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Bob Wills Day, Turkey, Texas, April 25th, 2014

General Weirdness Day

General Weirdness Day

Bob Wills has been dead for almost 40 years and it’s been approximately 55 years since he had his last commercial country hit. His primary success came in the mid-1940s with a mixture of Western swing and World War II era jingoism. While performers in the entertainment industry are also quickly forgotten, the shadow of Bob Wills remains formidable on the Texas music landscape. For example, Asleep at the Wheel has based their entire career on the Western swing music that Wills popularized. The Quebe Sisters are a young trio of sibling fiddlers that perform the music of Wills throughout Texas and the band Shoot Low Sheriff keeps the flame alive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Last year, I attended a tribute program to Wills at the Plano, Texas library and met people that cried while remembering seeing Wills during their youth.

Every year during the last weekend of April, the small West Texas community of Turkey, Texas celebrates the legacy of their most famous citizen with Bob Wills Day, (which is somewhat of a misnomer – official events begin on Wednesday and end on Saturday night). As a huge fan of both Bob Wills and general weirdness, I’ve wanted to attend this event for years. To reach Turkey, Texas you go to the end of modern civilization and then drive another 100 miles. High plains, red dirt, and wild critters surround the town, which is so small that it doesn’t have a grocery store. (I saw both turkey and deer in the area and the Koch brothers of campaign finance infamy own a cattle operation and hunting lodge in nearby Matador, Texas).

The Wills name is plastered all over the town. The Bob Wills Museum is in a building that also serves as a grade school. The Bob Wills community center is the former high school. It’s an important weekend for filling the town’s coffers. In addition to the music activities, there are school fundraisers, antique and flea market booths (which proudly display anti-Obama stickers), and the Lions Club pitches in for breakfast. Walking through town was lack stepping back in time. At the Dry Goods store, men tried on and discussed cowboy hats while women worked the bake sale. Willie Nelson’s voice wafted through the Main Street breeze. Literally. There was an unmanned CD player spinning a Nelson disc while a dog guarded merchandise.

Bob Wills Day is a time where old friends gather. I asked a couple that comes to the event annually if they often see the same people each year and they replied that they not only see familiar faces every year, but there are Western swing events throughout the Southwest and the often run into the same music enthusiasts throughout the year. I was initially impressed to learn that a couple from Virginia travel to Bob Wills Day annually, but when I met a man from Slovenia (who has his own Western swing radio program in that country) and a couple that travels from Japan annually to attend, Old Dominion seemed less impressive.

I came into town at about 10:00 a.m. and singer Billy Mata, living up to his moniker as the “Ambassador of Western Swing,” was talking to grade school students about Bob Wills. Former Texas Playboys Casey Dickens and Joe Settlemires joined Mata and they discussed subjects such as the emphasis on the beat that Wills always wanted, his personal charisma, his love of horses, and his time in Hollywood. Later that afternoon, former Texas Playboy Bobby Koefer and former Asleep in the Wheel fiddler player Jason Roberts joined the other musicians for a one hour performance. Steel guitarist Koefer, who is over 90 years old, was fantastic – absolutely attacking the guitar strings, calling out for solos, shouting out new songs with no rest for the band. Koefer and electric guitarist Settlemiers, who is probably over 80 years old and is studying for his doctorate in physics, played together like they had a telepathic chemistry.

I later chatted with Koefer, who was an absolute delight, and asked if Wills actually performed four-hour sets without a break. He affirmed the grueling nightly schedule and added that Wills played for working class audiences and he was afraid that fights would break out if the band took breaks. One night in Paris, Texas, a man was stabbed while Wills was performing. Wills instructed the “ruffians” to go to one side of the dance floor and the “good people” to go to the other. He then told the crowd, “You can fight anytime you want, but you only get to see Bob Wills tonight.”

While the Saturday afternoon show with the former Playboys was raw and fast paced, the evening show with the full band was a more formal affair. The band had three fiddle players, steel guitar, electric guitar, saxophone, piano, and a rhythm section. Former Playboy Leon Rausch, who released a fine album with Asleep at the Wheel titled It’s a Good Day in 2010, joined the band for some spirited singing on “Faded Love” and “Right or Wrong.” Billy Mata and Jason Roberts traded vocals throughout the night with Mata replicating Tommy Duncan’s smooth crooning and Roberts emulating the exuberant shouts of Wills. The dance floor was busy all night and the men, all laboriously decked out in western shirts, jeans, boots, and cowboy hats, probably didn’t look much different than the working class Joe’s that Wills played for decades ago.

The genius of Bob Wills was taking the big band and jazz sounds that were popular in the 1930s and giving them a country sound that translated to his rural audiences. There is a spirit of timeless joy in his music – a joy that took people’s thoughts from the hardships of their hand to mouth existences in the 1930s and 1940s and still resonates today. Beyond the act of escapism, the physical and emotional impact was irresistibly simple and profound – he made people dance. It was a life well lived.

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