Bob Wills Night, Allen Library, Friday, July 19th, 2013
It has been almost 40 years since Bob Wills passed away and over 50 years since there has been a Bob Wills radio hit. Yet, the music that he made continues to echo throughout the dance halls and saloons of the Lone Star State and still resonates with audiences. Asleep at the Wheel has kept the spirit of Wills alive for over four decades, touring throughout the country. The Austin based Hot Club of Cowtown meld Wills with Django Reinhardt and spice up their combo dish with astonishing musicianship. In Fort Worth, the Quebe Sisters perform Western swing and traditional country music. Last year, the young siblings played at the Country Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Connie Smith. And in Dallas, Shoot Low Sheriff play Western swing meets New Orleans jazz.
The Allen, Texas public library hosted “Bob Wills Night” inside their auditorium stage on 19 July. Carolyn Wills, one of Bob’s daughters, gave a pictorial overview of their home life and David Stricklin, the son of Texas Playboy piano player Al Stricklin, gave an overview of the musical history of the band. I showed up 45 minutes early for the event and almost missed out on a ticket. Of the two hundred people in attendance, approximately half of the audience had seen Wills perform live. One older gentleman became particularly emotional when describing how poor his family was and how exciting it was to shake Wills’ hand when he was seven years old.
John Tompkins Wills, Bob’s father, was a champion fiddle player and David Stricklin described the “house dances” that were common in Western Texas during the late 1800s, early 1900s. Families would literally move their furniture onto their lawns to make dance floor space. To maximize floor space and sound, a fiddler might have played in the doorway between two rooms.
After performing in North Texas, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1934. Wills created dance music for the area’s farmers, homemakers, and manual laborers. His shows allowed them to momentarily forget about their daily struggles. If you could scrape together 25 cents for a ticket, you would receive a marathon four-hour non-stop music event. The band members never knew when they would be called upon to provide a solo and being polite and engaging to the paying customers was a primary job requirement. One of the moderators described a conversation with his father in 1975, after hearing the news of Wills’ death. “Wills knew what it was like to work all day in a cotton field to try to make a dollar. He was one of us.”
Shoot Low Sheriff provided the music for the evening, performing three short sets of rhythm heavy Will’s tunes sandwiched between the presentations. Sheriff has members from teenagers to elder statesman Wayne Glasson, who has played piano for Freddy Fender, Gary Stewart, Gene Watson, and many other well-known country artists. Young guitarist Jennifer Munn, who recently received the Instrumentalist of the Year Award from the Academy of Western Artists, may well become a solo act in the future. The girl has blues chops that are ready for a bigger stage.
The presentations from Carolyn Wills, who heads the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation, and David Stricklin were warm remembrances that somewhat whitewashed the less attractive aspects of Will’s personality – it wasn’t a night to discuss drinking or womanizing or a famous man’s bad temper. Shoot Low Sheriff tried to end the last set with their cover of the footloose “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” but the audience demanded an encore. Young fiddle player Dustin Ballard ended the night taking center stage with the wistful “Faded Love.” It was a reminder that people love the music of Bob Wills not because it is simply a touchstone of the past, but it contains a spirit and a beauty that is timeless