About the Group
The Rice Brothers
Hillbillies With Uptown Ambitions
By Wayne W. Daniel
Used with permission
"We didn't go in for what we called dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly. We was hillbillies, but
we didn't play hillbilly." That's the way, after the passage of some 40 years, Paul Rice
remembered the music of The Rice Brothers, an act built around himself and his brother
Hoke. Despite their efforts to overcome what Paul called the "corny" image of some
of their contemporaries such as The Blue Sky Boys, The Rice Brothers' music was firmly
rooted in the hillbilly string band tradition of the Southeast.
Hoke Rice was born January 8, 1909, some 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, in Hall County.
Four years later, on July 23, 1913, while the family was still living in the same
Chestnut Mountain community near Gainesville, Paul was born. Their father, a preacher and
cobbler, repaired soles during the week and saved souls on Sundays. From their mother, who played
five-string banjo, fiddle and piano, the Rice brothers inherited their musical talent.
Around 1920, when Hoke was 11 years old and Paul was about seven, their parents separated. Mrs.
Rice later married a textile mill mechanic and part-time musician named Rufus M. "Bud" Silvey.
He subsequently encouraged and helped shape the musical development of his two stepsons. In pursuit
of his textile trade, Silvey and his family lived in several small towns in Georgia. Silvey's
musical enterprises, which later included Hoke and Paul encompassed a wider circuit and took
them to small towns in several Southeastern states.
In his late teens, Hoke took guitar lessons from a classical and pop-oriented guitarist, thus
laying the foundation for the jazz and pop stylings that characterized the music of his
professional career. By 1929, after having served his musical apprenticeship with his stepfather,
he was making a name for himself in the Atlanta area as a solo performer. Into the early 1930's he
was a sought-after guitarist by record company executives who brought their portable equipment to
the city to record local artists. He recorded with both blues and hillbilly performers and fronted
his own band as a vocalist on several records. In addition, he could be heard regularly on Atlanta
Paul Rice, like his brother Hoke, also broke away from his stepfather in an attempt to establish
an independent career. In the 1920's he worked on WSB and recorded with Fiddling John Carson
and with Gid Tanner. In Gainesville, Georgia, while working in a textile milt, he organized his
own band to play at dances for mill employees.
Around 1934 Hoke and Paul pooled their talents to form a brother act that took them to radio
station jobs in Cincinnati; Roanoke, Virginia; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Shreveport, Louisiana.
According to Paul, their work experience during the Depression decade also included a
13-week stint at the Village Barn in New York City and a six-month tour of duty with
the 1936 Texas Centennial. These jobs were followed by the brothers' return to Atlanta
in 1937 for a relatively long sojourn of two years in their old stomping grounds. During this
time they were heard regularly on radio stations WSB and WAGA and briefly on
WGST toward the end of their stay.
Calling themselves The Rice Brothers Gang, the act, during this second stint in Atlanta, expanded
to a five-person band that included a saxophone player. The presence of a horn affirmed the
Rices' commitment to a sound that they considered to be a cut above the typical hillbilly
string band of the era. "We always did the old pops," Paul explained.
Sometime in 1939, Hoke and Paul returned to Shreveport, Louisiana, where they became regular performers
on KWKH. They performed on the popular KWKH Saturday Night Roundup, staged in the larger towns
around Shreveport, such as Monroe, Louisiana; BI Dorado, Kansas; and Lufkin, Texas. For a while
Hoke and Paul also appeared daily over KTBS on a mid-morning program sponsored by Southern
Maid Donuts. For this show they were billed as The Southern Maid Donut Boys. While in
Shreveport they became associated with country singer, recording artist and politician Jimmie
Davis, two-time governor of Louisiana. Paul may have wished later that they hadn't. As the
acknowledged composer of "You Are My Sunshine," Paul sold the song to Davis for
whom it became a hit record and tremendous money-maker. According to a story in die Shreveport
Times of September 16, 1956, Paul sold the song to' Davis and his partner Charles Mitchell
for $35, money he needed to pay his wife's hospital bills. The Rice Brothers' bass player,
Reggie Ward, told writer Louise Hewitt that "they asked me to sign as a witness the typed
document transferring all rights to Davis and Mitchell."
Paul Rice recalled that, inspired by a fan letter, he wrote "You Are My Sunshine" in 1937, while
in Atlanta. "Where I got the idea for it," he said, "a girl over in South Carolina wrote me
this long letter, about 17 pages. And she was talking about I was her sunshine, and I got
the idea for the song and put a tune to it."
On September 13, 1939, The Rice Brothers Gang recorded "You Are My Sunshine" in New York City
for Decca. Between 1938 and 1941, Hoke and Paul recorded more than 50 additional songs for
the same label. Their recorded repertoire, instrumentation and interpretation reflect a desire to
shed the hillbilly stereotype in favor of a more sophisticated sound. They recorded with
clarinet, saxophone, steel guitar, amplified straight guitar, acoustic guitar, bass and harmonica.
Among the songs they put on disc were such pop favorites as "Marie," "On the Sunny Side
of the Street," "Mood Indigo," "In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town" and "Yes, We Have No Bananas".
As was the case with so many other Americans, the Rice brothers' lives were profoundly affected
by the events of World War II. The war ended their career as a musical act when they both
entered military service. After returning from his war duties, Hoke took a job with an
appliance firm in Shreveport, a city in which he made his home until his death
on May 26, 1974.
Following his discharge from service, Paul worked as a musician in Chicago. In the late
40's he returned to Atlanta where he became a member of The TV Wranglers, an act which,
for seven years, was seen daily on an Atlanta television station. Paul retired from the
music business in 1960. He died at his home in an Atlanta suburb
on January 22, 1988.
Addendeum: Rural Radio magazine in 1938 indicated that the Rice Brothers were doing a 'square
dance' show on Saturday nights from 9:30pm to 10:00pm over radio station WSB in Atlanta.
Timeline and Trivia Notes
- Hoke Rice, born some 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, Georgia in Hall County
- Paul Rice, born while family still living in the same Chestnut Mountain community near Gainesville
Credits & Sources
- From the article, "The Rice Brothers"; By Wayne W. Daniel; Journal of the American
Academy for the Preservation of Old-Time Country Music; October 1996;
Silver Eagle Publishers. Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Mr. Daniel, author of "Pickin'
On Peachtree", a look at the early country music history in Georgia, for his
permission to use this and other articles he has authored.
- Rural Radio Magazine; Vol 1 No. 11; December 1938.
- Hillbilly Hit Parade of 1940; Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc.
New York, NY
- Photos from Hillbilly-Music.com collection.
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