Texas Town Honors King of Swing Bob Wills

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on April 6, 2008
Stuart Englert An aspiring Texas Playboy dressed up for last year's Main Street parade.

The sweet sound of twin fiddles and a steel guitar drift over the pews at the Church of Western Swing in Turkey, Texas (pop. 494), as a half-dozen couples two-step across the hardwood dance floor to the 1940 hit “San Antonio Rose.”

On the stage, guitarist Henry Baker and a 10-piece orchestra perform the song and sing the praises of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the group that perfected and popularized Western swing, a hybrid musical style that enlivened radio airwaves and dance halls across the Southwest in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Everyone who comes here is a Bob Wills fan,” says Baker, 64, of Waurika, Okla., who with his wife, Doris Ann, bought the former Assembly of God church in 1999 and renovated the building as a venue for Western swing music.

Turkey is the spiritual home of Western swing and the hometown of Wills, who spent his formative years on a cotton farm in the Texas Panhandle before leaving as a teenager in the 1920s to seek his fame and fortune as a fiddler, bandleader and an actor in 26 Hollywood films.

Each April, the town celebrates the music and legacy of Wills, who blended frontier fiddling with the brass instruments and improvisation of Big Band jazz and created a musical genre that has influenced generations of country and rock n roll artists. His songs “Faded Love” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” remain timeless country-western classics.

“Bob Wills had more charisma than any entertainer that I ever saw,” says Truitt Cunningham, 77, a former Texas Playboy. “We’d be in a theater or a dance hall, and as soon as he showed up, people got up and migrated toward him.”

Cunningham, of Yuma, Ariz., was one of five former Texas Playboys who performed at the 36th annual Bob Wills Day in Turkey last April. During the celebration, Cunningham fronted an 11-member ensemble that played in the former Turkey High School gymnasium to an enthusiastic crowd of admirers.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve heard about Bob Wills,” says Coreata Lancour, 70, of Fritch, Texas, before taking the dance floor with her husband, Duane. “I guess everyone has.”

The weekend-long event also features a downtown parade, pancake breakfasts and a barbecue dinner, campground jam sessions and a fiddling contest that showcases the talents of musicians from ages 5 to 75. Last year’s grand champion fiddler was Coleman Smith, 23, of Scranton, Pa.

“It’s great; it’s taken on a life of its own,” says Rosetta Wills, 66, a Turkey resident and the daughter of Bob Wills, commenting on the annual tribute to her father. “It’s like a big reunion.”

Townspeople, friends and fans started the celebration in 1972, two years before Wills died and was buried in Tulsa, Okla. They also erected a 25-foot granite monument in Turkey to honor the music legend and opened the Bob Wills Museum, which houses a collection of vintage photographs and records, awards and plaques, and cowboy boots, ties and clothing worn by the King of Western Swing.

“These are his fiddles,” says Lorene Setliff, 78, a Turkey native and museum volunteer, motioning to three violins in a glass-covered display case. “The one down at the end was his daddy’s.”

Meanwhile, Henry Baker is confident the legacy of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys will endure as long as young musicians flock to Turkey to participate in the annual fiddling contest and to perform at the Church of Western Swing during the last week in April.

“There’s some new talent coming along,” says Baker, before inviting fiddling champ Coleman Smith onto the stage to play a Bob Wills tune. “And our congregation keeps growing.

For more information, call (806) 423-1253.