When you hear of the Goree Girls, perhaps the first thing that would come to your mind is the film starred by Jennifer Aniston. Well, that’s great, you aren’t too far from knowing who these gals are. But, do know what their origin was and how they became the group they were famously known for several decades ago?
The Goree All-Girl String Band or more popularly known as The Goree Girls was one of America’s most popular all-female country and Western groups particularly in the 1940’s. Eight inmates from Huntsville’s Goree Unit met in the 1930s and formed a musical group they called The Goree Girls. Yes, this band was comprised of prisoners, and they stood up to prove that despite being convicted of a crime, they can still do something beneficial to the community.
Huntsville’s Goree Unit was the only penitentiary for women in Texas at that time. Apparently, the ladies named their group after the prison unit where they were incarcerated. Earlier the following decade, they were able to establish themselves in the music world and significantly gain an audience following. Their music focused on country and western genres where they were able to put up a solid fan base. In Texas, The Goree Girls became the Dixie Chicks of their day.
The Goree Girls: Band Members and Their Cases
The all-female country band was made up of eight members. These girls were serving time for everything from murder to cattle rustling. They spent their days at the Goree State Farm doing a variety of things. Apart from working in the fields, they also tend to the henhouse, sew garments, or bed for the entire Huntsville prison system. But even if the girls had never run out of things to do, they can’t help but experience dreariness at some points in their lives as inmates.
One day, one of them hatched a plan that has changed their lives forever. You’ll find more light shed on that plan below if you read further. For now, let’s get to know more about the ladies and their previous lives before becoming the popular all-female country and western band of the 1940’s. Six members of the eight-piece band taught themselves music from behind bars. Eventually, they earned a slot on a prison-based radio program.
She was considered as the band’s main founding member having initiated their formation in 1938. She was undoubtedly a star who played the piano and steel guitar. Her beauty, talent, charisma and a Texas-sized history are quite fitting for a Larry McMurtry novel. It was in 1936 when Childs was sent to Goree after having found guilty of conspiring to commit murder. The victim was no other than Childs’ husband, Marlie Childs. By all accounts, Marlie Childs refused Reable’s request for a divorce. Then one night, Reable’s lover Terrence Bramlett shot Marlie through the Childs’ kitchen window. The police, after discovering Reable’s affair, immediately arrested and sentenced her to 25 years in prison.
While at the penitentiary, Reable tried her best to live her new life. She became a role model to her fellow inmates. Likewise, she had a column for Huntsville’s inmate-run newspaper. Reable was paroled in October 1943.
Mozelle McDaniel or Mozelle Cash
She was 17 years old at the time of her arrest for shooting her stepfather Jack Watkins eleven times. Her motive for committing the crime was that her farmer and oilfield worker step-dad refused to let her take the family car. Additionally, accounts of the incident disclosed stories of Watkins abusing McDaniel physically. Due to the fear of experiencing another beating from the victim, the teenager shot him to death. McDaniel was tried and convicted.
On January 29, 1938, she was sentenced to seven-year imprisonment for murdering Watkins. She served her sentence at Goree where she became a singing member of The Goree Girls. McDaniel was the first member to leave the group after serving her sentence. Moreover, she was the band’s last known surviving member. She died of heart attack at a time before May 2003 in a nursing home in Tyler, Texas.
Ruby Mae Morace
The reason behind her incarceration was her participation in an assault, car theft, and robbery in West Texas. Morace was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Moreover, her crime was considered a violent offense. Together with McDaniel, Morace served as The Goree Girls’ main singer. In 1942, she received her parole and eventually left the band.
She was in prison for two reasons: possession of heroin, receiving and possessing stolen properties. Standing less than five feet tall, Harris was considered the most diminutive of all the Goree Girls band members. But nothing stopped Harris from fiddling up a storm, not even her height. As a matter of fact, many regarded her as The Goree Girls’ leader. While in prison, Harris learned to play the violin and eventually became a fiddler in the band. In August 1940, Childs wrote about Harris,
“I hear strains of a violin floating across the air from the direction of the chapel. It must be Goree’s own little violinist. Atta girl, Burma. Keep up the good work, you are tops with us.”
Bonnie Barron Scott
Kidnapping and robbery were the crimes that Scott committed, and that put her into prison. As to her role in the band, Scott played the acoustic guitar as well as the bass fiddle.
Juanita Slusher a.k.a. Candy Barr
She was known to many North Texas residents probably due to the various jobs she’s performed. In her 40’s though, she was charged with shooting her second husband. The charges were dropped, but the following year, she was charged for another offense – possession of marijuana. After undergoing trial, she was convicted and sentenced to 15-year imprisonment. In late 1959, Slusher came to the Goree Unit.
Her life in the penitentiary had been difficult. She experienced a lot of resentment from other inmates. She also had a fistfight which cost her 35 days in solitary. After serving this, she started reading seriously. Most of her readings were on poetry and sketch. Later on, she joined The Goree Girls and became the band’s drummer. Slusher was released on April 1, 1963, after serving a total of three years and 91 days term.
Behind the Prison Walls
WBAP is a Fort Worth radio station that broadcasts Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls in the 1930s. The weekly program showcased the talents and stories of inmates from the Huntsville Unit. Reable Childs from the Goree Unit eyed an opportunity to become part of the program. She went on to appeal to then-Texas Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. The former governor had been closely dealing with the Texas-based western swing band The Light Crust Doughboys. With this, Childs was confident that O’Daniel would grant her suggestion to start a band consisting of members from the Goree Unit. Luckily, Childs received her wish, and The Goree Girls band was born.
On Wednesday nights, the band performed in Huntsville’s auditorium dressed in gold satin western shirts, ten-gallon hats, and “riding bitches.” They played covers of popular western standards including “Way Out West in Texas” and “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Although the band had no existing recordings, their music was aired on WBAP which was a famous radio program that ran until its last performance in 1944. But even the program’s closing did not stop the band from performing. They continued to sing for the inmates.
Caroline Cnagy who wrote “Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History” features an excerpt from a column that Childs wrote about her fellow detainees who were featured on Behind the Walls. She said,
“They are stars then, shining in our own little sky above our backyard, and we clasp hands on the back porch to dream little dreams that are made of stardust.”
Their Rise to Popularity
It was on July 10, 1940, when The Goree Girls had their debut at the Huntsville Unit. After three months, the band was asked to become intermission performers at the Texas Prison Rodeo. From there, the group became slowly introduced to the public and acquired audience following. Eventually, they were able to establish a solid fan base thus having supporters throughout the United States. The members then received letters, gifts, and even marriage proposals from people they were able to captivate with their music. Moreover, some local judges and business giants expressed admiration toward the girls’ rodeo sweetheart personas and angelic harmonies.
The Goree Girls performed for the rodeo in the fall of 1947. According to a Waco newspaper article, the girls arrived at the rodeo grandstand being transported by two cattle trucks. The all-female band was in their clean, starched white dresses with brightly colored belts. Moreover, their hair was decorated with flowers and ribbons. Their performance during the rodeo was certainly as amazing as their physical getup.
Another documented performance of The Goree Girls at the Texas Prison Rodeo was on October 23, 1960. During this performance, actor John Wayne was slated to have a personal appearance to promote the release of his film “The Alamo.” As such, it has been expected that the rodeo would be filled at around 30,000.
The Goree Girls were certainly at the height of their careers at that time. The only problem was that they were all locked up in the penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas.
Singing was their Ticket to Freedom
The band’s formation had an ulterior motive. The members did not primarily dream of becoming celebrities. Instead, they wanted to make use of music to receive early parole and leave. With that said, the group could be considered as the only band in musical history that set out to gain popularity only to disappear. It was also the main reason why the band’s lineup continuously changes as a member leaves the prison.
Given such desire, the members worked vigorously on their practices, notwithstanding the long workdays they faced as inmates. The band had an exhausting tour schedule as they played in country fairs and rodeos across the country. While on tour, the girls experienced temporary freedom and those that go along with it, including riding on Ferris wheels and eating real food.
But such isn’t the kind of freedom that these members were aiming for. Their ultimate goal was to receive parole and go back to their lives outside the punitive penitentiary bars. If only for a few moments, the story of The Goree Girls is proof to the power of music to set someone free.
Into the Silver Screen
Back in 2009, there were reports about a feature film whose production is underway, and it would be called Goree Girls. Actress Jennifer Aniston was set to be part of the said movie which was set in the 1940s. Aniston was to produce the film with producing partner Kristin Hahn. The movie was apparently inspired by a true story, the tale of The Goree All-Girl String Band who became the biggest new radio sensation in Texas in the 1940s. The film would feature a group of actors and musicians performing brand new country music.
Apparently, the making of the film took a long period of time. Aniston and Hahn revealed the main reasons for such.
“It’s taken many years and we’ve been rejected many times, in many different ways. And we don’t care. The rejection means nothing to us. Telling the story means everything to us.”
After almost one decade of waiting, a musical called The Goree All-Girl String Band finally debuted at the New York Music Festival in 2017. The show featured an off-Broadway run and was described as a production that
“successfully couches a message about redemption through music in a consistently funny play about a female prison in Texas circa 1938.”
Unfortunately, at present, prison musical groups do not exist just like before. That was due to the series of legislative changes and modifications made to prison policies. However, the tale of The Goree Girls remains a mesmerizing story in the history of Texas prison.
Below is a clip featuring the cast of the musical The Goree All-Girl String Band having rehearsals.
Hunstville Penitentiary, Inmate Singers, Jennifer Aniston, The Goree Girls