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Tune of the Month: Tennessee Wagoner

Tennessee Wagoner

I read in the morning paper the other day that the Waggoner Ranch was up for sale. If you’ve got half a billion dollars or so lying around you could snatch it up. I’ll pass, but it reminded me that one of my favorite hoedowns, ‘Wagoner’ or ‘Tennessee Wagoner’ has often been linked to this 533,000 acre ranch, the largest in Texas. Some even call it ‘Texas Wagoner’ after the founder, Dan Waggoner, who started a successful ranching business in 1851 near Decatur and expanded from there, along with son, W.T., and others. Silly me, I just thought the tune was named for someone who drove a wagon. Nowadays oil and horses represent much of the estate’s holdings, as well as cattle. Among the heirs and heiresses is the sculptor, Electra Waggoner Biggs, most well known for her statue of Will Rogers, ‘Riding Into the Sunset.’ The president of General Motors at the time was a fan (as well as an in-law) and named the Buick Electra after her. A more convincing story of this tune’s origins (or at least its name’s) is in reference to a race horse, Wagner, who bested Gray Eagle in the Louisville race of 1838, a precursor to the Kentucky Derby (see Tennessee Grey Eagle in Evergreen Fiddler I). Wagner’s jockey was a slave named Cato who won his freedom for his efforts that day. Gray Eagle lost this race but his descendants have gone on to win many such races as he is a principal ancestor for most American Saddlebreds (including Morgans and Thoroughbreds).

I first learned this widely played hoedown from my mentor, Earl Willis (Evergreen Fiddler I), who would say that more square dances have been done to this tune than pretty much any other. Like many fiddlers, he played some variations similar to what you hear with Bob Simmons. You can work out something like these if you want to on your own I’m sure. In the first full measure notice how Bob dives into the down beat with a down bow and then slurs from C to a C & E double stop on the up bow and then back and forth to end on an up bow. Earl played it this way too and I have long referred to this rhythmic technique as the “Wagoner Lick.” It works well here and lots of other places as well. See what you can do with it. Bob applies it nicely in the b part as well. Be sure and go to the sound file to listen to this tune. You will also surely enjoy Bob on Voyager Recording’s cd #334 ‘Remembering,’ from whence the recording comes. Thanks (as often) to Andrew Kuntz at http://www.tunearch.org, http://www.waggonerranch.com, http://www.oldtimeparty.wordpress.com and Wikipedia.

Stuart Williams

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Stuart Williams, Music Editor
stuwilli@mindspring.com

Updated October 11, 2014

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