"We didn't know what we were doin'. We were just kids." I had to smile when I heard Cliff Bruner dismiss his early recordings this way. He was reminiscing as we visited last year in California, where he was soon to be inducted into the Sacramento Western Swing Society's Hall of Fame. I had dropped everything and flown south last October upon hearing that Cliff was planning to attend the Sacramento western swing get-together. You see, I had been studying Cliff's pioneering fiddle work for over a year, poring over CD sets of his work with Milton Brown's band and with his own group, the Texas Wanderers. I'd had a chance to jam with Cliff late one night after the Athens, Texas, fiddle contest way back in the early '80s, but hadn't seen him since, and I couldn't pass up another opportunity to see one of my all-time favorite western swing fiddlers.
I guess at this point a little history might be in order. For much of this information and some of Cliff's quotes I'm greatly indebted to Kevin Coffey, who wrote the voluminous notes that accompany the Bear Family's boxed set of five Cliff Bruner CDs. I understand that Kevin has been putting a lot of time into documenting the history of western swing and interviewing many of the surviving players. My hat's off to you, Kevin. I hope that we have the chance to meet soon!
Clifton Lafayette Bruner was born on April 25th, 1915, in Texas City, Texas. By the age of four he had started playing fiddle, in his own words, "before I could even talk good." Before long his family moved to Tomball, north of Houston, and he "started playing the old country dances that we used to have, with the corn meal on the floor. I never did like to pick cotton or raise watermelon and found out I could make more money playing my fiddle than I could doing that. So my heart just got set on music and there was nothing I could do about anything else. I wanted to play music. It was just imbedded into me."
He can cite no violin players who were major formative influences as he was growing up, and he developed his unique sound in relative isolation. This is in contrast to the jazz violin world, where in most cases we can "follow the trail," as it were, tracing the influence of the early players on those who came later. For example, Joe Venuti drew part of his style from the early work of Eddie South, who first recorded way back in 1923. Similarly, Stuff Smith, Svend Asmussen and Stéphane Grappelli all cited Venuti as an early influence. However, although we hardly need a bloodhound to sniff out Cliff's influence on Johnny Gimble, J.R. Chatwell, Clyde Brewer and many other western swing fiddlers, he seems to have built his style on his own.
So isolated was Cliff from the musical mainstream that when he was tapped in 1935 to join the hottest western swing band going, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, he was really only vaguely aware of who they were. He says, "I didn't even really know who he [Milton] was! I was so deep into just playing that fiddle and earning a living, traveling around. I didn't have time to listen to the radio didn't have a radio anyway. I was working toward the same thing, but I had never heard the Brownies." He was going to turn the job with Milton down, saying later, "We had just got that band going in Houston and I didn't want to bust it up. I told the boys that I wasn't gonna take the job. I wasn't going to let them down. But 'Rip' Ramsey [his bassist at the time] says to me, 'Oh no you're not, Cliff. Do you know who Milton Brown is? He's got the top band in the world! No, you're going to take that job. I'm going to take you up there myself.' And he did."
Bruner's hot, unpredictable style was perfect for the Musical Brownies. He was paired with another terrific fiddler, the classically trained, heavily Joe Venuti-influenced Cecil Brower. The two cut over four dozen sizzling sides with Milton Brown's great band, which included the legendary steel guitarist Bob Dunn and the piano-poundin', cigar-chompin' Fred "Papa" Calhoun (with whom this author had the distinct pleasure of recording in the early 1980s). We are fortunate indeed that these recordings, and in fact Milton Brown's complete recorded output, are now available on a five-CD set, courtesy of Texas Rose Records.
February of 1937 found Cliff in a studio set up in the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, accompanied by his bandmate from the Musical Brownies, "Papa" Calhoun, and Leo Raley, one of the first players (if not the first) of a new instrument, the electric mandolin. The seven-piece, drummer-less band cut seventeen sides in one day. The tunes waxed included "Old Fashioned Love," "Corrine, Corrina," Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues," and Clarence Williams' novelty numbers "The Right Key (But the Wrong Keyhole)" and "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' this Jelly Roll."
1938 saw the beginning of what was to be almost a ten-year musical association between Bruner and a certified wild man on piano and vocals, Aubrey "Moon" Mullican. "Moon" (Cliff recalls referring to him as "moonshine"you can draw your own conclusions) was quoted as saying, "You got to make those bottles bounce on the table," and bounce they did when he played. Other players came and went throughout the years of recording sessions, but Mullican remained a constant 'way up till 1947.
One other player who passed through Bruner's band on his way to greater fame was at the time just a kid. Cliff says of J.R. Chatwell that, "I got him out of the cotton fields." He told me that when he first met J.R., the young man was picking cotton "way out in the breaks" of east Texas. Cliff used J.R. on a fine 1939 session, and says of Chatwell that, "He started out playing like me, but then he developed his own style." Did he ever! Known to his friends as "Chat the Cat," J.R. grew to become one of the most original of all western swing fiddlers. His Svend Asmussen-influenced self-igniting fiddle style can be heard on many of the recordings of Adolf Hofner and his Texans, as well as on one cut on the currently available CD Wanderers Swing Texas Dance Hall Music (Krazy Kat KK CD 11) from England.
Johnny Gimble, who lists J.R. along with Cliff as a major influence on his playing, told me that it wasn't until years after hearing J.R. that he heard Svend, and his initial thought was, "Ol' Svend sure sounds a lot like J.R.! I wonder how he heard him." Of course, it was the other way around. This author was extremely lucky to have had several opportunities to play with J.R., although "Chat the Cat" was not playing fiddle at the time, as a stroke in 1968 had limited him to vocalizing and playing piano. What a cat! These were unforgettable jam sessions!
Of the many other fine musicians who passed through Cliff Bruner's bands through the years, one standout was Lincoln "Link" Davis, a Louisiana Cajun who was a triple-threat on fiddle, saxophone and vocals. Years later, his son, "Link" Davis, Jr., was to add spice to the sound of latter-day western swingsters Asleep at the Wheel.
[For the full text of this article, as well as a transcription of "Draft Board Blues" by Cliff Bruner and Moon Mullican, purchase the Winter 99/00 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[A former student of Joe Venuti, Paul Anastasio is a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, and Loretta Lynn, and studied extensively with Juan Reynoso in Mexico. For information on his "Swing Cat" recording company and "The Impressionist" chin rest, visit his website at www.swingcatenterprises.com.]