Bobby Adamson walked over to a coat closet in the entrancy of his comfortable home in Exeter, California and pulled out a garishly colored jacket and trousers. He held them up, displaying them with pride. Golden yellow in color, the suit was decorated with strappings of California’s San Joaquin Valley, icons which were no different from any other farming community in 1950s America : husks of corn, bales of hay, and barefooted, overalled farmers carrying buckets. The suit was designed for Adamson by Nudie Cohen, rodeo taylor for stars. In those days, a Nudie suit was the mark of stardom for country and western performers ranging from the Maddox Brothers and Rose to Elvis Presley. In the mid-50s Bobby Adamson was a member of this select fraternity of celebrities, for he and his boyhood friend Woody Wayne Murray were the Farmer Boys, a talented vocal duo whose brief moment in the spotlight lasted for only a few years before being obliterated by the coming of rock and roll. Despite recording for the prestigious Capitol Records label and touring with stars of the Grand Ole Opry as well as Elvis Presley himself, the Farmer Boys are never mentioned in the annals of country music history. Yet the Farmer Boys helped popularize the distinct and provocative « Bakersfield Sound » that lives on today in the music of Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam.
Bobby Adamson was born on September 20, 1933 on a farm eighteen miles outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Adamason’s father worked for the U.S. Postal service as a mail carrier. Times were tough in the Depression-wracked dust bowl, so after years of struggling, the Adamson family decided to join the great Okie mgration and seek better conditions out West. The Adamsons settled in the town of Farmersville, California in 1942 when Bobby was nine.
Country music in California in the 40s was much like it was in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Much of the similarity was due to migrant workers who brought their music and traditions west with them. Included among these was love for country music. Weaned on Western swing and honky tonk in their native Southwest, these reborn Californians combined the dry, dusty twang of Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman with the danceable beat and experilentation of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. In short order the post-war period saw the rise of groups like the Maddox Brothers and Rose, T. Texas Tyler’s Oklahoma Melody Boys and Dave Stogner’s Western Rhythmairs.
It was precisely this sound that was emananting from a jukebox in a Farmersville cafe when eighteen-year old Bobby Adamson began harmonizing with the record that was playing. Without warning, another teen-aged patron joined in. The second would-be-singer was Woody Wayne Murray, nine days younger than Adamson and also a refugee from Arkansas. Discovering that they had more in common than merely a love for country music, Adamson and Murray became friends and started singing together at local clubs, lodges and dancehalls. « When we got into the music business, we were more or less doing it for fun», recalled Adamson. He sang lead and acted as emcee for the duo whole Murray sang harmony and played rhythm guitar. « We’d sing on Saturday nights at this place called the Happy-Go-Lucky Club.» One of the guest performers at the club was ‘Cousin’ Herb Henson. He invited the duo to appear as regulars on his T.V. Show in Bakersfield, and dubbed them the Farmer Boys. « Herb came out here on a train, and didn’t cole first class : he was a hobo. He came out here from Illinois and landed in Bakersfield flat broke. But Herb played the honky-tonk piano real well and also had the gift of gab and could sell himself.(…) We were on and off with Herb for better than two years, before he took us down to Hollywood and got us an andition with Capitol Records. »
The Farmer Boys had already auditioned for MGM ; yet despite a successful audition, Bobby and Woody never again heard from MGM. Capitol’s A&R chief Ken Nelson only had to listen to the Farmer Boys for a few minutes before signing them on the spot to a three-year recording contract. Nelson saw in them an answer to Nashville’s novelty Homer & Jethro and Lonzo & Oscar, and was delighted with the boys’ fresh sound and popular following in California.
The first session was held on January 12, 1955 and featured the boys backed by Herb Henson’s band, which included standout guitarist Roy Nichols, formerly with the Maddox Brothers and Rose and future member of Merle Haggard’s Strangers. Henson’s group also included fiddle player ‘Jelly ‘ Sanders, multi-talented instrumentalist Bill Woods, Lewis Tally (late of Tally Records fame), and Western swing drummer Johnny Cuviello, an alumnus of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. The songs included two of the Farmer Boys’ most popular novelty numbers : « You’re A Humdinger » and « Onions, Onions ». The former was written by Tommy Collins. « Of all the songs we’d ever done, « Onions » is the one that most people associate with us », remembers Adamson. « We wrote that during a twenty-minute drive between here and Dinuba to do a radio show on KRDU with a guy by the name of Johnny Banks. »
The second Farmer Boys session was held three months later on April 28th. Herb Henson’s « Flip Flop » was cut as a favor to Henson. The next number, « Charming Betsy », was one of the Boys’ show-stoppers, no wonder : Bill Woods’ Bill Carlisle-inspired guitar take-off and Roy Nichols’ sizzling electric guitar solo made this one of the best tracks of their career.
With two successful sessions under their belts, the Farmer Boys signed with promoter A. B. Bamford for a serie of national package tours. During the next two years, they toured the continent with Carl Smith, Webb Pierce, Red Sovine, Hank Locklin and Mac Wiseman. However, the biggest thrill came when they joined a tour in Lubbock, Texas, whose headliner was Sun Records sensation Elvis Presley. « We couldn’t figure out why he was touring touring with us because all of the other acts (we came on third or fourth out of twelve) were country and Elvis was, to us, doing rock and roll. I considered him a country act, but he wasn’t doing what I consider country tunes. After the show we’d get together and all night long we’d sing gospel, Christian music, ballads and regular old hillbilly music…he just loved it », Adamson recalled. What a thrilling night they must have had !
On May 31, 1956, the Farmer Boys attended their third session for Capitol. Ken Nelson had seen the Elvis Presley phenomenon coming and even tried to sign Elvis to Capitol. Alas, it never came. Nelson signed rockabilly acts like Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson and proposed rock-and-roll oriented songs which were recorded by artists like Sonny James and Rose Maddox. He provided the Boys with « Cool Down Mame » and « My Baby Done Left Me », two numbers that utilized echo, heavy beat and some especially turbulent guitar breaks from Roy Nichols.
The fourth and final Farmer Boys session was held on February 21, 1957. This time, Bobby and Woody were joined by the Desert Stars, another Farmersville band, who had been playing behind Hillbilly Barton in Grand Junction, Colorado. Led by guitarist Gene Breeden, the band also included steel guitarist Norman Hamlet. His sound replaced the conventional lap steel of Nashville, where a lot of steel players were basically teaching each other the same way, as he was doing much more experimentation. Also joining the Desert Stars on this ’57 session was a young Buck Owens, playing rhythm on an open-holed Martin guitar, and also having a hand in writing all four songs, including « Someone To Love » with another future Bakersfield star Joe « Red » Hayes.
According to Norman Bramlett, the Farmer Boys wanted to branch out and sing more ballads, while producer Ken Nelson wanted to continue with the novelty tunes. So, the boys and Capitol amicably parted company. The Farmer Boys talked briefly with Columbia but aside from a minor session with Gene Breeden in San Jose, the Boys’ recording career was over. Adamson recalls « Rock and roll slowed us down. Capitol had the Louvin Brothers, Ferlin Husky and Faron Young as country acts, but that was about it. So, after the Capitol contract, we formed our own band and continued to work, for seven years (…)We never made records again. We finally quit playing in 1964. »