He Played Country With Dynamite: Skeet Ring

 

We went to King Records and they gave us quite a tour, and we talked with them some. Nothin’ ever come of it. We didn’t try too hard at that time. [laughs] – Skeet Ring [1]

Despite the nation’s economic recession, 1949 was a banner year for the three-year-old Fortune Records company in Detroit. Billboard magazine reviewed several country platters that Fortune issued by Detroit artists, including the first commercial disks by Roy Hall, Lawton “Slim” Williams, Earl and Joyce Songer, Jeff Durham, and Eddie Jackson. Among Fortune’s 1949 country-western records appeared the only one ever made by Lowell Otis “Skeet” Ring. Ring’s disk was also the last commercial record made by a country music pioneer.

Les Bonine and Skeet Ring

“Aww, Leslie!” Les Bonine (left) and Skeet Ring, ca. 1949, Detroit, Michigan. Source: Marsha Ring Mellish

Born 1926 in Black Rock, Arkansas, a small town on the Black River, which flows into the Mississippi, Ring came of age during the Great Depression, when live music – usually made at home in rural areas – figured prominently as entertainment. “I had a grandfather that played the fiddle. … He was pretty good on it,” said Ring.

When the United States entered World War II, Ring headed to Detroit, to work in a defense plant. “I was [classified] 4-F [by] the Army. … I wanted to do something for the war effort,” he said. Ring found work manufacturing artillery shells. With money saved from his factory job, Ring bought a guitar and began picking and singing around the house. He often jammed with guitarist Tracey White, who lived next door in a community of white workers from the South surrounding Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue.

Hillbilly Swingsters

After the war ended, Ring trained to become a millwright. He and two friends from East Tennessee worked during the week and played music on weekends at the Pullman Bar in Highland Park. It was located on Manchester, across the street from a Ford Motor Company facility. The stage included chicken wire fencing to prevent flying bottles from striking entertainers when fights broke out. “They just sold beer,” said Ring. “They didn’t sell liquor at that time.” He called the band the Hillbilly Swingsters, and the trio included guitarist Les Bonine, who had moved from Knoxville, where he had worked at a radio station.

Fortune 121-B "Sitting On Top Of The World" by Skeet Ring and the Hillbilly Swingsters

The Hillbilly Swingsters’ bass man, Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher, also came from Knoxville. A vocalist and harmonica player, Hatcher sang “Wabash Cannonball” and other numbers with Roy Acuff and his Crazy Tennesseans at a 1936 session for the American Recording Company. “He done all the singin’ for Roy, when Roy first started,” said Ring. “Roy didn’t think he could sing [well], so Sam done the singing. … He was a good singer. We kinda took turns singing.” [2]

Hatcher left the Crazy Tennesseans in 1938, when Acuff moved the group to WSM radio Nashville and changed the band’s name to the Smokey Mountain Boys. In Detroit, Hatcher mostly sang popular C&W songs from the 1930s such as “Little Red Wagon,” and “Freight Train Blues,” another tune he cut with the Crazy Tennesseans. Ring, with his baritone, gravitated to songs by Ernest Tubb.

On top of the world

When the men heard of Fortune Records in 1949, they recorded and paid for the manufacture of a few hundred records. They cut an up-tempo version of the blues standard “Sitting On Top Of The World” backed with a song that Bonine and his sister wrote, “Sunset Beau.” A jazz pianist who sounded like Bobby Stevenson added a pop feel to the session. [3] Fortune’s public relations agent promoted the disk, distributing samples to jukebox vendors and disk jockeys in the region.

“I heard it a lot on WEXL,” said Ring, referring to the Royal Oak radio station. He recalled disk jockey Brother Bill, a.k.a. Guy Bowman, spinning the record on his “Hillbilly Hit Parade” show at WJBK radio Detroit. The band visited Cincinnati, Ohio, to meet famous country music disk jockey Nelson King at WCKY radio. While in Cincinnati, they visited King Records facilities, but never pursued a deal with the company.

Listen to: Skeet Ring & the Hillbilly Swingsters – Sitting On Top Of The World

Sunset bow

Fortune 121-A "Sunset Beau" by Skeet Ring and the Hillbilly Swingsters

Besides working at the Pullman bar on weekends, the band visited local jamborees and played private parties. “We would pick up, at different times, other players … steel players,” said Ring, who remembered working some gigs with Dwight Harris. Harris played Hawaiian steel in the manner of Jerry Byrd. The Hillbilly Swingsters continued gigging all over Southeast Michigan until the mid-1950s.

“We were playing a wedding out around Romeo,” said Ring. “We got done singing, and [Hatcher] said he was having a hard time. … Said he had a bump on his tongue. And he goes to the doctor, and the doctor just cuts it off, so they could examine it. It turned out to be cancer, and he didn’t live very long. … [The band] just about dried up, then.” Hatcher was about thirty-two years old when he died.

Ring worked jobs across the United States and Europe, but not as a musician. “I worked construction as a millwright,” said Ring. “I worked all over, back then, … in different states. I worked out of the country a couple of times … Belgium.”

In 1964 Ring was sent to a job site in Nashville, near a television broadcast studio. “I got to know Roy Acuff pretty well,” he said. “We sat around and drank coffee around the coffee machine there, in the recording studio. Of course, we had a lot to talk about, because of Sam.”

He lived in Westland, a Detroit suburb, for thirty-five years before retiring and moving to Northern Michigan woods. Skeet Ring died January 2010, in Big Rapids.

 

Notes

  1. Lowell Otis “Skeet” Ring interviewed by Keith Cady in 2004.
  2. Frank “Red” Jones also sang and recorded with the Crazy Tennesseans. Until 1938, Acuff sang but a few songs per show, sharing vocals with Jones and Hatcher. When Acuff moved the band to Nashville, Hatcher chose to stay in Knoxville, before heading to Detroit.
  3. Bobby Stevenson led a trio in jazz nightclubs and worked with the WXYZ orchestra in Detroit. He played occasionally on country recording sessions during the late 1940s.

11 Comments to "He Played Country With Dynamite: Skeet Ring"

  • Marsha Ring Mellish
    February 9, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    I grew up listening to my dad sing and play his treasured “”Martin” guitar and going over to my uncle Bud’s house where the brothers would play “bluegrass”. i am so happy you printed this interview. I remember my dad telling me about it. You did a great job sharing some of his story.

    • February 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Marsha. It was a pleasure to speak with old Skeet!

  • Ryan
    February 9, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    That’s my grandpa 🙂

  • Sarah Ring
    February 9, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    That’s my Grandpa, and it’s an honor to say those words! We love and miss him dearly. His music still lives in each member of his family, with his grandson recording music with that same guitar today! Amazing man with an amazing family that is still following in his footsteps.
    I love you Papa!

    • February 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      We’re thankful and glad to be able to recognize and report his story, Sarah.

  • Kenneth L Ring
    February 11, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    I have one of the original 78 rpm records!
    Unfortunately Dad’s record didn’t catch on back in the day. Dad gave me a case of records to take to my schools white elephant sale! We took the remainder of the records to the woods and used “Skeets” records for skeet shooting!
    Back in the early 90’s while searching on the Internet, I discovered his single, “Sitting On Top of the World”, was on a Cd/Lp titled “Detroit in the 50’s” and another Lp titled Boppin’ Hillbilly volume 29. Dad got all excited thinking he was going to get some royalty money, I had to give him the unfortunate news about the “public domain” law. As time goes by his single 78 has become become a collectors record! Occasionally it is available for bid on EBay.
    Dad used to love to listen to the Grand Ole Opera every time he could tune it in to the radio. He bought a computer just so he could stream it in live!
    All I know for sure is that I sure do miss him!

    • February 11, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

      Ken, that’s a great story. Wish I could have attended the white elephant sale, ha ha. It’s a fine record and I would like to have one on my shelf! The label scans came from a record belonging to a friend. Nice to hear your dad kept up with technology by purchasing a computer to listen to the “Grand Ole Opry.” Believe it or not, I’ve heard that more than once!

  • Pamela Conley
    January 13, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    I had the pleasure of growing up next door to this wonderful family. Skeet was truly a ‘gentle giant’ with a heart of gold, as is his entire family. What a wonderful legacy to have to pass down to his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. What a fine job you did on the story, and his history. Thank you.

  • Diana (Finch) Smith
    October 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    My father Curly Finch (originally from Paris, TN) also played music at the Pullman Bar in Highland Park during the years 1948-49 (possibly earlier). He played steel guitar with his friends, Bill Hart and Bill Wilson. They called themselves the Dusty Trail Boys, I believe. He also played on a radio station in Murray, KY around 1950. If anyone has any information, stories, or knowledge of them at that time, I would appreciate hearing from you.

    • October 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Diana! I’d never heard of Curly Finch or the Dusty Trail Boys. As Diana wrote, if anyone can shed a light on this group, please send a note.

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