Al Sulak: A Krenek Family Tradition
When Al Sulak takes the stage, it becomes a family affair with his sister, nephews, and sometimes, his daughters and grandchildren playing instruments and singing. But the family ties to music date back to the 1800s in Czechoslovakia under the name Krenek.
Like the Majek, Patek, and Baca family orchestras, the desire for the Kreneks to share music came from the old country and was led by a single family member. It would be incorrect to say that other family members were not talented, but the drive and vision of one member was felt for generations forward.
Michael Krenek (b. 1830 in Vigantice, Moravia, House No. 7) arrived in Galveston in 1855 on the Bark Weser. He found property near Fayetteville and was probably the Michael Krenek who owned the store at Pisek.
Michael was the patriarch of the Texas strain of Kreneks being the first to come to Texas. Family lore has it that the first group of family musicians formed in Moravia in 1846. Michael and his wife, Rosina, immigrated to Fayette County. It was thought that he was a fiddler, so he and his growing family probably played house dances in the area, as that was the only entertainment in this remote area. They had seven children. One son, Josef, managed the band and he undoubtedly had brothers and sisters playing along at some point. Josef and his wife, Anna, kept the farm and the music going with the help of two of their children, Frank and Edward.
Edward, and wife, Millie, had three boys: Ray, Johnnie, and Linhart, all musicians. Ray and his wife, Irene, settled in Sealy with their children: Chris, James, Cynthia, June, and Joe Ray, who, at different times performed in their dad’s band, the Ray Krenek Orchestra. The siblings still play occasionally as The Kreneks at church picnics and for dances of the Sealy Dance Club. Chris’ daughter, Lani, has inherited the vocal talent singing the National Anthem for the local school.
Frank and his wife, Albina, had four children: Claudia, Dorothy, Marie, and Silvester (Sil), who were all musically inclined. Sometime around 1900, the Krenek family joined the Texas Czech migration to the Orchard/Wallis area. The location on the outskirts of Orchard is still in the family. Marie followed the music by playing drums in the Krenek Orchestra, the Sil Krenek Orchestra, and later the Country Sounds. She married Fred Sulak in 1943 and had three children: Alfred (Al), Marie, and Nancy. Al and his wife, Nita, have two daughters, Stacy and Shelby. Stacy sings occasionally with her father, and her two children, Colton and Emily, will periodically share the stage with their grandfather, Al. Shelby has moved away but returns home occasionally and sits in on drums (filling her grandmother’s position).
THE KRENEK ORCHESTRA
Around 1900, the orchestra consisted of Henry, Frank, Josef, Edward, and Michael Jr., a combination of brothers and sons. The Krenek Orchestra, as it was known, played weddings, house dances, and church feasts around the rice fields of the Gulf Coast west of Houston in the Beasley, Fairchild, Wallis, and Mixville communities. They ventured up into the German area around Nelsonville, Bleiblerville, and Borden, playing many of the same venues that their grandchildren would perform at a couple of decades into the future. Over the years Frank, and then Edward, managed the orchestra which had at least two generations of Kreneks performing at one time.
When all these children grew up and all took to music there was now more musicians than one (or several) dance bands could hold. Thus, in 1946-47 the Krenek Orchestra was no more (a hundred years isn’t a bad run). Frank and his children started their own band, the Frank Krenek Orchestra. Early members were Sil, Marie Krenek Sulak, Arnold Dusek, Leo Divin, and John Nesvadba.
This was in the heyday of dancing and dance halls in Central Texas. With a plethora of dance halls in the Orchard area, the two bands played hopscotch across the area, often playing the following weekend after the other. Venues like Milheim, Peter’s Hacienda, Mentz, Nada KJT, Coushatte, Nelsonville, Shelby, New Tabor, Inez, Artesian Park, Fayetteville, Snook, and Dubina were regular stops; and this is just a sampling. There were frequent trips to Shiner and Moulton; La Grange and Rutersville; and Swiss Alp and Ammannsville. It was a great time to be a dancer and a musician.
RAY KRENEK ORCHESTRA
In September 1946, the Ray Krenek Orchestra with Edward, Leonard, Johnnie and Ray Krenek, Frank Felcman, and Alvin Cloudt filling out the chairs, performed at the Brazos River Hall, just east of Chappell Hill. Ray’s orchestra was unique as he used a hammered dulcimer, a large hollow, wooden stringed instrument (same concept as an acoustic guitar that sets on a stand with 120 strings that are tapped by two wooden mallets. Ray’s father, Edward, was a master craftsman, who built eight of these intriguing instruments. This link to the old world is still in the family, with Ray’s daughter, June, being the only one to tackle playing this complex instrument.
The Ray Krenek Orchestra began taking every opportunity to play, sometimes playing up to 76 days/nights in a row mostly at private functions with a few weekend public dances thrown in. The Ray Krenek Orchestra was a regular at the Oleander Ball Room in Galveston.
Ray composed and recorded many songs, perhaps most noted for the Houston Polka and Beautiful ‘Krasna' America, a song originated by his ancestors coming to America from Czechoslovakia. Most important of all he had the songs registered with BMI, a music licensing organization.
Ray enjoyed meeting the public. There was never a place he went that someone did not know him. He believed in living life to its fullest which he did until he passed away at the age of 88. John Dujka, Jimmy Brosch, Mike Guest, Bob Suttie, Duwayne Engelhart, Georgia Gavranovic, and Kevin Krenek were some of the musicians at the funeral in 2008. Jimmy, with his harmonica, and the musicians played the Band Leaders Polka at the services. One of Ray’s final wishes was that his daughter, June, would learn the dulcimer. When she doubted it, he simply said, “It’s in your blood.” (And she did learn to play.)
SIL KRENEK ORCHESTRA
Sil Krenek took to the highways with his sister, Marie, on the drums and his children taking the stage when they reached a certain age. For several years, the music was of the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sound, however in the late 1950s an accordion was added.
The time spent on the road gave rise to many stories. One night a wheel came off the trailer and disappeared into the darkness. Not wanting to waste time looking in the dark, a spare was put on. The next morning, a band member called Sil to tell him not to bother looking for the tire, for it had bounded up onto the railroad tracks and been run over by a train.
Some peer musicians have said that Sil was the best trumpeter around and sang beautifully. He also played a decent fiddle. Once when switching from fiddle to trumpet, he forgot he placed the fiddle on his chair and sat on it. His father, Frank, repaired it with the skills he attained while building his own dulcimer. Sil kept playing music, mostly his fiddle, until his late 80s and passed away in 2011.
Of Sil and Edith Krenek’s five daughters and one son, Theresa played drums and Sil Jr. played trumpet, but soon decided that life on the road was not for them. Sil’s sister, Marie, who was his drummer, stayed the course on performing live.
AL SULAK AND FAMILY
Fred and Marie Sulak had no doubt that their son, Al, was going to follow the family tradition as he was strumming his Mickey Mouse guitar before he was 10 years old. He was soon on-stage playing rhythm with his family members. Al started taking band in school and was the first generation of the Krenek family to learn to read music; his ancestors had played strictly by ear.
After graduation, all the while playing music, he attended Sam Houston State. Al remembers what a long haul it was back to Huntsville after a Sunday gig with his family.
Al graduated with a degree in music education and later acquired a master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling enabling him to become a school principal, which he didn’t. He quickly found work as a band director in his hometown of Orchard. Many people only think of the half-time marching band when they think of high school bands, but many schools have a stage band program which involves very intricate music. Al, along with Duwayne Engelhardt (who would later play in Al’s bands), began an Orchard stage band and entered contests in Fort Worth, Wharton College, and Houston, and they won quite a few including a Houston-area competition on the strength of junior-high-age John Dujka’s piano artistry.
Just after Al started teaching band, he got a prize student, his younger sister, Marie, who had also been playing in Sil’s band. Later another two prize students showed up in class one semester. Two brothers with the last name of Dujka were just starting junior high school at what would become Brazos School, a consolidated school. Al remembers that John and Mark didn’t need much teaching. “You just pointed them in the right direction and got out of the way,” Al said.
John Dujka remembers, “Al was a very cool teacher. He connected with his students as is reflected in the number of championships his bands won.”
Al retired after 32 years of bringing structured music into the lives of the students, some of whom went on to perform in other bands and become band instructors. “I had the best job ever,” Al said. “I went to work each morning and taught music.”
During this time Al, sister Marie, and their mother, Marie, were playing Orchard-area short gigs like Lion’s Club events and other civic gigs. Al at times brought some of his students to perform at a more intimate setting than the gym.
Al’s sister, Marie Sulak Pavlock, has kept the music tempo going by inheriting her mother’s drumming rhythm and focusing on the bass guitar which Al taught her. Like the Dujkas he gave her the basic instructions and she was holding her own within 30 minutes. Marie and husband, Rod, are the proud parents of yet another generation of musicians. Their three sons, Bryan, Cody, and Shane grew up at Country Sounds dances and the music seeped into them. They have a successful Blues/Country band called the Blue Note Brothers.
Al’s two daughters, Stacy and Shelby, are also carrying on the music gene. Stacy periodically sings with her father, and Stacy’s son and daughter, Colton and Emily, also take the stage with their mother and grandpa. Shelby inherited her grandmother’s rhythm on drums but lives out of state. She still plays and schedules her visits home with her father’s band so she can sit in. Al, Nita, and Stacy also perform at weddings multiple times of the year.
Al played with his Uncle Sil’s orchestra for about 10 years before branching out on his own. He started playing with an assortment of bands like Leon (Williams) & The DJs. Leon was a disc jockey on KFRD radio in Rosenberg. Al also spent some time in Vernon Drozd’s group Rawhide.
He and some friends formed the Sounds of Country, playing local dance halls, weddings, and civic functions. With fellow band director, Duwayne Engelhardt, Jim and Cynthia Krenek Grigar, and Joe Ray Krenek, the band developed a strong following and their reputation allowed them to be chosen to back up touring solo performers such as Johnny Rodriguez, Roy Head, and Larry Gatlin. The Sounds of Country were regular performers at the Round-Up Rodeo in Simonton. After approximately 10 years, the band dissolved, another good run.
In 1983, he formed Al Sulak & The Country Sounds with his sister, Marie, David Hubenak, Eddie Krenek, and some guy named John Dujka. This band has been keeping the drummer position open rotating Eddie Krenek (Ray’s nephew), Brian and Cody Pavlock (Marie Sulak Pavlock’s sons), and Chris Krenek (Ray’s son) as their schedules permit. Robert Herridge, Master Fiddler, also sits in when his schedule allows, and he is featured on the band’s CD Remember When.
Al still plays polkas, sings in Czech, and is conversant in the disappearing language of his family roots. In addition to his band, Al judges state-level school band contests and joins some Chris Rybak shows, most recently at the Tomball German Festival in full lederhosen costume. He provided back-up on the Rybak’s 2018 European tour. Al loved the experience of traveling with Chris. “I never played so much - on the bus, in the streets, in a club, and in the hotel. It was great,” Al said.
Chris says it’s a pleasure and honor to have Al sit in. As a youngster, Chris was amazed by Al’s trumpet playing. “It was like he was making the trumpet talk,” Chris said.
The history of the Krenek music all goes back to Michael in the late 1800s, its widening in the late 1900s, and the coming back together in the new millennium. Al Sulak keeps the Krenek tradition going by surrounding himself with the obvious musical DNA that his great-great-grandfather thankfully brought to Texas from the old country.
The writer would like to thank the Krenek and Sulak families for their assistance in getting a handle on the multitude of family members involved as genealogy is not his strong suit.