Of the three singers who died on Randy Hughes' ill-fated March 5, 1963 flight to Nashville, Cowboy Copas is arguably the least known. Ellis Nassour and Margaret Jones penned biographies of Patsy Cline, and Paul Kingsbury wrote a thorough monograph for a 1991 MCA box set, 'The Patsy Cline Collection.' Otto Kitsinger documented Hawkshaw Hawkins' life, music and career after interviewing numerous first-hand sources for a 1991 Bear Family box set. But comparatively little has been written about Copas, and most accounts have contradictory information.
Part of the problem lies with Copas himself. Unlike Roy Rogers, who never disguised his Cincinnati roots, Copas claimed he was born and raised on a Muskogee, Oklahoma, ranch. He also said he made his first radio appearance at age fourteen over KVOO, Tulsa, Oklahoma. But that station, which launched Gene Autry's musical career in 1928, wasn't on the air when Copas turned fourteen. Despite his obvious fascination with cowboys and the unbridled West, it's unlikely the youth ever traveled further west than Indiana.
Lloyd Estel Copas was actually born July 15, 1913, between Blue Creek and Lynx in Adams County, Ohio, about seven miles north of the Ohio River. His parents, Eldon and Lola Copas, were both musicians who played at local square dances. In later years Copas recalled listening to Vernon Dalhart records on his parents' wind-up phonograph.
By age fourteen Copas was adept on the fiddle, but his principal instrument was the guitar. Developing a distinctive, rhythmic style using a thumb pick, the youth joined Fred Evans and the Hen Cacklers String Band, working at dances and events throughout south central and southwestern Ohio. At some point Copas crossed paths with Lester 'Natchee the Indian' Storer, a dynamic young fiddler from nearby Peebles, Ohio. Copas became his accompanist, and the duo traveled the region competing at county fair fiddle contests and playing whatever dance dates they could find. Storer also encouraged his young partner to sing. According to some accounts, Copas got his nickname as he walked onto a stage with his guitar. "Let's see what you can do, cowboy," came a shout from the audience, and the name stuck.
Apparently on a dare, Storer and Copas traveled to Cincinnati to compete in a 1929 fiddle contest sponsored by a radio station. Promoter Larry Sunbrock saw potential in Storer's unconventional flashy technique and Copas's aggressive backing. Sunbrock approached the duo about participating in staged fiddle contests. He would rent a hall or fairground, then invite all local champion bow masters to compete against 'Natchee the Indian' and Cowboy Copas. Each event was heavily promoted, often capped with a Copas radio appearance on the day of the event. The concept proved so successful that Sunbrock later expanded his circuit, recruiting such celebrated fiddlers as Curly Fox, Clayton McMichen and Clark Kessinger.
Leaving school, Copas moved to Cincinnati and worked with 'Natchee' through the Depression. In 1934 Copas married Edna Lucille Markins in Covington, Kentucky, a union that would produce three children and last until his death.
Copas and Storer's partnership apparently continued through 1938. Though details are sketchy, Copas next formed a duo with his brother Marion, working over WLW and WKRC in Cincinnati, and briefly over WCHS, Charleston, WV and WSAZ, Huntington, WV.
In 1940 Copas headed the Gold Star Rangers with Fred 'Fiddlin' Red' Herron and Rusty Gabbard, working out of WNOX, Knoxville. By 1942 Copas was back in Cincinnati, where he joined the roster of WLW's Boone County Jamboree. Although WLW executives discouraged its acts from making records, Copas signed with Syd Nathan's fledgling King label in 1944. Copas initially cut eight songs backed by a band generally believed to include Red Herron, fiddle; Roy Lanham, lead guitar; Billy Strickland, steel; and Roy Starkey, bass. His first release – and King's sixth – was a cover of Billy Cox & Cliff Hobbs' Filipino Baby, itself a countrified rewrite of an 1898 Charles K. Harris song capitalizing on news reports of the Philippine Insurrection. Though well recorded, the pressing quality was so poor that it triggered Nathan's decision to build his own manufacturing plant. The following year Copas and the band recut both sides of King 505; that version of Filipino Baby became Copas's first major hit, entering 'Billboard's' country chart in late August 1946, peaking at #4. Tragic Romance and There Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me, two songs salvaged from the original 1944 sessions, did not chart but sold well enough to establish Copas as a recording artist.
In January 1946 J.L. Frank hired Copas for Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, for almost nine years a fixture on WSM's Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. For Copas, this opportunity offered a guaranteed fifty-dollar weekly salary and a high-visibility slot on the South's premier country music showcase. Copas was also aware of Eddy Arnold's unparalleled solo success following his musical apprenticeship with the Golden West Cowboys. On the other hand, the bandleader recognized Copas's marquee status as a recording artist, enhancing the bill as a special added attraction. Copas also brokered a spot on the show for his friend and fellow King Records artist Louis 'Grandpa' Jones.
Pee Wee King was eager to make records, primarily to sell at personal appearances. Forming Nash Records in April 1946, Frank and King recorded eight masters, two featuring King's band, the others with Copas, Minnie Pearl and Bradley Kincaid accompanied by the Golden West Cowboys. Shellac shortages and financial problems scuttled the label before the first record was pressed. Frank and King sold the masters to banker Jim Bulleit, who recently launched his Bullet label.
Copas's King Records contract kept Bulleit from releasing the singer's Nash masters. When Pee Wee King signed with RCA Victor in December 1946, that same contract limited Copas to only playing guitar on the bandleader's first three sessions. On the other hand, Pee Wee King had no reservations about allowing his band to back Copas on his own King Records sessions.
The earliest track featured here, Three Strikes And You're Out, probably features Kenneth 'Jethro' Burns, mandolin; Henry 'Homer' Haynes, rhythm guitar; and Red Herron, fiddle, with members from the Golden West Cowboys.