Talent 709 – Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys – 1949

Although not nearly as widely remembered as his sometime associate Bob Wills, Big Spring bandleader Hoyle Nix made his own indelible mark on western swing, cementing his name in the pantheon of Texas fiddlers.

William Hoyle Nix was born in Azle, Texas, just a little ways northwest of Fort Worth, on March 22, 1918, son of Jonah Lafayette and Myrtle May Nix.  When he was still a baby, the Nixes moved out west to a farm in Big Spring, Texas, where Hoyle and his brothers were reared.  His father played fiddle and mother played guitar, and passed their skills on the instruments down to Hoyle and his brother Ben.  Inspired by his musical hero Bob Wills, Hoyle and Ben Nix formed the West Texas Cowboys in 1946, who soon established themselves as a hit in West Texas dance halls.  In the summer of 1949, Nix brought the band to Dallas to cut their first records for the recently established Talent label, debuting with his own “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, which proved to be a hit and became one of the genre’s most popular standards.  Subsequently, Nix’s West Texas Cowboys began touring with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Nix’s band expanded to include several former Playboys, including guitarist Eldon Shamblin.  In 1954, Hoyle and Ben established the “Stampede” dance hall outside of their hometown of Big Spring, which still stands in operation to the present day.  Meanwhile, the West Texas Cowboys continued to record somewhat prolifically on local Texas-based labels throughout the 1950s and ’60s, mostly using the new 45 RPM format.  After the dissolution of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills made regular appearances with Nix’s band.  He made his last recordings in 1977 with the release of an LP on the Midland-based Oil Patch label.  The following decade saw his induction into no fewer than four halls of fame, including (posthumously) the Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991.  Hoyle Nix died on August 21, 1985, in his hometown of Big Spring.  His legacy was carried on into the next century by his sons Larry and Jody.

Talent 709 was recorded at the Sellers Company Studio at 2102 Jackson Street in Dallas, Texas, around August of 1949.  The West Texas Cowboys are Hoyle Nix on fiddle, Tommy Harvell on steel guitar, Wayne Walker on lead guitar, Ben Nix on rhythm guitar, Charlie Smith on banjo, Loran Warren on piano, and John Minnick on string bass.  It is Nix and the West Texas Cowboys’ first record.

Hoyle sings the vocal on the famous Texas swing anthem “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown”, covered by Bob Wills and others—and it’s a hot number, too.  While Nix gets credit for creating the song, it may actually be traced back a ways earlier to “Big Ball in Town” (Brooklyn, Boston, or some such Yankee town), which was recorded by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers in 1928.  You may note that it is “a big ball is in Cowtown,” and not—as some listeners understand it—”Big Balls is in Cowtown”; it’s not that kind of a song.

A Big Ball’s in Cowtown, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

On the flip—actually the “A” side—brother Ben Nix sings the vocals in a more sentimental mood on “I’m All Alone”, an original composition of his own, with Hoyle backing up with some Willsian hollers.

I’m All Alone, recorded c. August 1949 by Hoyle Nix and his West Texas Cowboys.

Vocalion 15943 – Bačova Česka Kapela – 1935

Of the crazy quilt of ethnicities comprising the cultural mosaic of Texas, the contributions of the Czechs are not to be diminished.  From Shiner Bock to kolaches and plenty more, the bounties brought to the people of Texas by way of Czechoslovakia are nigh innumerable.  Among those, polka has made a particular, if sometimes overlooked, impression on Texan culture, with a unique flavor of the dance music originating in central Texas which can to this day not only be heard in its pure form, but also in its influences on the state’s official musical genre, western swing.

One of the leading purveyors of polka music for much of the twentieth century, Bačova Česka Kapela (“Bača’s Czech Band” in English) of Fayetteville, Texas, was originally founded in 1892 by Frantisek “Frank” J. Bača, a first generation Texan, born March 8, 1860, whose father emigrated from Bohemia.  In addition to his own thirteen children, the band included local musicians from around the central Texas Czech country.  Bača was proficient on several instruments, and his band quickly gained popularity at local functions and SPJST dances.  They quickly established themselves as one of Texas’ most popular polka orchestras, alongside the likes of Joe Patek’s Orchestra of Shiner.  A national tour was planned, but was aborted following the Frank Bača’s death on May 3, 1907.  Subsequently, leadership of the the Kapela was assumed by his son John R. Bača.  Under his directorship, the Bača band made their first record in Chicago in 1924, for Okeh and their ethnically oriented subsidiary Odeon, under the name “Baster’s Ceska Kapela”.  They made their radio debut in 1926, playing on Houston’s KPRC.  When the Okeh company visited San Antonio five years later, they furthered their recorded legacy with a session which produced eight sides in June of 1929.  They made another sixteen in two record dates on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth of August, 1935, when Okeh’s successor Vocalion made a field trip to Texas.  Further recordings were made for local labels like Waco’s Humming Bird Records after the Second World War.  John Bača died on April 16, 1953, and the Bača baton was passed on to his nephew Gil, whose father Ray had led an offshoot of the original band since 1932.  A distinctive pianist, Gil Bača led the family band to great acclaim until his death on October 15, 2008, bringing the multi-generational history of Bačova Česka Kapela  to its close.  Many of their recordings were reissued on the Arhoolie compilation Texas-Czech Bohemian-Moravian Bands.

Vocalion 15943 was recorded on August 27, 1935, in San Antonio, Texas.  It was also released—evidently concurrently—on Columbia 263-F, which remained in “print” for a considerable length of time.  On all issues, it seems to have been Bačova Česka Kapela’s best-selling record.

Firstly the Kapela plays a boisterous polka titled “Já Jsem Mladá Vdova”, or in English, “Young Widow”, in an arrangement by Adolf Snec.

Já Jsem Mladá Vdova (Young Widow), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

On the flip, they play another deceptively titled upbeat polka number, “Dobrunoc (Goodnight)”, an original Frank J. Bača composition.

Dobrunoc (Goodnight), recorded August 27, 1935 by Bačova Česka Kapela.

Victor 19699 – Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler” – 1925

Though he left behind only a single record of his music—which, in my learned opinion, is among perhaps the top ten best old-time fiddle records ever made—”The Texas Fiddler” from Fort Worth, Moses J. Bonner, earned recognition in his home state and abroad as one of the finest men to ever pull a bow south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Moses Junior Bonner was born in Franklin County, Alabama, on March 1, 1847.  The family moved west to the vicinity of Dallas, Texas, when he was about seven years of age.  It was there that Bonner, as a child, learned to play fiddle from an older black musician in the area.  Following the death of his father, M.M. Bonner, the family pressed farther west on past Fort Worth, where they settled in Parker County.  At the outbreak of the war between the states, Bonner served in the Twelfth Texas Cavalry, Company E, as a courier under Colonel William Henry Parsons.  After the war, he eventually settled in Fort Worth.  A prominent member of the United Confederate Veterans, Bonner participated in a fiddle contest sponsored by the organization in 1901, losing to fellow veteran Henry C. Gilliland, but becoming a founding member of the Old Fiddlers Association of Texas.  He continued to be active at both veterans’ and fiddlers’ functions in the decades to come, both lobbying for congress to pass pensions for Confederate veterans and winning nine of twelve subsequent fiddle contests in which he participated.  He was also well known at said get-togethers for his lively jig dancing.  In 1911, he tied with Gilliland and Jesse Roberts at the world’s championship contest.  On January 4 1923, Bonner participated in the first known radio “barn dance” program on WBAP in Fort Worth, accompanied by a local string band called the Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  Two years later, when the Victor Talking Machine Company brought their equipment down to Houston for their first field recording session in Texas, Bonner waxed two sides—one record—of fiery fiddle medleys, for which he promoted as “The Texas Fiddler”.  Bonner was the only “old-time” musician to participate in the field trip, which otherwise recorded only the dance orchestras of Lloyd Finlay and “Fatty” Martin.  Despite further sessions in Texas over the years that followed, Bonner never recorded again.  He did, however, remain an active participant in Confederate reunions all around the nation, ultimately achieving the honorary rank of Major General.  At the age of ninety-two, Moses J. Bonner died from pneumonia on September 2, 1939.

Victor 19699 was recorded on March 17, 1925, at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas.  Bonner’s fiddling is accompanied on harp-guitar by Fred Wagoner of WBAP’s Hilo Five Hawaiian Orchestra.  The record was released later in the year, and sold only until sometime in 1926, perhaps only seeing regional sales.

Firstly, Bonner fiddles a medley of “Yearling’s in the Canebrake” and “The Gal on the Log”.  Seventy-eight-years-old at the time of recording, Bonner was by no means lacking in energy on these performances.

1. Yearling’s in the Canebrake 2. The Gal On the Log, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

On the flip, he plays an interpolation of “Dusty Miller” and “‘Ma’ Ferguson”—the latter honoring the first female governor of Texas Miriam A. Ferguson, who had assumed office only the preceding January.  The “wide-open” character heard in this performance and the other are perfectly exemplary, in my opinion, of early Texas fiddling, sounding far more at home on the range or prairie than than the mountain hollers of the eastern hills.

1. Dusty Miller 2. “Ma” Ferguson, recorded March 17, 1925 by Capt. M. J. Bonner “The Texas Fiddler”.

Paramount 12637 – Ramblin’ Thomas – 1928

Out of the marshlands of northwestern Louisiana, where the Sabine River demarcates the edge of Texas, came Willard Thomas, a rambling character whose mournful singing and sliding steel guitar would epitomize the sound of a world where the blues was all around.

Willard Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana, right on the Texas border, around 1902, one of at least eight children of farmers Joel and Laura Thomas.  His father played fiddle and Willard and his two brothers, Joel Jr. and Jesse, took up the guitar.  Thomas purchased a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which came with a metal slide for playing Hawaiian steel guitar.  Making good use of the hardware, he taught himself to play slide guitar in a rather idiosyncratic style, though also proving to be a fairly versatile player.  Like many bluesmen in the region, Thomas took up in Deep Ellum in Dallas, alongside the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coley Jones, and Huddie Ledbetter.  He made his way around San Antonio and Oklahoma, where he no doubt encountered other musicians, such as “Texas” Alexander., and reportedly even associated with King Solomon Hill in Shreveport, with whom he shared some elements of musical style.  At some point along the way, he picked up the nickname “Ramblin'” Thomas, attributable either to his style of living or his style of playing, if not both.  Perhaps at the behest of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had a session around the same time, Dallas music seller R.T. Ashford arranged for Thomas venture to Chicago, Illinois, in February of 1928 for a session with Paramount Records, netting a total of eight titles of which all were released.  He returned to Chicago that November for another seven titles, including a memorable rendition of the blues staple “Poor Boy Blues” (a.k.a. “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”), and possibly accompanied fellow Texas blues singer Moanin’ Bernice Edwards on another two.  Finally, he made four recordings for Victor in their field trip to Dallas in February of 1932, one of which—”Ground Hog Blues”—bears considerable resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, recorded three days earlier at the same sessions; Jesse Thomas would later claim that Rodgers’ Blue Yodel was inspired by his brother’s song.  Willard Thomas reportedly died of tuberculosis around 1944 or ’45 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Outside of his recording career, most details surrounding Thomas’ life remain shrouded in obscurity.  Brother Jesse “Babyface” Thomas also performed fairly prolifically over a lengthy career, recording first in Dallas in 1929, then reemerging after World War II as the “Blues Troubadour” on a number of different labels.

Paramount 12637 was recorded in February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, featuring Willard Thomas singing and accompanying himself on slide guitar.  Be advised before listening that this rare record is in pretty sorry shape.  I’ve tried to get it as listenable as I can with the resources available to me, but it’s about the worst sounding record I’ll ever post on Old Time Blues (I have some dignity, you see).  If your ears can’t stomach the noise, I wouldn’t blame you—you can go on over to YouTube and look it up in better quality (I recommend this transfer).

First, Thomas plays and sings his mournful slide guitar opus, “So Lonesome”, the first title recorded at his first session and one of his best remembered songs.

So Lonesome, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

On the flip, Thomas sings another outstanding blues of a rather deep shade: “Lock and Key Blues”, his third recorded side.

Lock and Key Blues, recorded February 1928 by Ramblin’ Thomas.

Okeh 45227 – Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band – 1928

Though one of the most prolifically recorded Texas fiddlers prior to 1930, precious little has been chronicled of the life and times of Oscar Harper.  With ten issued sides (one not) to his credit, Harper ranked behind only Eck Robertson, Bernard Cartwright of the Cartwright Brothers, and Daniel H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders, and tied with Samuel Peacock of Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band and “Red” Steeley of the Red Headed Fiddlers, for number of recordings behind his belt (assuming my tallies are accurate).

Oscar Hamilton Harper was born on February 10, 1888, most probably in Ashdown, Arkansas, very close to the Texas border (though in later years, he claimed to have been born in Texas, and may actually have), one of the ten children of Robert and Mary Ann Harper.  Having lived in the state for a time prior to Oscar’s birth, the Harpers returned to Texas in the last decade of the nineteenth century, settling in the region to the east and north of Dallas.  Oscar joined in his family’s work as farmers in his youth, and by 1910 was working as a hired hand on a farm in Rockwall, Texas.  The circumstances surrounding his introduction to the instrument are obscure, but he presumable took up fiddle playing at some time during his formative years.  In 1918, Harper was drafted into the U.S. Army, but did not see action overseas, and was discharged as a private less than a year later following the war’s end.  No less than two months after his discharge, he married Alline Daisy Gaskey on May 10, 1919, in Kaufman County and had at least six children.  By the 1920s, he had settled in Terrell, Texas, where he was known to play with fellow resident fiddlers by the likes of Ervin Solomon and Prince Albert Hunt.  Some suggest that Harper worked as a barber, but no records appear to corroborate this.  In March of 1928, Harper traveled with his nephew Doc and Prince Albert Hunt to San Antonio to record for the Okeh record company, who were conducting a field trip there.  With the duo of Oscar and Doc dubbed “Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band”, the session resulted in three sides and one released record, featuring two popular waltz numbers.  Some sources suggest that he also sat in on Prince Albert Hunt’s “Blues in a Bottle” record, waxed immediately after his session.  Harper’s two man string band made another disc in October of ’29 for Vocalion, and again recorded for Okeh the following month, this time billed simply as “Oscar and Doc Harper”, both times in Dallas.  Among the melodies he recorded at the latter session were the original Texas-flavored pieces “Terrell Texas Blues” and “Dallas Bound”.  By 1930, Harper had retired from farm labor and was working as a full-time musician on the radio and at local dances.  At one such function in February of 1942, Harper was recorded by John A. Lomax for the Library of Congress playing traditional fiddle tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, with a band including Prince Albert Hunt’s old associate Harmon Clem on guitar.  In the second half of the 1930s, the Harpers moved from their farm in Terrell to Dallas, residing at 1913 Gano Street (now the site of Dallas Heritage Village).  Oscar Harper died from complications of uremia in Dallas on February 5, 1952.

Okeh 45227 was recorded on March 8, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas.  Harper’s String Band is Oscar on the fiddle and Doc Harper on the guitar.  It was Harper’s best-selling record.

The rough-hewn, rather slipshod, yet entirely melodic character of Harper’s playing heard in his “Kelly Waltz”, punctuated by Doc’s strong guitar rhythm, exemplifies the sound of early Texas fiddle music.

Kelly Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

The Harpers fiddle another upbeat waltz tune on the reverse: “Bouquet Waltz”.

Bouquet Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.