Rambling Rufus Shoffner earned his nickname from his early hobo days when he hopped a train at the age of 16 from his home in Tazewell (or Harrogate?), TN where he was born in 1916 to go wandering: he led a band called the Blue Yodel Boys in 1939 on WROL Knoxville, Tennessee. His neighbor in Tennessee was Hugh Friar, who had later in the Detroit label Clix two fine and very sought after Rockabilly/Country issues (« I can’t stay mad at you », # 805 for example) . But Shoffner’s constant urge to travel resulted in his roaming across much of the country, hustling in one moneymaking scheme after another, before finally settling down in Monroe, Michigan, reuniting with his siblings in 1950. (more…)
Earl Songer was born in 1915 (nearly a century ago..) in Ruth, W. Va. His father was a miner, and none in his family was interested in music, but at an early age Songer became hooked to guitar and harmonica. As a fan of Bill Cox, he developped a one-man band formula.
Later on in the late ’30s, he secured employment with the Ford Motor Co. In Detroit, Michigan. Never playing professionnally, he nevertheless found opportunities to entertain friends at parties and local functions. It was on such an occasion (a party given by Ford Motors) that he met Joyce (rn Miami Florida) Goode (born in 1924 in Polk Cty, Tennessee), herself being a guitarist : she was so impressed by Songer’s one-man show, that they became close friends. She had been listening closely to Grand Ole Opry and particularly Bill Monroe‘s « Mule skinner blues », so to mastering the instrument.
Earl and Joyce maintained their friendship during his war service and were married in 1945. Settling down in a Detroit suburb, Dearborn, Earl returned to work at Ford while they continued to develop their music, at first for their own pleasure, and gradually more seriously. The professionnal name « Joyce » was chosen for their first 1949 record for Fortune (# 129). They organized their band, the Rocky Road Ramblers. Joyce’s brother Chester played bass, and remained the most consistent member during the five following years.
« The fire in my heart » is intense, with the lifting intro provided by two guitars and great vocal harmonising; this was covered later by Mac Wiseman. The reverse side « Honky tonkin’ blues », an original composition, has a fiddle solo taken by Elton Adams. « Fox chase », second record (# 131), may be boring, as everybody has heard it but once. « Will there be any flowers on your grave », a gospel tune, finds Songer playing harmonica on a rack together with his rhythm guitar, a rare occasion heard although he regularly performed live in this format.
“The fire in my heart”
“Honky tonkin’ blues”
“Whose naughty baby are you?”
Mid 1950 and the third session: a proficient mandolin player, either Bobby Sykes (part of the band in 1953-54) or Ray Taylor, who often sat with them. The latter of course recorded for Clix in the late ’50s (see elsewhere in the site). The amplified mandolin is heard to excellent effect on « Who’s naughty baby are you ? » (# 144), which combine with the boogie guitar provided by Joyce.
More of that session saw « My wife, and sweetheart too » (# 141). It may look a sentimental song, but it turns out that Earl Songer is singing about two persons ; and the only answer is « to build a cottage for them both, with the rose ’round the door ». Fine solos from mandolin and guitar. The mandolin sets the pace for the frantic « Mother-in-law boogie » (# 141). Amusing lyrics, and, although not being a hillbilly boogie stricto sensu, it could well be the fastest piece of its type ever recorded, highlighted by Chester Goode’s slapping bass solo. “Mother-in-law boogie”
Possibly from the previous session, but without the mandolin, “Spanish fire bells” (# 144) is a joy to hear – a subtle piece of guitar artistry: a friend of Joyce had introduced her to a Chet Atkins piece that impressed her. Elton Adams returns with two fiddle solos, the second one being plucked to sound like a banjo. Also important: the event of a light double-time strumming of the rhythm guitar, which sounds as if there were a third guitar playing the bass runs.
On the next recording date, they chose to bring Walter Atkins (a neighbor) on harmonica. “I won’t confess I’m sorry” (# 155) quite reminiscent of Wayne Raney on his earlier sides (who copied who?) “In a broken heart no love is found” (# 151) finds Earl Songer in good voice, while Bill Monroe‘s “In the pines” is recalled as Joyce joins to duet on “Someone to call my own” (# 155).
Elton Adams returns at his best on a mid-1951 session on which Joyce’s guitar is amplified effectively to a full sound. The guitar and the fiddle basically duet together on the hilarious “Dissatisfied” (# 160), which paints a doomsday scenario when women take over the world. Earl tells us of a day where there will be “a mayor lady in every town” and “women policing the streets“. Worst of all is the prospect of “having to obey to your mother-in-law“. The actual title doesn’t appear until the last line and “I guess they’ll always be dissatisfied” seems to infer that such events will never actually happen.
A November 17th, 1951 date for Coral (recorded in New York or Chicago) saw “We’re satisfied” (# 64127), unusual for string effects, and the vibrant, boogie instrumentally “Smiling through the years“. With the same opportunity they recorded late 1952 another session for Coral: best tunes were the fine “Sansoo” (# 64149) and “Too free with your love” (# 64167), same style as on Fortune.
Finally relocated in Dallas, Texas, on May 16th, 1954 (the very same day that Gene Henslee cut “Rockin’ baby“), they recorded four tracks for Imperial, whose best is the fast “Whoopie baby” (8259). Joyce played steel guitar on them, and sang “It’s a cold, cold love“. “I want your love” (8292) is a fine part-time duet bopper.
Sad reality: they parted ways and divorced in 1955. Personal and professional problems caused Earl’s increasingly frequent bouts of excessive drinking and Joyce to feel that their career was set back and opportunities were lost because of his unreliability. After the break of the band, Earl got into real estate and car sales and unfortunately dropped out of music. He moved to Charleston, W. Va. in 1969-70 and passed away in 1972. Joyce teamed up with Rufus Shoffner, a popular local artist who also recorded (“It always happens to me“, Hi-Q, 1962, or « Orbit twist » (American Artist, 1962). She formed a new band similar to those she had organized with Earl, further records followed and she was in demand to many a country, bluegrass, or rock’n’roll session during the later half of the ’50s and early 60s.
It has to be noted that, as far as I know, Earl Songer wrote all his songs.
Freely adapted from Dave Sax’s notes to “Earl & Joyce Songer & the Rocky Road Ramblers – early Country from Detroit vol. 1” on Old Homestead LP 338 (1991). Never seen a volume 2, supposing gathering the rest of the Earl Songer sides. Thanks to Craig Maki for his help with several Fortune label scans.
I try to be complete with music presented. If you wish some more tracks, please let me know which ones and I’ll try to satisfy.
Addition (Jan. 22nd, 2015). Craig Maki points out that mandolin player Bobby Sykes is not the singer Bob Sykes, and that a second volume of Earl & Joyce Songer sides was published but only on cassette.