About The Group
John Mace Masters was born near Jacksonville, Florida. His last name was Purdom, but his father died before he was born and his mother remarried P.S. Masters. He later changed his name legally to Masters, but some of his songs also bore the name of J.M. Purdom. His wife, Lucille Masters was born in Homerville, Georgia, but her family moved to Jacksonville within a year after she was born. They had three children, Johnnie Owen, Evelyn and Deanna.
Early on in their careers, Johnnie and Lucille performed together and were known as the "Dixie Sweethearts" on WPDQ in 1942. Johnnie would play the guitar or mandolin; his wife would sing harmony. Ivan Tribe wrote in his article in 1980 that their style was somewhat similar to another duo in music at that time being heard over WSB in Atlanta - James and Martha Carson.
In 1946, they moved to WJHP and became part of the "Dixie Barn Dance Gang", which was then the most popular radio broadcast in Jacksonville, airing from 3:00pm to 4:00pm on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
1946 also saw the Dixie Sweethearts make their first recordings on the Rich-R-Tone record label. They cut two sides:
The label owner, Jim Stanton, provided some confusion back then by inferring perhaps that the Dixie Sweethearts were "James and Martha" Carson. To add to that confusion, Martha Carson did record on Rich-R-Tone later with Bill Carlisle.
In 1946, John and Lucille were saved and from that time on, performed almost only sacred material. Johnnie would write secular songs later, but they became known primarily as a bluegrass gospel group.
Owen Masters, their 12-year old son joined them in the act in 1947 and they became known as the Masters Family. Later, Lucille also worked with the group, having sung on the radio when she was only three years old, but did not take part in the recording sessions back then.
In 1948, the Masters Family made their first records with the Mercury label. That first session occurred in Jacksonville. That first session included:
In another release from that first session, they actually recorded two James and Martha Carson tunes.
Their career took another turn when they ran into Fred Rose and Archie Campbell at a personal appearance in Tampa, Florida. One thing led to another and soon they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and were working on WROL. At that time, they met and worked with people like Lynn Davis, Molly O'Day, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
But Jacksonville was still in their blood and they moved back home in the winter of 1949-50. But, their music took them to Nashville, Tennessee in April 1950 where they appeared on the WSM Grand Ole Opry for three months. While there, they obtained their release from the Mercury label and were signed to Columbia by the legendary Art Satherley and Don Law. At the same time, Johnnie Masters gave his songwriting to the Peer-Southern publishing company.
That Columbia contract was signed in September 1950 and then they moved to Knoxville again. They began a long relationship with Cas Walker at that time and except for a few months in 1952 when they were at WWVA in Wheeling, WV, they worked with Walker until January 1956. They were so popular on the Cas Walker show Ivan Tribe wrote, that their first songbook that they sold, the profits paid for a new auto.
Their first recording session with Columbia was in November of 1950 and they cut tunes either written or co-written by Johnnie Masters except for a tune wrote by a Howard Watts (who was known as Cedric Rainwater), "I'll Be Going To Heaven Sometime".
Early in 1952, Don Law and Columbia changed the sound on their recordings a bit and started to use more modern instrumentation. They started to see more steel guitar work on their records, usually by the legendary Don Helms, who also played steel guitar for Hank Williams, Sr. Around that time, they recorded their two biggest hits - "Cry From The Cross" and "Gloryland March". Both songs were covered by other artists.
On their "Gloryland March" recording, Charlie Arnett was said to have done the piano work. He was part of a duet team known as "Daisy Mae and Old Brother Charlie" at the time. Ivan notes that Daisy Mae recorded Owen Master's tune, "The Boy Across The Street" that was sort of a prelude of the teen love songs that would become a part of the music then.
It was while they new Arnett that they went to Wheeling and WWVA, but that was only a few months stay. From there they went back to WROL and WIVK and working with Cas Walker.
The family continued to record for Columbia. Their last recordings on Columbia included none other than James Carson on those recordings lending a hand and his voice. Johnnie had a bad case of laryngitis at the time. In addition to James Carson, other notable musicians such as Don Helms, Junior Huskey and John (Papa) Gordy played on those sessions. Mr. Tribe reports that the Masters Family recorded 34 sides with Columbia.
But on April 1, 1955, Owen Masters was in an automobile wreck and suffered severe injuries that took several months to recover. Though the group may not have been as successful during that period, they continued to work.
It was during the early 1950s that Johnnie Masters found some success also as a country songwriter. He wrote "Honeymoon On A Rocket Ship" for Hank Snow. Carl Smith scored a hit with "That's The Kind Of Love I'm Lookin' For". Roy Acuff did "Sixteen Chickens and A Tambourine" while Don Gibson sang "Walking in the Moonlight" and Johnny and Jack did "Winner of Your Heart".
And their music traveled around the world, even though they never toured outside the USA. Their records sold in Canada, the UK and in places such as Australia and in West Africa.
In January of 1956, they left Knoxville and Cas Walker. But Cas didn't have any hard feelings about their wanting to play for new audiences and even wrote them a reference letter. They did tour in more areas, even as far west as Missouri and Iowa, but also came back to Knoxville in 1959 and worked with Cas Walker and James Carson again.
For a few months in 1963-64, bluegrass mandolinist Richard "Curley" Lambert worked with the Masters Family. At that time, Owen was doing personal appearances with the group only on rare occasions. The group then consisted of Johnnie, Lucille and Curley. During this time, the group recorded two new albums. Their last recorded album was "The Gloryland March" for the Starday label. In his article, Ivan Tribe noted that those later recordings were distinctive because they were the first gospel group to use modern country instruments on their records. But the group always used only mandolin and guitar on their personal appearances.
From 1966 through 1968, Johnnie Masters worked as a disc jockey for a radio station in Jesup, Georgia. In later years, the family lived in Jacksonville as did their oldest daughter, Evelyn. Owen lived in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
Their songs have been recorded by many artists over time. The Lewis Family admired the family and had included several songs in their albums on the Canaan label, such as "Gloryland March", "Walk Around Heaven" and "Hand Me Down My Silver Trumpet". Jim and Jesse recorded "When the Wagon Was New" and the Masters Family rendition of "Over In The Glory Land". Joe Val recorded "From 40 to 65" on a Rounder album. Then, several groups recorded their "Medals for Mothers" after the Osborne Brothers included it on an album of hymns. Other tunes such as "Little Old Country Church House" and "Cry From The Cross" should also be included as one of the great bluegrass gospel tunes, too.
Mr. Tribe notes that the legacy of the Masters family "...rests largely in their songs, and to a lesser degree in their style." Further, he noted, "...traditionalists might frown upon their compromise with modern instrumentation after 1952, but none can deny that they started a trend followed by virtually everyone in that field."
Timeline and Trivia Notes
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