Dalhart Imperials – Dal in the Hart of Texas
Music can be approached from many vantage points — from academic pursuit to intoxicant-fueled rave-up. The Dalhart Imperials are capable of entertaining those who come to them from either end, and points inbetween.
The Dalhart Imperials are not, as the name might imply, from the small Texas panhandle town of Dalhart. Kurt Ohlen, bass player and ostensible leader of the Dalharts, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised in Littleton, Colorado. His grandmother lives in Dumas, Texas, which was immortalized in the Bob Wills tune, “Ding-Dong Daddy from Dumas” and is just down the road from Dalhart.
When Ohlen was naming the band, he wanted to pay tribute to the many Texas bands of the late ’40s and early ’50s playing “that hillbilly-stomp-boogie kind of swing stuff,” as he puts it. It was an era when dozens, if not hundreds, of regional bands played five or six nights a week at ranch parties and roadhouses, sporting names that reflected their home turf — among them, the XIT Boys (named after a huge ranch in the Dalhart area), Hank Thompson & the Brazos Valley Boys, and Hoyle Nix & His West Texas Playboys (based in the Midland-Odessa area).
Ohlen felt that using the name Dumas would invite too many opportunities to mutate into “Dumb-Ass” — so, remembering the town he drove through on visits to Grandma, he settled on Dalhart. The group’s membership does have some deep Texas roots. Tim Whitlock (steel guitar), was born in San Antonio. Les Cooper (vocals, guitar) is from Waco, as is drummer Rodney Bowen. Lead guitarist Dave DeVore hails from that small north Texas town, Chicago.
The Dalharts formed about two years ago, fooling around with the Bakersfield sound and Buck Owens tunes before eventually shifting toward the original songs of Cooper and Whitlock. Ohlen refers to the band’s sound as “Western bop,” which he distinguishes from Western swing largely by the absence of a fiddle player. Its roots are in the postwar Texas bands, when economics forced bandleaders to tour with smaller outfits, as in the evolution from Bob Wills’ big band to the Capitol-era, stripped-down lineups of Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West.
The group has gained a devout following regionally but is beginning to cultivate a broader audience. “There is definitely a scene,” Ohlen said, “but it’s sometimes a little limiting or inbred, and my goal is to get this music out to as many people as possible. The point is to do this music as true and authentically as possible. If anyone hears us play and wonders, ‘Where did this stuff come from?’ and then goes out and buys a Hank Thompson CD or a Bob Wills CD, we’ve done our job, and I go home a happy man. This music is tremendously important; preserving it and building on it by writing new material is what’s important to me. We’re not nostalgic throwbacks, despite our vintage clothing and vintage instruments.”
But it’s just as important, Ohlen realizes, for people simply to have a good time, and the Dalharts’ music is designed for people to get up and dance. “Couples dancing is a lost art; if you can get people to connect in that way, it’s a very fundamental thing,” Ohlen said. “A guy can go anywhere in the world, and if he can dance, he can ask a girl to dance, and that’s great. Oil rig workers coming into Odessa on a Friday night wanted to drink, grab a girl, and dance, and these bands were there to provide the best music possible to facilitate their enjoyment and to make these things possible.”
The Dalhart Imperials recently contributed a track to an upcoming Bloodshot Records tribute to the Midwestern Hayride, an old radio show out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The group’s full-length CD debut, produced by Wally Hersom, is tentatively due out early next year on English label Crazy Gator Records. The band also plans a European tour next May, including a gig at the Hemby Festival, a major roots/rockabilly gathering in England.