In the nine years between the end of World War II and the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll, the Austin music scene was dominated by Western Swing and country bands with such names as Jesse James and All the Boys, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters, Doug and the Falstaff Swing Boys, Grouchy and His Texas Pioneers, Leon Hawkins and His Buckaroos, Hub Sutter and the Galvestonians, and Buck Roberts and the Rhythmaires.
But Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys stood out because it was that rare country band led by a woman who wasn’t the main vocalist. Far from a novelty, Dolores Fariss wrote songs, chose outside material, played piano and ruled her group of talented musicians like Bob Wills in a skirt.
“My mother ran the band like a business,” says son Don Fariss, 70. “Dad (drummer Lee Fariss) pretty much went along with whatever she said when it came to the group.” Rule No. 1 was no drinking before or during a set. And Dolores Fariss was also clear that she didn’t like her musicians showing off. Although she had a Hammond solovox piano attachment, which produced a shrill, single-note organ sound, Dolores used it mainly to emulate the clarinet notes during the band’s polka numbers. (The most famous recorded use of a solovox is on “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs.)
“Mother knew the way to stay popular was to keep the crowd dancing,” says Don Fariss, “and people loved to dance to polkas.” The majority of the group’s repertoire was country hits, though Dolores Fariss penned a local hit of her own with “The Austin Waltz.”
“Dolores was very commercial-minded, and she called the shots as to what we played,” says the band’s fiddler, Bill Dessens, who joined the Blue Bonnet Boys in 1949 while still in college at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. “Her motto was ‘Keep it simple, boys.’ She’d say that whenever me and (twin fiddler) Joe Castle would take off on a crazy course. We used to get together in the basement of Joe’s church and learn songs like ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ but Dolores didn’t care for that hokum (jazz).” She insisted the band give the crowd what they wanted, which made the band extremely hireable – not only in the clubs but on the more lucrative campus and West Austin private party scene.
Steel guitarist Jimmy Grabowske says “it was never an issue” to take orders from a woman because “Dolores knew what she was doing when it came to the band. She was such a wonderful person and such a talented piano player.”
Rather than tour the dancehalls, honky-tonks and VFW halls all over Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys rarely ventured outside Austin, where they played every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at the Skyline Club on far North Lamar Boulevard (at the corner of what is now Braker Lane) in the early ’50s. The group also played Dessau Hall twice a month and the Buckholts SPJST Lodge in Milam County about four times a year.
The Skyline gigs included the Wednesday “Spot Dance,” which was like musical chairs on the dance floor. When the music stopped, those who were not on one of the large white dots on the floor had to drop out.
The group publicized its shows by playing live on KVET (AM 1300), which signed on the air Oct. 1, 1946. Before KVET, there were two stations in town – the Lady Bird Johnson-owned KTBC (AM 590), a CBS affiliate, and KNOW, headquartered in Norwood Tower. Lyndon Johnson, then a rookie U.S. congressman, encouraged several of his closest associates, including future Texas Gov. John Connally and future U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle, to pool their resources and launch a third station, before NBC could enter the market. Better that competitors be friends than enemies. Because the new station owners were veterans of World War II, they went with the KVET call letters.
The Blue Bonnet Boys and the other big country band in town, Jesse James and All the Boys, were friendly competitors, often sharing and trading members. Blue Bonnet Boy guitarist Claude Hallmark even co-wrote “Darlin’, I Don’t Understand,” with James, who had a regional hit with it.
Grabowske played with both groups, leaving Jesse James for Dolores in 1953, after six years on the road. “Jesse James (was) popular all over the state, but the traveling would kill you,” says Grabowske.
There was more money out on the road, but the Blue Bonnet Boys stuck to Austin and environs because they had two boys in school and because Lee Fariss had a successful home construction business with his wife’s father, Alfred Hanson.
“Playing music was a way to make some extra money,” says Don Fariss, “but father’s job paid the bills.” The family lived in a modest house at 1136 Shady Lane in East Austin.
The Hansons, of Danish descent, came from Hutto, where Alfred had a polka band featuring teenage daughter Dolores on piano. Lee Fariss also had a band at the time, Lee’s Bees, in which drummer Fariss was the only member who wasn’t blind. Lee and Dolores met at a Hansons polka gig in 1930 and married the next year. First son James was born in 1934; then came Don in 1940.
After World War II spawned the big-band craze and its country cousin, Western swing, the Farisses put together Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys around 1946.
KTBC was known for its news shows and on-air personality Cactus Pryor, but KVET was a mixed bag of community programming. In addition to Lavada Durst’s pioneering “Dr. Hepcat Show” of R&B, Elmer Akins drove the “Gospel Train” every Sunday and Lalo Campos’ “Noche de Fiesta” played Mexican music. Both KTBC and KVET featured country bands playing live daily in 15-minute spots, and both had recording capabilities.
KVET’s Fred Caldwell signed the Blue Bonnet Boys to his Lasso label and recorded three 78s of Dolores’ original tunes, including “The Austin Waltz,” “Bonnie Blue Eyes” and “Think of Me.” Caldwell also launched Uptown Records and released R&B 78s by Durst, who would go on to co-write the Bells of Joy’s million-selling gospel smash “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” (That 1951 tune was the rhythmic model for Ray Charles’ secular smash “I Got a Woman.”)
“Mother was ambitious, but she didn’t put her musical goals above our education,” says Don Fariss. “It was impressed upon James and I early on that it was very important for us to get our college degrees.”
It was as a music major at the University of Texas that Don Fariss, who was dragged to most gigs from about age 6 to 11 when a baby-sitter wasn’t available, started fully understanding what a great band his parents had. “I grew up loving classical music and jazz and hating country-Western,” says Fariss, who studied the French horn before switching back to his mother’s instrument. “But the more I learned, the more I realized that the (original) fiddle players, Joe Castle and Randall Raley, were pretty amazing. They were classically trained, but they played country to pay the bills.” Also a brilliant cellist and guitarist, Castle worked for many years at UT transcribing classical violin pieces for the guitar, says Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson.
Rounding out the early incarnation of the group were guitarist Aubrey Cox, who handled most of the lead vocals, bassist Glen “Swede” Larson, Johnny Ross on steel guitar and guitarist Hallmark. Kenneth Threadgill, a good friend of Lee’s, would often sit in with the group and sang lead on the 1948 single “Mean Mama Blues.”
The first country band of note led by a woman was the New Mexico-based Louise Massey and the Westerners, who had hits in the 1930s with “When the White Azaleas Start Blooming” and “My Adobe Hacienda.” The musical leader of that group was Midland-raised singer Massey’s brother Curt Massey, who went on to work in Hollywood as musical director for “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.”
Although Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys never reached the commercial heights of the Massey family’s group, they earned a footnote as that rare country band led by a woman who wasn’t the singer. Dolores Fariss was a bandleader in the truest sense of the word.
“If they had to do it all over again, they may have pushed harder and gone further,” Don Fariss says of his parents. “But I think they were satisfied with what they had done while raising a family.” The Farisses disbanded the Blue Bonnet Boys in 1955.
Dolores Fariss, who went on to work as a dietitian for the Del Valle school district, lived to be 80. Lee Fariss made it to 90, passing away in 1998. Their friendly musical rival Jesse James died in 1973 at age 57.
“The Austin Waltz,” which was revived by Ray Campi in a 1980 recording and remains a favorite of nostalgic country bands such as the Knights of Texas Swing, lives on as the song that defines an era long ago.