk Family, and Lee and Juanita Moore. It was not long until the Sunshine Sisters were caught in the far-flung net of John Lair, who constantly trolled the air-waves listening for talent for his own radio programs.

As Martha recalls, "John Lair tracked us down and called us to come to Renfro Valley" to join Lily May Ledford as replacements for two of the Coon Creek Girls who had left the band. Lair, who got his start in radio with the National Barn Dance at WLS in Chicago, had opened a music complex in his native community of Renfro Valley, Ky., in 1939. His radio programs, which included the Saturday night Renfro Valley Barn Dance and other shows heard at various times of the day and on various days of the week, were affiliated, at one time or another, with both the NBC and CBS radio networks. In addition, Lair, at times, kept two tent shows on the road as well as booking his artists into school houses, theaters, and other venues in the Midwest and southeast. "He booked us out at all the fairs and other places as the Coon Creek Girls," Martha says.

Among the other acts whose tenure at Renfro Valley overlapped that of the Amburgey sisters were Ernie Lee (later emcee of WLW's Midwestern Hay ride), fiddler Guy Blakeman, Homer and Jethro, fiddler Slim Miller, Shorty Hobbs and Little Eller and the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey).

The Amburgey sisters' next move was to Atlanta. In December 1939, the Atlanta Journal, owner of radio station WSB, was bought by the Cox enterprises of Ohio. The new owners immediately set about to revamp WSB's hillbilly programming. A WSB executive executive, J. Leonard Reinsch, hired John Lair, with whom he had been associated at Chicago's WLS, as a consultant to do the job. Consequently, WSB's new country music format greatly resembled what had been coming out over the air from Renfro Valley for the past year--early morning shows, noontime shows, and a Saturday night show called the WSB Barn Dance. Lair took several of his Renfro Valley acts, including the Amburgey sisters, with him to Atlanta.

It was Lair who decided that in their new location they would be called Minnie, Mattie, and Martha, the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls. He failed to tell them who would have which new name. "He didn't tell us he was changing our names." Martha says. "We found out after we got into Atlanta and picked up the Atlanta journal [which carried a picture of the trio], and here we are Minnie, Mattie, and Martha, the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls. We got in our room and said, "Which one of us is going to be which?" We decided that I would be Martha, Bertha would be Minnie, and Opal would be Mattie."

Lair persuaded the station to hire Renfro Valley resident Ricca Hughes to go to Atlanta to play the part of Aunt Hattie, the "mother" of the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls, and to serve as a comedienne on the WSB Barn Dance. Others with whom the Amburgey sisters worked during the approximately ten years that at least one of them was at WSB included comedian and western swing band leader Hank Penny, the Swanee River Boys quartet, the Sunshine Boys, another quartet specializing in gospel songs, vocalist Pete Cassell, Dwight Butcher, fiddler Boudleaux Bryant who, yearn later with his wife, wrote the bluegrass classic "Rocky Top," and their former acquaintance Cousin Emmy.

The Hoot Owl Hollow Girls were well received by WSB listeners and by audiences who came to see them when they made personal appearances with other Barn Dance acts in the small towns of Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. Like many female hillbilly artists of the day, they dressed in full-skirted gingham dresses and high-top shoes.

The trio's repertoire was quite varied and included folk songs like "Old Dan Tucker," shout tunes such as "Ground Hog," spirituals like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and gospel songs such as "Turn Your Radio On." The sisters' versatility, both vocally and instrumentally, allowed them to assume other roles on the air and on stage. Minnie played solo fiddle tunes and teamed up with Mattie and the two other fiddlers in the Barn Dance cast, Boudleaux Bryant and Chick Stripling, for harmony fiddling featuring two, and sometimes three, fiddles.

Mattie sang such solos as "Night Train to Memphis," "I Wonder Why You Said Goodbye," and the Jimmie Rodgers standards "Peach Pickin' Time In Georgia," "Muleskinner Blues," and other "Blue Yodels." Her yodeling went over especially well with listeners. She later became a featured fiddler on the Barn Dance and other programs on which she served up spirited renditions of such tunes as "Orange Blossom Special," "Patty On The Turnpike," and "Back Up And Push."

Shortly after going on the air in Atlanta, Martha began singing with her husband James Roberts, and they became arguably the most popular country music act on the WSB Barn Dance. Martha had met and married James, an accomplished mandolin player and son of fiddler Doc Roberts, when she and her sisters were working in Lexington with Asa Martin. James and Martha, who were dubbed the Barn Dance Sweethearts, chose Carson as their professional surname. They specialized in gospel songs like "He Will Set Your Fields On Fire," "Keep On The Sunny Side," and "I'll Fly Away," such tearjerkers as "Lonely Mound Of Clay," "Precious Jewel," and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken;" and sentimental love songs like "Maple On The Hill," and "When It's Time For The Whippoorwills To Sing."

In 1941 the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls ceased to be an all-sister act when matrimony claimed Minnie for its own. After going to Atlanta she had met Charles "Ducky" Woodruff who, along with his brother Wilbur (Curly), was working as the Woodruff Brothers on Atlanta's WAGA on a show headed by Pop Eckler.

Shortly after their marriage, Minnie and Ducky moved to Cincinnati where Ducky took a job in industry and Minnie worked intermittently in the music business. For about a year she performed on a Saturday night barn dance broadcast from Cincinnati's WKRC and worked show dates with the other members of the cast that included Bradley Kincaid, Little Joe Isbell, Sleepy Marlin, Cowboy Copas, Fiddlin' Red Herron, and the Davis Sisters, one of whom became known to country music fans as Skeeter Davis. From time to time, Minnie also made guest appearances on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and some of John Lair's outside bookings. During the height of Martha's solo career, Minnie and Ducky moved to Nashville and worked with her for a while. "We sang duets, and Charlie [Ducky] was master of ceremonies on her show," Minnie says. "In 1954, Charlie and I decided that we were away from our [three] children too much, so we retired from show business. We both took jobs with the Government - Charlie with the Department of Insurance and myself with the Department of Revenue. Due to disability, Charlie had to resign in December of 1981. Following his death in Mardi, 1982, I resigned after 25 years of service." In 1990, Minnie married Bob Garcia, and they continue to make their home in the Nashville area.

According to the Atlanta Journal, which regularly ran a preview of the WSB Barn Dance in its Saturday edition, other female musicians who, at one time or another, worked as part of the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls trio after Minnie, and later Mattie, left WSB, were Cassie Nell Coleman, Kitty Wells (not the well-known singer with the same name), Viola Turner, and Jane Logan, stage name of Lily Carrier. Martha recalls that Mildred Frederick also was a member of the group for a short time.

By 1943 the Hoot Owl Hollow Girls were no more. The second of the Amburgey sisters to leave the act was Mattie. She first went to Cincinnati and worked at WKRC with Minnie for a while. She returned to Atlanta and again joined the WSB Barn Dance cast. While in Atlanta the second time she met and married Salty Holmes, former member of the Prairie Ramblers, a group that was a star attraction on the WLS National Barn Dance for many years. Mattie and Salty worked the Southeastern nightclub circuit, did some radio and television work, and recorded together for the King, London, and MGM labels. They had a daughter and later divorced. Mattie settled in Nashville, changed her name to Jean Chapel, and embarked on a new career as a songwriter. Among her hits were "Going Through The Motions (Of Living)," recorded by Sonny James; " Lonely Again," a chart record for Eddy Arnold; "Triangle," a hit for Carl Smith; and "Lay Some Happiness On Me," recorded by Dean Martin. Mattie remarried, and in 1990, she and her husband moved to Florida where they make their home near Mattie's daughter.

After the departure of Minnie and Mattie, Martha and James remained at WSB. They enjoyed increasing popularity as a duet, a tact that led to recording contracts with the White Church and the Capitol labels for which they recorded several of their most popular songs. Early in 1950, James and Martha left Atlanta to take a job on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round on WNOX in Knoxville where their fellow artists included Bill Carlisle. Shortly after they left Atlanta, however, the marriage as well as the duet fell apart, and that is when Martha embarked on her highly successful solo career in gospel music. She later married country music promoter Xavier Cosse, and they had two children, both boys. Since Mr. Cosse's death in 1990, Martha has continued to make her home in the Nashville area which also serves as the base for the continuation of her career which includes concerts and visits to the recording studio. "I love the road," Martha says. "I love to get out there with the people."

The Amburgey sisters did not record extensively together. For the King label, as Mattie, Martha, and Minnie, they recorded "Tennessee Memories," a song written by Martha, and "You Can't Live With 'Em (And You Can't Live Without 'Em)," which was composed by Minnie. The sisters' usual instruments and Salty Holmes' string bass are heard on this record. Using the name Amber Sisters, Minnie, Mattie, and Martha recorded eight sides for Capitol: "Lonesome Road Blues"/"When I Want Lovin', Baby, I Want You," "I've Waited Too Long"/ "One More Time," "Cherokee Eyes"/ "Useless," and "Look What Followed Me Home"/"So Tired Of Your Runnin' 'Round."

The story of the Amburgey sisters is the stuff of which Horatio Alger stories are made. It is the story of how three talented youngsters overcame the obstacle of meager financial resources in search of a dream. It is the story of how three professional women survived and came out winners in what then was essentially a man's world. "If you want to do something bad enough, you can do it," Martha declares. "We're living proof."

Timeline and Trivia Notes

Group Members included:

  • Martha (later known as Martha Carson, noted Gospel singer and member of Grand Ole Opry), sang baritone, played guitar
  • Minnie Woodruffs - female vocal on many of Bill Carlisle's hits sang tenor in group and played fiddle
  • Jean Chapel, sometimes known as Mattie O'Neil, became a songwriter, lead singer of group, played the mandolin

Other Timeline notes

  • The first all-sister string band to perform widely on stage, radio, and records.
  • Originally called themselves the Sunshine Sisters
  • First radio appearances with Asa Martin's group on WLAP, Lexington, KY
  • Appeared on WHIS, Bluefield, WV
  • One time members of the Coon Creek Girls
  • Known as the Hoot Owl Girls on WSB's Barn Dance
  • Appeared on Renfro Valley Barn Dance
  • Martha married James Roberts and they took the stage name Carson and became known as the WSB Barn Dance Sweethearts

Credits & Sources

  • Adapted from the article, "The Amburgey Sisters, Pioneer All-Female String Band"; By Wayne W. Daniel; Bluegrass Unlimited; February 1995; Used by permission of author. Wayne W. Daniel is a retired college professor engaged in research and writing in the field of country music history. He is the author of the book "PICKIN' ON PEACHTREE: A HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA" published by the University of Illinois Press.

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