Dave Rogers

For The Record

If Jim Wesson was quick to find his way to music, the Old First Orange Baptist Church was quick to find Wesson as its Music Man.

And now Wesson, a tenor for the country gospel musical group the Chuck Wagon Gang off and on for nearly four decades, is the church’s music minister and looking to make the old harmonies sound new again.

“Every three months, we have what we call our ‘Fifth Sunday Singing’ and the last one was a packed house,” said the man who often performed at the Grand Ole Opry. “It’s just good old fashioned Southern Baptist singing.”

Wesson, 72, was “discovered” by church members shortly after he and wife Lisa retired to Orange two years ago.

They heard him performing for residents of The Meadows senior care center and the rest is history.

“When they heard me, they asked me to sing for the church,” Wesson recalled. “Soon thereafter the music director retired and the pastor asked me to fill in.”

Wesson’s decision to make music his life came early.

“A lot of kids want to grow up and be a fireman or a policeman or something else,” Wesson said.

“I was introduced to southern gospel music as a little boy in Fort Worth, Texas at a little church. My mother and dad took me to a professional gospel concert when I was 11 and from that time, I didn’t want to be anything else.”

His church, Victory Baptist Church, had a talented music teacher as pianist who took Wesson under his wing.

“Chester York was the one who taught me how to sing harmony,” Wesson recalled. “We put together a church quartet and I sang baritone.”

The Chuck Wagon Gang was founded in 1935 as a family quartet by D.P. “Dad” Carter and son Jim and daughters Rose and Anna.

The group got its break and name the next year, when it was hired by Bewley Mills’ Flour to perform as its sponsored singers on a daily show at radio station WBAP in Fort Worth. The sponsors would have the band perform at remote broadcasts that featured up an actual chuck wagon serving up sample biscuits, Wesson said.

Though no relation to the Carter Family singers from Virginia, there might have been some crossover in their songs and their fans.

Wesson said the Chuck Wagon Gang was the first musical group to record “I’ll Fly Away,” now a gospel standard. The 1948 hit was one of the top gospel records of all time, selling more than a million copies for Columbia Records.

The Chuck Wagon Gang sold 40 million records in 39 years with Columbia, a longevity record eventually broken by Johnny Mathis in 2000.

Wesson sang with the Chuck Wagon Gang from 1962 to 2002. He was 18 when he started. He knew group member Eddie Carter from his church and was invited try out as the tenor singer.

His big chance came at a Sunday dinner at the family’s farm in Azle, a suburb of Fort Worth. Though Dad Carter didn’t perform with the band anymore, he was still in charge.

“Anna called me to come out to the farm,” Wesson said. “I went out and sang and he said ‘This is the one you need to use.’

“I was given the approval of Dad Carter and went immediately on the road with them.”

Wesson loved touring. Originally, the Chuck Wagon Gang traveled by cars, then by bus.

“I can honestly say there was not a second, not a millisecond, of those touring days that I did not relish,” he said.

Gospel musicians and country musicians routinely played on the same concert bills. Wesson remembers singing before a crowd of 22,000 for a Hollywood Bowl show that included Johnny Cash, George Jones and Dottie West.

“The Chuck Wagon Gang was the biggest gospel group of choice for those country stars,” Wesson said.

“In the 60s, we did Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Hollywood Bowl in California, there was a ton of places,” he said. “We played at the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry numerous times.”

The group appeared on TV’s “The Statlers Brothers Show” and was voted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1988.

More than three dozen singers have been members of the Chuck Wagon Gang over the years, though it has mostly had a Carter family member singing and leading the way. Shaye Smith, granddaughter of founding member Anna Carter, leads the current foursome still touring and recording.

Wesson performed with the group in the 60s before joining other groups or performing solo in the next two decades. He rejoined in 1990.

“Most of my career has been in music and I’ve been very, very fortunate,” Wesson said. “I never got rich but I made a good living.”

And he never got tired of performing.

“If I get a whiff of diesel smoke, I feel like I need to get on a bus,” he said.