36 years ago, in 1975, country music singer Waylon Jennings released a record titled “Bob Wills is Still the King”. At the time, Waylon and his buddy Willie Nelson were the two best-known practitioners of “outlaw” country music, an untraditional blend of country and rock that was immensely popular in the early and mid-1970s — back then we called it “progressive country.” When Waylon first performed “Bob Wills is Still the King”, he introduced it by saying, “This is a song about a guy who did as much for our kind of music as anyone.”
In March 1986, I had come up from Austin to visit friends in Fort Worth. Before leaving, I made a stop at the Bob Wills Museum in the Stockyards district. Bob himself had been dead for over a decade, but his style of music called Western Swing (a blend of country with jazz and big band sound) was being revived, and I was a big fan (still am). This particular afternoon, 25 years ago, I spent a half-hour or so chatting with Bob’s very pretty daughter, Diane. If you are a fan of western swing, you might enjoy reading these brief notes of our conversation. These notes were originally written for my own private record so they are a bit choppy.
Nowadays, The Bob Wills Museum is no longer there. Diane is still in the Fort Worth area and is still active in preserving the memory of her father, but I have not had any contact with her since our conversation two and half decades ago. Bob is gone. Waylon is gone, too. But there are always “outlaw” singers in country music. And Bob Wills is still the king…
Before leaving Ft. Worth, I stopped at the Bob Wills museum in the stockyard area. What made the visit truly memorable is talking to the museum manager, Diane Wills Malone, Bob Wills’ youngest daughter. There was no one else in the museum while I was there so she and I had a good visit. She is mid-30s, petite, dark hair and attractive. She doesn’t seem impressed by who she is. She doesn’t know how many sides her dad recorded and by her own admission she is naïve about the record business. When we talked about reissues of her dad’s records, she told me she hadn’t realized how much pirating of music actually goes on. She has written Columbia asking about future reissues but nothing has happened. The museum, which has been open only since September, may try to release some of Bob’s music on tape but right now Mrs. Wills isn’t feeling well so that project is on hold.
I asked Diane if her mother got tired of moving around so much during Bob’s career. She said she was sure her mother did. “But we did get good at moving.” Mrs. Wills would come in with a map, lay it on the table and point to where the family would be moving next. The family was proud that the kids didn’t miss any school. They could move over the weekend and have the kids in school on Monday. Diane told me that they lived for a short time in Abilene on Mulberry street, but she could not remember the house number. She was in kindergarten at the time and says she is doing well to remember Mulberry street. She said she doesn’t have a good memory.
Diane told me that her dad didn’t like to bring music home. He never encouraged his children to learn an instrument and none of them play. He would not allow his kids to go to any dances or clubs. Since Bob died, Diane has gotten to know many of the musicians from her dad’s bands. But when he was alive he seldom invited musicians to come out to the house.
Bob liked to listen to big band music. His favorite singer was Kaye Starr. He also liked classical violinists.