About The Artist
Perhaps more than anyone in the country music business, Buddy Starcher exemplifies the live radio musician who switched his airwave base every year or so whenever he had "played out the territory." However, the fact that he often returned to three or four locales showed that he retained lasting popularity. Despite wide traveling, his best locations were Charleston, Fairmont, and Harrisonburg. He also gained a reputation for being a top-notch salesman of his sponsor's products and also learned a great deal about radio station management which proved useful as he grew older.
Oby Edgar Starcher was born near Ripley in Jackson County, West Virginia, but the family moved to Nicholas County soon afterward. Always known as Buddy, he allegedly did not know his real first name until he needed a birth certificate when registering for the World War II Selective Service. After completing the 8th grade, Buddy alternated labor and farm work with wandering here and there, a practice he followed for several years. In 1928 he won a talent contest in Baltimore, Maryland, the prize which included a radio program with no salary, but he managed to exist by playing for tips in local speakeasies.
After he had gone back home for a while, he went to WOBU (later changed to WCHS) in Charleston for the first of four stints. There he first met other Mountain State legends such as Clark Kessenger and Billy Cox. As in Baltimore, this radio program paid nothing, but Starcher managed to subsist for a few months. He then went back to Nicholas County again.
Back to wandering, he showed up in Washington, D.C. in 1932 where the Bonus Marchers were encamped on the Capitol Grounds. As a sympathizer, he penned the song "The Bonus Blues" (a parody of "Twenty-one Years") and sold printed copies for a dime to help support their cause. He then went to WSOC (then in Gastonia, North Carolina) where the Three Tobacco Tags picked up the song and recorded it for Champion, but it was never released. After more wandering about, he again tried his luck at WCHS.
This time, Starcher did better, obtaining a sponsored program with Certified Crystals. He also did dramatic skits on a program called "The Better Health Hotel" with Gene Ferguson and worked some as an announcer. When the vaudeville team of Salt and Peanuts came to WCHS, they taught him how to book shows and advertise them on his programs. He stayed there until 1935, but would return two more times.
It would be about this time that Buddy became his career as a traveling radio musician. In the fall of 1935 he went back to Washington, D. C. with a program on the Dixie Network for a few months; then for about the same for his first sojourn at WMMN Fairmont; then to WPAY Portsmouth, Ohio, a station that had relocated to the river city from Mt. Orab, Ohio (locally famous for being in the back of a general store and playing lots of Gennett Records). He was at Portsmouth during the 1937 Ohio River Flood as was Lee Moore in his first professional job.
In the spring of 1937, he was back at WCHS where he put his first band together, the Mountaineers. They included Lee Moore; Robert Rutland who Buddy renamed Georgia Slim; Smiley Sutter who later became better known as Crazy Elmer; a relative musically unknown named Jack Carter, and a girl known as Betty Lee. Rather than all play together like a string band, for the most part each worked mostly as a featured act, or in varied combinations. After a year or so this group broke up. Buddy and Smiley stayed together and went to WMMN which was increasingly becoming a haven for several music groups. Buddy took on a fiddler named Ted Grantham (known on stage as Ted Grant) who had once been part of Milton Brown's Musical Brownies in Ft. Worth, Texas. Mary Ann Estes, who later became Buddy's wife, also worked with him for the first. Briefer members of the group included Little John Graham, Bill and Evalina Stallard, Rusty Gabbard and Natchee the Indian. Along with other WMMN entertainers, they started the Jamboree-type show, Sagebrush Roundup in 1939.
Starcher remained at WMMN until 1941 when he went to WIBC Indianapolis for a short spell and then to WSVA Harrisonburg, Virginia which would eventually became one of his favored locales and where his group included Dolph Hewitt and mandolin whiz Paul Buskirk. After a time, they went KXEL Waterloo, Iowa, but the World War II draft began taking his band members, so he went to KMA Shenandoah, Iowa and worked solo daily shows and was quite popular there, but did not play many live shows. Late in 1944, he went back to WSVA Harrisonburg with a group that included Red Belcher, the Franklin Brothers, and Mac Wiseman.
After Harrisonburg, Buddy came to Fairmont again for what would be his last regular sojourn there with a rendition of his All-Star Roundup that included Belcher, the Franklins, French "Curly" Mitchell. and young new comedian William "Dusty" Shaver aka "Oscar August Quiddlemurp." In 1946, Buddy — after many years in radio — signed a recording contract with Four Star which had recently signed former West Virginia radio veteran T. Texas Tyler. In two sessions that year he recorded a total of fourteen songs, including his best-known composition "I'll Still Write Your Name in the Sand," his theme song "Bless Your Little Heart" (actually recorded twice with just him and guitar and once with a band), and a tragedy song about a teenage girl named Opel who was killed in a car wreck a few years before. About this time Buddy got saved and he and Mary Ann Estes became husband and wife.
After that, Starcher and friend Marion Goddard started a record label called Dixie (no connection with the later Starday subsidiary). They recorded numbers by such figures as the Franklin Brothers, Big Slim - the Lone Cowboy, Rusty Gabbard, Budge and Fudge Mayse, and a friend of Buddy's from his Iowa days Dick Hart. However, they failed to get a distribution system, the label failed, and the records are quite scarce today. Buddy went back to radio at a new station WPDX in Clarksburg, West Virginia. This station proposed to compete with nearby WMMN and its talent roster included several WMMN veterans. These included Cherokee Sue and Little John Graham, Budge and Fudge, and Cindy Coy. Like WMMN much of their business was derived from P. I. accounts.
A new sponsor, Sunway Vitamins, held a contest, and their top radio salesman would win a new Frazier auto and a job at WCAU (50,000 watt) in Philadelphia. Buddy won the contest and although he was not in Philly all that long, he did sign a contract with Columbia for which he recorded ten sides from 1949 until 1951. The best-known songs to come from his days with them were both sacred, "Isn't He Wonderful" and "I Planted A Rose in the Garden of Prayer."
Following his experiences in Pennsylvania, Starcher moved southward to WMBM in Miami. During that period, he recorded a single on the DeLuxe label in 1954. This was followed by short stints in Ft. Worth, Greenville, South Carolina, and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Although part of this time spent in station management, he managed to stay a little bit active in music, usually with a quarter-hour show.
Anxious to get back into performing about 1958, he went to WSVA in Harrisonburg again with a group that included fiddler Joe Meadows, steel player Herman Yarbrough aka Rosco Swerps, and Mary Ann. They did both radio and television there and also began to record for Starday.
In 1960, he went back to Charleston for a final time with early morning television at WCHS-TV in Charleston, where Buddy was still pretty well known from his 1930's radio work. Yarbrough, Meadows and Mary Ann accompanied him, and before long his entourage would include autoharp player Wick Craig, Chester "Butch" Lester who sang both newer country and rockabilly, country vocalist Dorsey Ray Parsons, Morris Hamilton, and lead guitarist Norm Chapman. As some of these regulars l ater left, WMMN-WWVA veterans from earlier days Sleepy Jeffers and the Davis Twins (most recently of WTIP Charleston) came aboard about 1963. Another veteran vocalist Harry Griffith joined the cast and toward the end young (9 or10 year old) gospel singer Lori Lee Bowles became a regular. Even after Starcher left the show in 1966 Yarbrough, Jeffers, the Davis Twins, Griffith, and Bowles plus a couple of others stayed on until the program terminated in 1973. Yarbrough points that only he was a regular for the whole thirteen-year run.
Buddy continued recording for Starday including an album in 1962, Buddy Starcher & His Mountain Guitar (SLP 211). He also had a label B. E. S., mostly for members of the show cast. Known for recitations, he did a whole album on the Benson-affiliated Heart Warming label. Starcher also recorded a single on the Boone label, one side of which was a recitation titled "History Repeats Itself." The recitation was a comparison of similarities in the lives of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It became a surprise hit and Buddy suddenly found himself more than a local celebrity. The recitation song climbed to number two on the country charts and even cracked the pop Top Forty. In all "History Repeats Itself" spent fifteen weeks on the charts and inspired a comic parody "Great Men Repeat Themselves" by Sheb Wooley's alter ego "Ben Colder." After a brief move to WHTN-TV in Huntington, he went to Nashville and signed a contract with Decca, doing another album of recitations. While two follow up numbers "Day of Decision" and "A Taxpayer's Letter" showed promise, neither came anywhere near the success of "History Repeats Itself."
Finding out that Nashville success can be "here today and gone tomorrow," even at the age of sixty and with over thirty years of radio experience, Buddy turned to a sometime prior occupation, radio station management. His main job was to turn failing stations around which he did at three stations in Florida, one in Baytown, Texas and finally Albany, New York. He kept active in recording, doing one for Bluebonnet (later re-released on Old Homestead with new liner notes by yours truly) and another on Bear Family in Germany. He retired in 1976 to the village of Craigsville near his old Nicholas County home.
In retirement he worked part-time as a car salesman and did some reunion appearances. One was a re-creation of the Old Farm Hour in 1979 at the Culture Center in Charleston (with my replacing Frank Welling as emcee), along with other West Virginia radio veterans including Rex and Eleanor Parker, Doc and Chickie Williams, the Bailes Brothers (Walter and Kyle), Silver Yodelin' Bill Jones, Slim Clere, and Shot Jackson and Donna Darlene. According to my wife, in the audience, Buddy drew the most applause even though he was a little nervous. He also appeared at the revitalized "Sagebrush Roundup" held on Bunner's Ridge near Fairmont and even drove to Shenandoah, Iowa for a reunion of radio veterans from the Corn Belt.
During his brief experience in Nashville, Buddy made friends with a fan and neighbor who apparently aspired to become a biographer. Robert H. "Bob" Cagle remained in close touch and about the time his subject hit age 80, came out with Buddy Starcher Biography (1986). Although it contained some good information and was clearly a labor of love, it fell woefully short of a credible work and could at the very least have benefitted from a careful proofreading that would have eliminated the misspelled words. A highlight may have been the fine pencil sketch of Buddy by John Hartford on the cover.
Finally at age 92, Starcher moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia to be closer to better medical facilities. He died there three years later. Mary Ann survived him for two more years. Meanwhile, many of his older recordings have been reissued on Cattle and BACM in Europe.
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