The Chuck Wagon Gang – Singing Nearly 90 Years

  • Monday, February 26, 2024
  • Earl Freudenberg
Chuck Wagon Gang – current group
Chuck Wagon Gang – current group
My favorite Southern Gospel Group remains the Chuck Wagon Gang, and 2025 will mark the gang’s 90th anniversary of singing the Gospel in all 50 states.

David P. "Dad" Carter formed the group in 1935 in Texas, and a year later they were singing on WBAP radio in Fort Worth.

The very first song the Chuck Wagon Gang recorded was in September 1936, “The Son Hath Made Me Free.”

Thanks to Shaye Smith, granddaughter of original alto Anna Carter Gordon Davis, the CWG is still traveling across the country today singing many of the original tunes, with some new ones that have the gang’s flavor.


Mrs. Smith recalls growing up and spending time with her grandmother, Anna Gordon Davis, and step-grandfather, Jimmie Davis, who was twice governor of Louisiana. The governor was known for his country and Gospel songs, including the number one country hit in 1940, “You Are My Sunshine,” and million-selling Gospel song from 1953, “Suppertime.”

The Chuck Wagon Gang was so popular they maintained a recording contract with Columbia Records for nearly 40 years. Although Columbia producer Mitch Miller wasn’t a CWG fan, he told another popular Columbia artist Tony Bennett, “They ring our cash registers.” The CWG was the record label’s top seller during much of the 40s and 50s.

In an interview with this writer, Mrs. Smith said “I’ll Fly Away” remains one of the gang's most requested songs. She said Albert E. Brumley wrote the song around 1930, and no artist at that time seemed interested in the tune, so Mr. Brumley put it away. Mrs. Smith said in 1947 Mr. Brumley sent the song to the gang, who ended up recording it twice. In 1948, “I’ll Fly Away” soared to the top of the charts, becoming a million-selling number one song. Mrs. Smith said the song that nobody wanted nearly 20 years earlier became the Chuck Wagon Gang’s best known song of the day, and has now been recorded over 600 times. Country singer Alan Jackson included “I’ll Fly Away” in his 2006 Gospel Album, which sold over one million and reached the number four position on Billboard’s top albums. Former Tennessee Governor and United States Senator Lamar Alexander is an accomplished pianist. He said “I’ll Fly Away” has always been one of his favorite pieces to play on the piano. The hymn was sung in the 1997 film “The Apostle” by Gary Chapman and Wynonna Judd. Mrs. Smith gives the Chuck Wagon Gang the credit for the song’s popularity lasting over 70 years.

Chattanooga area radio stations played a lot of Chuck Wagon Gang records. Announcers Ray Hobbs, Gaylord McPherson, Peanut Faircloth and Lloyd Payne included CWG songs on their country–Gospel music programs. Mr. Payne hosted the “Gospel Train” on WDXB in the 1950’s and said the CWG was one of his most requested groups. Mr. Payne said, “I had to play the Chuck Wagon Gang several times during my daily programs.”

Charlie Gwyn, who operated WLFA radio in LaFayette, programmed 30 minutes of Chuck Wagon Gang music every day at 1 p.m. Mr. Gwyn said when they signed on the air in 1954, the Chuck Wagon Gang was the most popular show. He said the program ran for over 20 years. Among his most requested songs were “Hide Me Rock of Ages,” “Tattlers Wagon” and, of course, “I’ll Fly Away.” Mr. Gwyn said, “We could never play all the requests during the half hour show; at one time, we added another 15 minutes in the morning at 8:45 a.m. Our listeners love them.”

Rev. J. Basil Mull, host of the Mull Singing Convention and gospel music promoter, traveled throughout the country and sold a lot of Chuck Wagon LP’s on several 50,000 watt radio stations late at night. The stations included WCKY in Cincinnati, WBAP in Fort Worth– Dallas and WLAC in Nashville.

One Thanksgiving this writer was visiting with the Mulls in Knoxville and we went to the post office, loading five large mail bags of Chuck Wagon Gang orders in his trunk. Rev. Mull said, “Mrs. Mull will process all these orders and have the LP’s in the mail in a few days.” He said the bags contained hundreds of orders.

My first year on WDOD in 1965 we programmed Southern Gospel Music early Sunday mornings. The station collection included several albums by the Chuck Wagon Gang, and “I’ll Fly Away” was among them.

Chattanooga’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium is now 100 years old, and down through the years, there were dozens of Gospel Singings, which included the world famous Chuck Wagon Gang. According to David Carroll’s “Hello Chattanooga,” the CWG graced the stage at least nine times. The first documented concert was in March 1956 with Wally Fowler, Hovie Lister and the Statesmen. In 1967, The Chuck Wagon Gang and Governor Davis were added to a country music show at the auditorium, and this writer introduced the musicians. They were such gracious people, singing with very little talk for over half an hour. The crowd gave them a standing ovation prompting a short encore.

The Chuck Wagon Gang has always been a listener favorite on this writer’s radio programs. The late Charlie Peavyhouse, a Hamilton County principal and very active politically, owned many CWG recordings. Mr. Peavyhouse said, “I was raised on their music and went to a lot of their concerts.”

Another CWG fan was educator Darwin Lane. I would get frequent calls from Mr. Lane requesting the gang’s familiar tunes, “Echos From the Burning Bush," ”Church in the Wildwood,” “After the Sunrise,” “We are Climbing,” “On the Jericho Road” and a host of Mr. Lane’s other favorites. He had many.

Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander grew up listening to the Chuck Wagon Gang and his favorite song is “I’ll Fly Away.” Oct. 20, 2019, Mr. Hullander and his wife, Linda, hosted the CWG at their Apison farm for the monthly Red Back Hymnal Singing. Retired Broadcaster Ben Cagle videoed the concert, which can be seen on YouTube. Mrs. Smith and lead singer Melissa Kemper led the audience in singing “In the Garden,” the only known duet recorded by original CWG female singers Rose and Anna.

One of the fans’ favorite videos is “The Legacy Lives On,” produced by country music singer Marty Stuart. In compiling the DVD, Stuart said, “This group was designed for the ages.” Guest appearances include retired CBS evening news Anchor Dan Rather and country music singers Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels and Connie Smith. Mr. Rather said, “Growing up in Texas, we listened to the Chuck Wagon Gang on the radio and they lifted our spirits.” He called the gang, “true Americana.” Marty Stuart wrote 11 songs especially for the Chuck Wagon Gang, all included in a project entitled “Meeting in Heaven.”

A few of the places the gang has performed include Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, Renfro Valley, Pigeon Forge, Branson, Mo., Grand Ole Opry and even the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree on WSM radio. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998 and have received many other awards.

A favorite part of today’s Chuck Wagon Gang Concert is the re–creation of a 1930’s radio program sponsored by Bewley Flour Mills. The gang uses a replica microphone like the one used for the live show.

The Chuck Wagon Gang currently records for Crossroads – Mountain Home Music.

Mrs. Smith said the group hasn’t forgotten their roots. “We’ve recorded several projects with newer selections, but keep going back to the basics. The group recorded a project of selections by the other Carter family, including “No Depression in Heaven.”

While the CWG uses other instruments, including piano, banjo and dobro, Mrs. Smith said the familiar guitar intro will always be their signature.

The late Hamilton County Commission Chairman Curtis Adams and his wife, Dot, were Chuck Wagon Gang fans. Mr. Adams said the couple listened to the group on the radio while dating. The Commissioner’s favorites were, “Looking For a City” and “I’m Telling the World About His Love.” Mr. Adams said, “The Chuck Wagon Gang never recorded a bad song; what I liked about them is I could sing along with the simple melodies. Their songs have a message that touched lives. I’ll never get tired of hearing the Chuck Wagon Gang; they are the best.”

For the 70th anniversary, the Chuck Wagon Gang recorded 12 songs with country music legends The Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs, Bill Anderson, the Gatlin Brothers, Sons of the Pioneers and Jack Greene.

For devoted Chuck Wagon Gang fans, Bear Family Records in Germany put together a boxed set, “The Complete Recordings 1936–1955.” Recordings both old and new can be ordered from www.thechuckwagongang.net.

The present group members are Shaye Smith, manager – owner and alto singer, Melissa Kemper - soprano, Josh Garner - tenor, Darrell Morris - bass and guitar, and Cody Shaneyfelt - upright bass.

Fans can hardly wait to see what surprises Shaye Smith and the Chuck Wagon Gang will have on their 90th anniversary of singing the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Chuck Wagon Gang – Oct. 2019 at the Hullander Farm with Bill and Linda Hullander
Chuck Wagon Gang – Oct. 2019 at the Hullander Farm with Bill and Linda Hullander
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