Michelle Belanger
Country / rockabilly / blues
Members: band members vary from gig to gig

Greetings friends and music lovers-

    How is your winter going? This month's youtube foray is gonna take us into the mid to late 50's for some country music TV and the beginnings of rock and roll getting woven together with country music. I hope you have as much fun as I do looking into this window into history. Also, this month's garden pic is of my very first spring flowers already blooming! Who says flowers are delicate?


Ranch Party-

Upcoming Gigs-

Garden Pic-

Ranch Party-

    Throughout the 1940s western swing music could be heard across the western US. It was particularly popular in Texas, Oklahoma and California, where dance halls could bring in as many as ten thousand people per night (even on weeknights!). This was curtailed by a 30% war tax on "dancing nightclubs" instituted in 1944, but it was not entirely quelled, and it's popularity returned post-war. Even as the music changed, people continued to want to dance. One of the venues that hosted dance parties was the Town Hall building in Compton, Ca, near Long Beach. The building only held 3000, but would often fill up. In the early 50s, the lease was acquired by promoter William B Wagnon Jr, who got the shows broadcast on radio and later local TV, and began inviting a full range of country acts, along with some of the new rockers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It was called Town Hall Party, and it was broadcast locally and across some of the national NBC radio network. Acts were instructed to play only songs people could dance to, and keep individual songs short and plentiful to satisfy different tastes. Beginning in 1957, filming began for a syndicated TV series called Ranch Party.

     A house band was assembled with the excellent Joe Maphis as it's leader. Joe was an amazing player who could master about anything with strings. He demonstrates with the tune Pickin and Singin. Rippin' and clean. Sorry for the blurry picture. A lot of the video from this show that is on youtube is of low visual quality, but worth checking out in spite of that, I think. In keeping with the open minded spirit of the west coast, the house band also included some women instrumentalists. Joe's wife Rose Lee played rhythm guitar. A woman known as Fiddlin Kate (aka Margie Warren) was featured as a soloist in accompanying the regulars and guests, and in some bluegrass and western swing numbers that were integrated into the program. Here she is playing a little bluegrass, and here is a nice western swing instrumental which features several of the Ranch Party Gang. There is no video with that last cut, although it does feature an in depth description of the Town Hall/Ranch Party in case you would like to learn a little more. The other female instrumentalist is Marion Hall, one of the first women to play the pedal steel guitar. Highly unusual in that era. (and honestly, I still don't see too many women playing it now). I looked for a long while to find a good sampling of her playing and was only able to get little glimpses. Here is one of the better ones- a rippin little number called Town Hall Boogie, which showcases several members of the Ranch Party Gang. Some real good pickin going on there. Many of these players were also invited to play on studio recordings for Columbia records.

     There were a cast of regulars and many guests that would appear on the shows. The Collins Kids were a brother and sister duet. Lorrie played rhythm guitar and sang while her little brother Larry danced around, Chuck Berry style, playing rockin leads and singing harmony. Larry was mentored by Joe and that showed up in his style. He was actually very good. Here they are doing Wild Cat, with a corny introduction by the host of the show, Tex Ritter. Another regular was the Queen of Rockabilly herself, Wanda Jackson. Wanda appeared on the Grand Ole Opry only one time. She wore one of her special costumes that were designed and sewn by her mom, and none other than Enrest Tubb insisted that she wear her fringe jacket onstage so as not to show her bare shoulders. She complied, but vowed to never come back. I can just imagine what people in the fifties might have thought about this curvy teenager coming onstage with these fitted, bare shoulder dresses with fringe accentuating her curves, and singing suggestive lyrics (for the 50s, that is) on songs she wrote. It was hard enough for folks of that time to deal with Elvis, and he was a guy. As is noted in the introduction of this song, there were certainly a contingent of men who couldn't get enough of her. This song is about dancing- wink wink. It is listed as Cool Love on my Wanda CD, but Tex calls it Real Cool. Nice solo from Joe Maphis on this one.

     The TV show consisted mostly of regular and semi regular guests accompanied by members of the Ranch Party Gang, along with numbers from the gang with the other cast members singing. However, acts that were passing though were invited to come on the show. Often they brought their own back up players or bands and played themselves or with help from the house band. Here is a really young George Jones doing You Gotta Be My Baby in 1957 with the Ranch Party Gang. Dig that bovine flattop guitar. Johnny Cash brought his Tennessee Two to accompany him on his classic tune Get Rhythm. Carl Perkins also was accompanied by his own band on several occasions. Here they do True Love. In Tex Ritter's introduction, he says he likes to "bring the youngsters some be boppin' music". Such a hipster, that Tex. 

Upcoming Gigs-

     I have a few gigs to tell you about. This week I will be back at the Blue Note Grill in Durham for some Thursday Night Trouble. Local boys John Worthington and Fj Ventre will be the Hillbillies du jour, and we are looking forward to getting the dance floor rockin'. It is always so fun to see my triangle friends at the Note. If you haven't been there, I highly recommend you check it out. Great food, friendly people, and a full bar. It's working people's hours, too- 7-9ish. The following Thursday I will be joined by Scott Williams and Calvin Johnson for a show of mostly classic country at Prissy Polly's Bar-B-Que in Kernersville, NC. This will be our second time at Prissy Polly's. Last time we were delighted to find so many people who love the old country music. They made us feel real welcome and we will be glad to see them all again. On Saturday, March 2nd, Scott, Cal and I will be making our first appearance at the Coffee Bean Music Hall in Dobson, NC. Our friend Phil has been hard at work getting a bunch of great music into this venue and we are looking forward to having a place that our Surry County buddies can come to see us. They carry some excellent coffee and tea, along with a nice selection of beer and wine. We play from 9-12. Join us if you can.

     I will be teaching a western swing dance workshop at this year's Merle Fest on Saturday, April 27th, with the able assistance of my friend Steve Burnside. If you are planning on being there, please stop by the dance tent around 5:15 and join us on the dance floor. There is a hot swing band that will start after the dinner break, so you will have plenty of time to practice your new skills. And speaking of dancing, I laid down some tracks for the fourth CD that will feature a bit of my clogging. Nate Leath, an excellent fiddler, assembled a group of amazing musicians at Minglewood Studios in Westfield, NC at the beginning of the year, and recorded what promises to be a really cool CD. Danny Knicely helped produce it and plays on several cuts. I will be sure to let you know when that comes out. It's gonna be great and I am proud and honored to have been in such good company as the players in these sessions.

I hope to see some of you at these upcoming gigs or out and about wherever there is great music. If you know anyone who would enjoy my youtube tours, please forward this email to them. This month's garden pic is of my white Hellebores, which opened up on the morning after the temperature went down into the teens overnight. These have always bloomed in very early spring, but this surprised me. They are still looking good after a week of this wintery weather. 

See you soon-




Green Heron Club Danbury, NC Sat Feb 07 2015 07:00 PM  
The Garage Winston-Salem, NC Fri Feb 27 2015 07:00 PM  
The Kraken Bar Chapel Hill, NC Sat Apr 04 2015 08:00 PM  
> See More / Details


"Michelle, I love to come hear you play because I can pretend I'm you and it makes me feel sassy"  Tami Reichert, Mystery Hillbillies fan quotes

"I think of the word "bad-ass" when I think of you. Confident, talented, cool, humorous, skilled ...bad-ass!"  Anastasia Mattox, Mystery Hillbillies fan quotes

"The Mystery Hillbillies opened the show with a barn burning set of tightly focused, three-piece high-lighted by Michelle Belanger’s lived-in vocals. Hillbillies regular Calvin Johnson on the upright came the closest to Americana, easing the crowd into the evening connecting the mountain pickers to urban hot-rodders in a tactile way. The addition of a drummer and electric guitar brought on the Memphis and allowed their set to bridge that gap from the Carter Family Fold in Virginia to Johnny’s electrified Nashville career. Belanger’s stage presence and singing are warm, like sitting on a porch and listening to her croon over a chorus of crickets."  Chad Nance, Camel City Dispatch

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