The Library of Virginia, one of the oldest state libraries and archives in the nation, is marking its bicentennial in 2023 with a free exhibition—200 Years, 200 Stories, which offers visitors the chance to explore the stories of fascinating Virginians from all walks of life and endeavors. In the field of music, a passion of mine, there is an embarrassment of riches. Our state boasts pioneers in almost every important American music genre from country to blues to hip hop. As you can imagine, making the final selection of artists to include was difficult.
Featuring Mary Higdon “Sunshine Sue” Workman in the exhibition was a relatively easy decision. The popularity of the Old Dominion Barn Dance, which she emceed and ran for many years, made her an icon in Virginia and beyond. Lines wrapped around the block to see the live broadcasts from the WRVA Theater (formerly the old Lyric Theatre) at 9th and Broad Streets in Richmond. She is so well-known that her story has been told many times. My old friend Harry Kollatz wrote a great article about her several years ago (find it here) and my colleague Dawn Tinnell assembled a fine overview of the Old Dominion Barn Dance previously in the UncommonWealth. My challenge was to find a different approach to her and her career. Why not use her recordings in the Library’s collection to tell her story, I thought. The broadcasts and recordings not only follow Sue through her career but also track the evolution of country music.
Barn Dance Ramblings
Here we have Sunshine Sue singing with the trio “The Happy Valley Girls.” Sue is joined by Ramona Riggins—more about her below—and Jane Allen. Several things make this broadcast interesting, not the least of which is that Sunshine Sue left Richmond radio station WRVA within a month after she made it! On the evening of August 29, 1942, she made her first appearance on WLW’s “Boone County Jamboree” in Cincinnati, Ohio. It wasn’t unusual for performers to hop from one station to the next; Sue had started her musical career performing over KRNT in Des Moines, Iowa, her home state, as the Rock Creek Ramblers and Sunshine Sally. When she joined the cast at WLS in Chicago, there was already member named “Sally” and thus she became “Sue.”
The name Ramona Riggins might not ring a bell, but if you’ve ever watched the long-running TV show “Hee Haw,” you’ve probably heard and seen her. Just eighteen years old when this recording was made, she would move to Cincinnati with Sue and strike up a relationship with another cast member—Louis Marshall Jones—better known as Grandpa Jones. The couple were both on “Hee Haw,” where Ramona frequently displayed her fiddling talents. Grandpa Jones and Ramona would make a brief stop in Richmond as part of the Old Dominion Barn Dance before settling in Nashville at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Here’s a clip of Ramona fiddling “Soldier’s Joy” from the same WRVA broadcast.
Ramona’s instrumental skill is notable. Most early female country artists—and they were a distinct minority—played guitar and sang sentimental and religious songs. It wasn’t for a lack of fine female instrumentalists. Eva Davis and Samantha Bumgarner made some of the earliest banjo and fiddle duets in county music history for Columbia Records. The Coon Creek Girls recorded the classic “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” while members of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky.
Back to Richmond
This recording features Sunshine Sue performing with the Sunrise Hillbillies from sister station WRNL as part of a wartime broadcast, “Let’s Go to Town,” from September 1944. The show delivered a “Radio View of Richmond, Virginia,” as presented by the Armed Forces Radio Service to soldiers overseas and at home. The broadcast highlighted Richmond musicians, news about war production from Richmond companies, and sports stories. There is also a discussion regarding soldiers returning to civilian work.
This 1944 performance marks another major moment in Sue’s career—her return to WRVA. The Richmond Times-Dispatch proclaimed “Sunshine Sue is Back!” just in time for her appearance on this show. In just a few years she would begin her reign as “Queen of the Hillbillies” (as declared by Virginia Governor Tuck) and impresario of the Old Dominion Barn Dance. The use of the term “Hillbilly” in country music dates at least back to a band called “The Hill Billies” who recorded in the 1920s.
“You Are My Sunshine” is a country music standard that has been recorded hundreds of times. Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis recorded the song on February 5, 1940, for the Decca label and used it as a campaign song. (The southern governor in the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” is clearly a composite of Davis and the real “Pappy” O’Daniel, a governor of Texas.)
Barn Dance Boogie
By 1946, Sunshine Sue was in charge of the Old Dominion Barn Dance and fronting the broadcast as its emcee. This 78-rpm record is in our 200 Years, 200 Stories exhibition and it signals a new genre in the country music canon—boogie tunes and rockabilly sounds that presage Rock and Roll.
“Cousin Joe” Maphis’s hot guitar licks drive “Barn Dance Boogie.” Otis Wilson “Joe” Maphis was born in Suffolk County, Virginia, but his family moved to Cumberland, Maryland, when he was young. Maphis emceed and performed regularly on the Barn Dance early in the 1950s. Sunshine Sue always surrounded herself with great talent. Maphis would fully exploit the possibilities of electric guitar in country music after moving to California. (There are some tremendous performances on YouTube.) Influences from blues, western swing, and other genres gave rise to new country styles such as rockabilly and honkytonk—Maphis’s hit “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” became a honkytonk standard. Sunshine Sue and the Barn Dance would adapt to these changes by employing younger performers such as Janis Martin, billed as the “female Elvis,” but changing tastes in music and the new medium of television slowly diminished the Barn Dance’s audience. Sue’s reign came to an end when the Barn Dance wrapped up in 1957.
The recording of the “Barn Dance Boogie” itself is somewhat of a mystery. The label is a one-off. My best guess is that it was pressed specifically for the Barn Dance members to be sold at personal appearances. I’ve found at least four copies of this 78-rpm record in antique shops and junk stores over the years, so they must have sold reasonably well!
Artists made money from personal appearances and selling records and songbooks—what we call “merch” today. Gospel compilations were especially popular. The publisher of Sue’s hymn compilation, the Stamps-Baxter Company of Dallas, Texas, was one of the largest gospel publishers in the country. This song, “Will My Mother Know Me There,” had previously been recorded by L. V. Jones and his Virginia Singing School Class of Lee Country, and the Carter Family of Scott County, Virginia.
Sponsor advertisements and announcements of appearances were standard fare on radio broadcasts. Here’s a sample from the end of a 1950 Old Dominion Barn Dance broadcast on WRVA. Joe Maphis pitches the upcoming appearances and Sunshine Sue closes the broadcast.
200 Years, 200 Stories will be open in the gallery at the Library of Virginia until October 28, 2023.