Q: Can you settle a recurring argument my husband and I have been involved in for the last thirty years? It has to do with the great Bob Wills song “Big Ball’s in Cowtown.” My husband says that the song is “A Big Ball in Cowtown,” and that it’s about a big ball, or big party, in Fort Worth, and I say it’s about a Cowtown visit by a celebrated fella, or perhaps even a famous bull, who goes by the name “Big Balls.” I await your ruling.
Stacy (and Stan) Willard, Tulsa, Oklahoma
A: It’s no secret that the Texanist is a big fan of western swing music, as anyone within earshot of his morning showers or next to him at a stoplight or behind him in line at the post office can attest. It is by far his most listened-to, most sung, most hummed, and most whistled genre of music. And, of course, right there in the mix, on heavy rotation, is the jaunty “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” one of western swing’s most memorable tunes.
Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, recorded the song twice, but it was his protégé and friend Hoyle Nix, of Big Spring, who wrote it and first recorded it way back in 1949 for Dallas’s Talent Records. Nix and his West Texas Cowboys recorded a second version ten years later, in 1959, for Big Spring’s own Caprock label. If you haven’t heard this lively rendition, you should do so right now. It’s great. In addition to being famous for “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” Nix is also known for founding Big Spring’s historic Stampede dance hall, which has been going strong since 1954.
Now, having successfully avoided addressing the awkward main subject(s) of your letter for as long as his editor will possibly allow, the time has come for the Texanist to face the music … the music that you, in longstanding disagreement with your better and less-dirty-minded half, perceive to be suggestive.
The Texanist has heard many versions of “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” by artists ranging from Hoyle Nix to Bob Wills to Asleep at the Wheel (featuring George Strait) to Waylon Jennings to Don Walser and on and on, all the way around to Hoyle Nix’s son, Jody. None of these versions, the Texanist feels compelled to affirm, has led him down the indelicate trail that you have followed. The lyrics, on their face, tell only of a big party in Cowtown and offer nary a whiff of double entendre, innuendo, or even the slightest insinuation.
That said, very faint credence to your side of the argument could, if one allowed one’s mind to go there, be found in a passage that is sung on a few of the renditions: “I’ll go to Cowtown/I’ll dance around/board up your windows/the big boy’s in town.” And if one was in close touch with one’s inner ten-year-old, one might also do a double take at a 1966 version in which Bob Wills interjects one of his signature interjections: “Women and children holler ‘willy, willy!’”
The only other possibly confusing facet to this non-mystery is the song’s slightly differing titles through the years. Hoyle Nix’s original 1949 version appears as “A Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” but his 1959 Caprock recording goes by “Big Balls in Cowtown.” And Bob Wills followed with the 1966 “A Big Ball in Cowtown” referenced above, and “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” in 1973. There are other minor variants, as well, like “Big Balls in Cow Town” and “The Big Balls in Cowtown.”
Despite being pretty sure of himself, the Texanist reached out to Rich Kienzle, a trusted veteran country music critic, journalist, and historian who counts among his impressive oeuvre numerous books on western swing. The song is “absolutely about a dance,” Kienzle says. Further, he had never before heard the testicular interpretation. Kienzle did, though, relay a humorous anecdote about a country radio station, possibly located in Fort Worth, that once recorded a promo claiming that its popularity was so great that it had “Fort Worth by the…,” at which point it would cut in a few seconds of “Big Balls.”
The Texanist asked Kienzle about the differing song titles for “Big Balls” and whether he thought there was anything to it. “I highly doubt anyone got offended over ‘balls,’” he said. “Texas might be conservative in many ways, but its country music (and western swing) was a lot more progressive than, say, Nashville’s, where everyone was paranoid about things being ‘suggestive.’”
The exchange with Kienzle was reassuring, but just to make sure that he’d turned over all the, er, stones, the Texanist reached out to the aforementioned Jody Nix, who followed in his daddy’s bootsteps and leads the popular Jody Nix and the Texas Cowboys band, who are headquartered at the Stampede. Nix has been playing music, including “Big Balls,” for 58 years, and in response to the Texanist’s uncomfortable question, he had not much more than a chuckle to offer.
So, to the Texanist’s great relief, it is his pleasure to now inform you that, in the matter of Ball’s v. Balls, your husband is right and you are wrong. The thing is, just as cowboys are common in Texas, so too are cowboy balls—er, cowboy parties, and there’s absolutely nothing about this that should raise an eyebrow.
Now, if you’ll please excuse the Texanist, he’s going to head down to the bar, have a stiff belt, and thank his lucky stars that you didn’t ask him about other notable Bob Wills standards, such as “Wang Wang Blues,” “Big Taters in the Sandy Land,” or, praise the good lord in heaven above, “Big Beaver.”
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
A version of this is published in the August 2018 issue.