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Reflections June 2014

Western Swing – Rich Music to Grow Up With

By Don Johnson

We didn't know it at the time but we were growing up in a burgeoning nest of music that launched dozens of performers onto the national scene. We hung out with many of them as they played their local gigs before they got enough money and fame to move somewhere else – which they always promptly did.

I recently read an article on legends in music in which one of the legends was Bob Wills –  which set me to thinking of my growing up (like Waylon Jennings) on music we called Western Swing. It wasn't the only kind of music we heard, of course. But, it was our music —  a blend of jazz, country and blues that was heard, as far as we knew, no place else on earth.

Our place was the area in northwest Texas known as the South Plains and extending up into the Panhandle and it was — and is — Bob Wills country. Bob was from Turkey, a tiny town just southeast of Amarillo and a little northeast of Lubbock. But Bob was one of us. Even after he became nationally famous, we felt comfortable at one of his gigs, jaw-jacking with him about crops, weather and music, and he never seemed to feel anything extraordinary about it.

We didn't know it at the time but we were growing up in a burgeoning nest of music that launched dozens of performers onto the national scene. We hung out with many of them as they played their local gigs before they got enough money and fame to move somewhere else – which they always promptly did.

I was talking with a local radio personality one day who said, "I remember this tall, skinny kid that used to come by almost daily and beg me to let him play and sing a few songs on my show. "I told him, ' Jimmy Dean, go away and quit bugging me about that'."

A number of disc jockeys were sitting around talking one day when one of them said, "I envy you guys. Every one of you can play an instrument, sing or tell funny stories. I can't do anything but spin my records."

Within a few months, Don Bowman (who had been complaining) had a hit record called "Chit Akins, [sic]  Make Me A Star," in which the aforementioned Don Bowman talked and played really bad guitar.

They were everywhere. I remember chatting with Ralna English, long before she gained fame on the Lawrence Welk show, at the bandstand of a local club where she was a regular.

The Cotton Club, a local, seedy honky tonk –  where we used to dance to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys –  burned to the ground. When it was rebuilt the owner wanted to get Bob Wills to play for the opening. He wired an offer of $1,000.

Bob wired back, "That will be fine for me. How much for my boys?"

One of Bob's biographers grew up in Lamesa, just south of Lubbock. He said he would walk home from school back when people left their windows open. He said he could hear virtually the entire Bob Wills radio show through the open windows on his walk home.

Bob wasn't the only performer playing Western Swing. Just a short drive from my home was Big Spring, home to an amazing roadhouse called The Stampede, designed and built by its owner, Hoyle Nix, who, with his brother, Ben, organized his own band, the West Texas Cowboys. Nix shared the belief with Bob Wills that their music was primarily dance music, and he designed The Stampede accordingly. When it opened there were no tables –  just a line of benches around the walls. There was a red line painted around the floor. If you weren't dancing, you had to stand behind the red line. Men were not allowed to wear their hats on the dance floor. Shirt tails had to be tucked in. They finally put in tables in 1957 but no alcohol has ever been sold at The Stampede. It is still operating as a family-friendly venue under the management of  Jody Nix, Hoyle's son who has his own Western Swing band.

I recall talking to Hoyle one night in one of his rare moments down off the bandstand. I complimented him on the virtually uninterrupted stream of music, unlike so many bands that took frequent and long breaks (sometimes augmented by a jukebox). Hoyle said, "I chopped cotton long enough to know that when you finished one row, you just start back down the next. That's the way we play our music."

Some of the other musicians performing in the area during that period were Larry Gatlin and his brothers from Seminole, almost the entire Maines family, a group with tremendous musical talent until it was dissipated by their obsession with left-wing politics, Joe Ely from Lubbock, Roy Orbison from Wink, Tanya Tucker from Seminole, Mack Davis from Lubbock, Waylon Jennings from Littlefield, Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, Joe Mauldin and Nicki Sullivan all part of Buddy Holly's Crickets.

In the 1960s a talented group of musicians including Tommy Hancock, Butch Hancock, Petty Bone, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and others developed a style that was known as "the Lubbock Sound." To get a larger audience it migrated to Willie Nelson country where, with a slight tweak, it became "the Austin Sound."

A local musician expressed what we have only recently come to see as our rightful heritage when he said, "The Lubbock area has been blessed with a caliber of music that most areas can only dream of birthing. Our music scene has always been uniquely rich; producing artists whose music courses through our veins and stimulates our souls."

It may have been caused in part by a unique cultural isolation that turned generations of young men and women inward to seek new perspectives on our world of entertainment and by necessity to create new forms of the art. Whatever the cause there's no question but it happened and our lives were and are far richer for it.

 

Don Johnson is a nonagenarian who lives in Palestine, TX. He welcomes your input at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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