by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
This Week in Texas Music History we meet the flour salesman who turned his unlikely country stardom into a U. S. Senate seat.
On December 3, 1938, the Hillbilly Boys recorded the theme song “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” to mark the election of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel as governor of Texas. The Hillbilly Boys were not a random group of O’Daniel’s supporters but a band working for the radio announcer whose political career would always be bound up with country music and mass media. Hailing from Kansas, O’Daniel first took to the Fort Worth airwaves to sell flour with the Light Crust Doughboys, whose founding members included Bob Wills and Milton Brown. Their jazzy take on country music was the big bang moment of western swing, but O’Daniel’s controlling management style clashed with Wills and Brown’s independent spirit. As that first group broke up, with Brown passing away and Wills moving on to Tulsa and greater fame, O’Daniel crafted new country groups to brandish his own celebrity, culminating in the Hillbilly Boys’ role in his victorious 1938 gubernatorial campaign.
Once governor, O’Daniel still used the Hillbilly Boys to hawk his personal flour brand, broadcasting their weekly radio program directly from the Governor’s Mansion in Austin. He made no bones of the corruption of mixing public office with private profit, saying “heretofore I’ve always worked for an honest living, but look at me now!” In 1941, O’Daniel sought higher office with the same tactics, defeating a young LBJ in his first Senate bid. O’Daniel served one term in the Senate and retired from politics in 1948. LBJ won the empty seat. If some of this sounds familiar, Pappy O’Daniel re-entered public consciousness in the 21st century as a caricature in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou, a depiction that used O’Daniel to skewer the corrupt hokum of midcentury Southern populism.
Jean Boyd. The Jazz of the Southwest. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
Bill Crawford. Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy: Pictures of Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
George N. Green in Laurie E. Jasinski, Gary Hartman, Casey Monahan, and Ann T. Smith, eds. The Handbook of Texas Music. Second Edition. Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 2012.