Dinner with a ‘Drifting Cowboy’
Marlene Suther and her family entertained a “drifting cowboy” for an after-church family lunch Sunday.
Their guest was not a first-time visitor to the home by any means. Allen Dunkin, a family friend and former next-door neighbor, is one of the last surviving members of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Drifting Cowboy Band.” Williams, a native of Garland, was one of country music’s early icons. He produced several hit records with his band.
After graduating from Perry County High School in 1939, Dunkin moved to Montgomery to look for work. He caught on with a handful of area bands, and caught Williams’ attention two years later.
“One day, Hank’s bass player came over there to see me and said, ‘Hank wants to see you.’ We talked a little bit, and he says, ‘I’d like to hire you,” said Dunkin. “He says I’ll pay you, give you room and board in my mother’s boarding house and $15 a week.”
Williams’ family moved from Garland to Montgomery in 1937 to open that boarding house.
Dunkin got his professional start the same year when he began playing with the Dixie Merry Makers on Selma station WHBB. He was the son of a country musician and gospel teacher, and he said his family grew up as country musicians.
He met Williams for the first time in 1938. Dunkin said it was hard to get acquainted with Williams, but was and still is impressed by his abilities.
“He could put a song together, honest to goodness, in 10-15 minutes,” said Dunkin. “One of the favorite times was onstage with him. He was a different person then. It seemed like after the stage show was over with, he’d change back to that different person again.”
Before he joined Williams’ band, the music business led Dunkin to meet his future wife, Mildred, at a show in Sprott in 1939. She was a 10th grader and he was barely out of high school himself.
“I thought she was the prettiest little girl I’d ever seen,” said Dunkin. “The summer she finished high school, we married.”
The two have been together 66 years; a feat Dunkin said was partially due to a short stay with Williams’ band. He left it after the military recruited him in 1942, where he did defense work.
“It got to be sort of a chore of trying to do one thing and having to another,” said Dunkin. “I loved country music and still do, but I am thankful the Lord led me away.”
He and Mildred moved to Selma the same year, where he got a job with Sears. He stayed on for 38 years before he retired. The Suthers were his neighbors before the Dunkins moved to Prattville in 2008.
“We used to do this every week,” Suther said about Sunday’s lunch. Since the move, Suther said they have become less frequent.
Dunkin said he can tolerate today’s country music, but doesn’t believe it compares with the music country groups played in his youth.
“It was a different country music altogether,” he said. “Country music back then was a feeling, especially of a person writing a song. I guarantee you that person had been there before, and they wrote about what they felt.”