As we made our way north and west, it came to our attention that Quanah Parker’s family were not the only Texas legends to journey from Central Texas to the panhandle. In 1913, a small group of wagons departed Kosse, Texas in present-day Limestone County. The travelers set out for the improbably named Memphis in Hall County. The extended family in the wagons brought with them dreams of cotton prosperity, a reputation as the area’s best musicians, and a precocious eight-year old boy who would change America’s musical landscape. The journey Bob Wills and his family took that year marked the beginning of a remarkable transformation.
Bob Wills’ family descended from England; his great-grandfather found his way to Limestone County in 1845. The family’s true heritage, however, ran through the fiddle, a uniquely frontier instrument. Bob’s father, grandfather and uncles all played. Of course, everyone expected Bob to follow suit. By the time he was eight, however, Bob excelled on the guitar and mandolin yet showed no interest in the “family business.” Even so, Bob was part of the family band when the group set off to join up with another branch of the Wills’ family who had sent encouraging letters about cotton farming prospects in the Panhandle. So, in the America tradition Bob Wills and family headed west.
LESSONS FROM THE ROAD.
The Wills family journey from Kosse to Limestone was a working trip. Frontiersmen lived their life one step ahead of financial ruin and Bob Wills’ family did the same. Rather than traveling from point A to point B, the Wills had to work the cotton fields for long enough to build a travel reserve before moving on to the next stop. Picking cotton from dawn to dusk while living in a covered wagon or a cotton pickers’ shanty building exposed Bob to a physical hardship almost no one today will endure. The Wills were essentially migrant laborers, eight-year old Bob included.
That lifestyle eventually paid huge dividends. African Americans provided the majority of the labor force in the cotton fields. Beginning on the journey and carrying through his youth in Hall County, Bob Wills spent a huge portion of his time with the Black community. As has been true for centuries, music best erased the wounds inflicted by a savage life. Accordingly, Bob heard endless hours of the Blues his new community sang all day in the field; at night the youngster found himself fascinated by the rich sound produced from his new friends’ horns and guitars.
Years later, Bob would credit these experiences as providing the backbone for his musical style. On a technical level, Bob’s musical timing was exquisite. He attributed that skill to a youth stuffed with the unique tempos the Black community surrounded him with. To the music critics, the idea of merging horns into a fiddle-led band seemed revolutionary; Bob said he did it because he had always loved the sound of the horns. Most importantly, the exuberance one feels listening to Western Swing reflects Bob’s willingness to inject emotion into music, a lesson learned in the fields and the late-night jam sessions.
CIITIES ALONG THE WAY.
The Wills spent some time in Fort Worth, which was a world apart from anything they had ever seen. As the family worked their way west, they stopped at Childress for several days. At the time Childress was booming, having managed to position itself as an important on the Fort Worth to Denver railroad line. It was in Childress that Bob Wills saw his first movie picture.
A little over a century later, the Empty Nesters stopped in Childress. If you look hard, you can see the Childress that young Bob Wills experienced. The main attraction is a replica engine from the Fort Worth and Denver railroad line. On the square, the movie theater still stands. A detailed mural paints a vivid picture of Childress at the turn of the twentieth century. We were lucky to visit on a beautiful April morning with the sky a deep blue. Childress is no longer bustling, but it is tidy and happy.
On the way out of town, across from the courthouse (Childress is the county seat of Childress County) we investigated the 501 Winery, owned and operated by Bishop Vineyards. Unlike many Texas wineries, Bishop Vineyards grows and crushes most of their own grapes. The Bishops decorated the tasting room beautifully and combined it with a beautiful venue/event center. We enjoyed the tasting enough that we bought a couple of bottles. A little bit of Napa Valley in the Texas panhandle. The stage in the event center seems about right for a Western Swing band.
BETWEEN THE RIVERS.
With our wine in tow, we resumed the trek to Turkey. First note for those who want to explore the Panhandle: keep your eye on your gas gauge. Second note for those traveling the Panhandle: the amount of land dedicated to producing cotton, livestock, and energy in the Texas panhandle is enormous. Third note for Panhandle explorers: gas pumps are few and far between. Those facts collided on an April morning when the Empty Nesters focused more on our burgeoning adventure than on mundane details like gasoline.
About 15 miles outside of Turkey, the warning alarm made its noise. Pretty sure that I could make it to Turkey, I began to wonder whether Turkey had a gas station. If it did not, we were really screwed. Luckily, Turkey has not one but two gas stations. Apparently, those gas stations make 90% of their revenue on Bob Wills weekend. Recreational Vehicles from across the country post up in temporary and permanent RV parks. Pick-up trucks and SUVS swarmed the small town. Forty-six years after he died, Bob Wills is still a huge draw.
Turkey sits between the Big Red River and the Little Red River. The Wills family lived in Hall County from 1913 to 1931, leaving without achieving their dream of a fortune built on cotton. During his time in and around Turkey, Bob grew up immersed in cotton culture and ranch culture. While the Wills were never financially successful, they were well known throughout the area as the family to front the ubiquitous ranch dances.
A ranch dance or “country dance” could be an all-night affair with guests from far and away and of all ages. Romances blossomed and alliances strengthened at these events and the Wills provided the constant musical backdrop to these events. The money Bob and his family earned made it possible for the family to survive the Texas Panhandle winters. The real value to Bob, however, was that he grew to love the live performance and getting people off their feet. As he would later say ‘I got my musical style between the rivers.” With Stella gassed up, we went to explore that style.
MUSIC IS STILL A MELTING POT.
The first stop was the Turkey high school gym for the fiddlers’ contest. Fiddlers’ contests no longer draw the superstars of the fiddling world. There were very few adult entrants. The youth divisions were a different story. Kids and teenagers from all over play solos, duets and combos of Western Swing classics and other waltzes. When you hear that Bob Wills led the family band at a ranch dance at age 10 in his dad’s absence, it strikes you as unthinkable. When you see 10 year-olds doing the same thing today, you are similarly amazed.
A young Asian boy from Amarillo was one of the big winners in 2019. Without overstating the case, watching Justin Nguyen accept a Bob Wills’ fiddlers trophy struck me as a full circle experience. Bob Wills built his music by experiencing another culture. I am guessing Justin is also a violin player who may spend other weekends playing with orchestras. How he blends those two worlds may change the music world again.
THE BIG HITTERS.
Later in the afternoon, the heavy hitters of Western Swing take to an outdoor stage on the Turkey football field. Jason Roberts has the honor of leading the “Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys” these days. Maybe it was not a Rolling Stones’ concert, but the music still moves you. Jason Roberts is a modern-day Bob Wills, which is the biggest compliment one can get at this locale.
The concert lasts about two hours and all the hits get played. M’Lissa and I made our way into the town proper. We enjoyed an early dinner on the patio of the Hotel Turkey, a unlikely down home chic hotel in this unlikely location. Reservations for the Bob Wills weekend are basically impossible but the hotel would be worth a stay some other time and the chicken-fried was Texas grade A.
That evening, it was back to the high school gymnasium for a dance featuring Jody Nix. Absolute highlight of the weekend. Just as Bob grew up under the musical tutelage of his father, Jody did the same under dance hall legend Hoyle Nix. As evidence by his headliner status, Jody learned the craft quickly and well. Jody sang on three songs on Bob Wills’ last album and has been both reminding people of the king and blazing his own trial ever since.
On this evening, his audience included everyone from ranch hands to ranch owners to travelers from all over the country. M’Lissa and I always get an A for effort on the dance floor, even if technique rates as barely passing. We did our best two-steps and waltz imitations, laughed and enjoyed the smell and feel of sawdust on the floor.
There is a thread to all of this. Russell Bradford, M’Lissa’s dad, is the biggest Bob Wills’ fan of them all. A long time ago, he and Gerry Bradford scooted around sawdust floors and he looked at Gerry the way I look at M’Lissa. Bob could give Russell and Gerry the same time of moments Jody Nix can give M’Lissa and me because they honed their craft over the years, adding to the tradition their families gave them.
I have never cowboyed and have no idea why the music sounds so right. But a high-school gymnasium and a pretty girl in your arms, with a lead fiddle pushing you in circles around the floor, sure can convince you that you are a Texan. Right there in Turkey, Texas where Bob Wills is still the King.
3 down, 251 to go.
If you would like to learn more about Bob Wills, try Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills and visit the Bob Wills Museum in Turkey.