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    ‘Pistol Packin Mama’ right on target

    by Wanda Orton

    Surfing the net, I usually catch a keeper on the TexasEscapes web site. All kinds of interesting articles can be found there, courtesy of some of our state's most entertaining writers. Most recently, via TexasEscapes, I discovered Bob Bowman's column about the origin of that toe-tapping, finger-snapping, hand-clapping tune, “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

    A constant refrain on the radio during World War II, the song was a cross-over hit, adopted by both country-western and pop performers.

    Artistic renditions of “Pistol Packin' Mama” adorned U.S. planes and boats, and the musical renditions were in demand at military base shows over the world. Nearly every big name in show biz took a shot at it, including Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller’s orchestra. Proving to have a long shelf life, the song to this day is presented by the likes of Willie Nelson and his peers.

    I never knew though, until reading Bowman's column, that the roots of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” can be traced to Cherokee County.

    The song was composed and first performed by Clarence Albert Poindexter, who painted houses by day and worked nights singing at local bars and clubs The house-painting music man from Jacksonville eventually shortened his name to Al Dexter.

    A woman sheriff in Cherokee County was Dexter's inspiration for “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” In 1939, then-Sheriff Bill Brunt, was killed in a shoot-out after confronting a bootlegger, Red Creel, on a road near Rusk. Creel also died. Hours later the Cherokee County Commissioners Court asked the 26-year-old sheriff’s widow to complete her husband’s term, and she responded by picking up her pistols and strapping them on. The commissioners took that as a “yes.”

    With Sheriff Mary Brunt in mind, Dexter recorded "Pistol Packin' Mama" with Gene Autry’s band as backup.

    By the time the record was released in June 1943, Mary Brunt no longer served as sheriff, having decided not to seek an elected term, but the legend of a female sharpshooter lived on in Dexter’s lyrics. Meanwhile, her husband’s brother, Frank Brunt, was elected sheriff and served in that capacity for many years.

    As soon as it was released, “Pistol Packin’ Mama” became the most frequently played selection on juke boxes and ranked second on the pop charts. During the first six months of its release, it sold a million copies.

    Although we don’t think of Bing Crosby as a country singer, his version of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” topped the newly created Country Music Billboard charts, then called hillbilly and western singles, in early 1944.

    Composer Dexter’s other claim to fame was coining the word honky-tonk in his song,”Honky-tonk Blues.” He never had another hit song, opting to concentrate on investments and real estate, and he died a wealthy man in 1984 at his home on Lake Lewisville.

    By the way, in spite of its popularity, there was a slight problem with the lyrics, “Drinkin’ beer in a cabaret…” NBC radio network would not broadcast the song that way, claiming it was immoral, so a special revision was prepared for the air waves. The cleaned-up version – approved by NBC -- stated, “Singin’ songs in a cabaret...”

    My, how words and music have changed.

    © Wanda Orton -
    December 23, 2011
    Baytown Sun Columnist

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