If you’ve spent more than three beers in a honky-tonk, you’ve surely heard Waylon Jennings preaching from the jukebox, “Once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the king.” That boast might be up for debate in some parts of the state, but in Turkey, Bob’s hometown, it’s the gospel truth.
I learned this firsthand during the last weekend of April, when I traveled to the tiny Panhandle town, about a hundred miles southeast of Amarillo, to attend the fiftieth annual Bob Wills Day festival. Hailed as the “Super Bowl of Western Swing,” the three-day event drew more than ten thousand people this year. All had made the pilgrimage to celebrate Wills and the sound he pioneered, a blend of big-band jazz, frontier fiddle, tejano and German horns, and bluesy rhythms.
Though the first RVs started streaming into town two weeks early, the weekend officially kicked off with a Thursday night dance featuring Asleep at the Wheel. Entering Turkey’s old high school (the big brick building has been repurposed into a concession stand, vendor space, and dance hall) felt like taking a step back in time. At the door, volunteers sold cash-only dance tickets, and followed an old custom by stapling reentry tickets to attendees’ shirt collars or sleeves. The gymnasium turned ballroom was already packed with hundreds of dancers when my wife, Lauren, and I arrived just after sundown.
As Ray Benson and his band burned through “Miles and Miles of Texas,” we took in the scene. Beanpole-skinny teens tried their best to find their feet on the dance floor, while paunchy old-timers glided past as if they had wheels on the bottoms of their boots. Belt buckles won at roping and roughstock contests flashed like silver plates underneath a disco ball and strands of twinkling white lights. Several women practically dripped turquoise, with big chunks of aqua blue adorning their fingers, wrists, and necks. And it was clear that no starch had been spared on the men’s Wranglers.
This wasn’t the same crowd you’d find at most of the urban dance halls across the state. For one, this was a family-friendly affair. Grandfathers twirled their granddaughters, and moms taught their sons how to waltz. And because Turkey is surrounded by several of the state’s largest ranches, the place was full of working cowboys nursing Michelobs under shovel-brimmed hats. I met Tyler Terry, a day worker on the Dixon Creek division of the Four Sixes Ranch, when we both stepped outside for some air. He said the Sixes was in the middle of a rank branding season—the wind and heat had been relentless—but he’d managed to slip away for a night of two-stepping with his girlfriend. Not even a busted femur, an injury he’d sustained just two months before when he wrecked his pickup, could keep him off the dance floor.
Standing off to one side of the stage, Carley du Menil-Martinez was proudly taking in her handiwork. As secretary of the Bob Wills Foundation, she’s part of a small team that puts on the event every year. She’d overseen fund-raising, sponsorships, and media relations. “You wear a lot of hats in a town this size,” she told me, and, in fact, when I’d seen her earlier that day, she’d been hustling around in a dishwater-gray apron, working in the kitchen at Hotel Turkey. Now she sparkled in a sequined dress under the lights. “Nobody’s getting rich doing this,” she said. “We’re all just getting gray hair. We do this for the music.”
As I wandered around town over the next few days, it felt like western swing was playing on the wind. Musicians walked the streets with fiddles and guitars, heading toward impromptu picking circles. A group out of Nocona held all-day concerts at the Slab, a covered concrete floor on Main Street. And just down the road, in front of the Texas Playboys’ replica tour bus, there was almost always someone jamming on the bandstand. But my personal favorite discovery was the Church of Western Swing.
Located at the far end of town next to the Allsup’s, COWS, as the locals call it, is a little white chapel built more than a century ago. A couple of Wills devotees bought the vacated building in 1999 and converted it into a sanctuary of song. The walls are now festooned with photos of western swing greats, as well as yellowing posters and other memorabilia lit up by Christmas lights. The venue opens its doors only during the Bob Wills Day festivities. Lauren and I had stumbled into the church’s warm glow late Friday night. We caught the tail end of the COWS house band, a massive ensemble anchored by 97-year-old Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame pianist Lucy Dean Record. She and the band didn’t quit till nearly 1 a.m., when they finally wound down with Jimmy Burson singing a gorgeous rendition of “All of Me.”
Lucy lives in nearby Lockney and had a 45-minute drive home. Out in the parking lot, I held the door open as she climbed inside her car. A fan had followed her outside to chat, and the two traded war stories about torn rotator cuffs, slips, and arthritic joints. “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” the man said. Lucy agreed, then pulled the car door shut before being whisked away into the night.
On first blush, Turkey isn’t the most obvious place to be a music mecca. Fewer than four hundred people call the place home. A handful of restaurants and small businesses occupy a half-asleep Main Street. There’s no grocery store. But Bob Wills is dang near omnipresent. No matter where you turn, there is Bob, on banners, posters, stickers, and T-shirts, painted onto the sides of buildings and on windowpanes. Bob smiling. Bob fiddling. Bob chomping a cigar. Bob doing all three. In terms of local iconography, the only symbols that come close are turkeys and fiddles. (“I’m surprised we don’t have more turkeys playing fiddles, honestly,” Carley told me.) Several of the rooms of the old elementary school now house the Bob Wills Museum, while plaques and monuments to the man and his music are scattered all over town. Just ask any local: it was here, in the surrounding cotton fields and ranches, that a young James Robert Wills began to absorb the influences that he would use to pioneer an entirely new genre of American music.
The Wills family moved from East Texas to a farm outside of Turkey in 1913, when Bob was eight. Both his father and grandfather were champion fiddle players, and Bob grew up steeped in traditional Texas fiddle music. He performed at his first ranch dance when he was just ten years old—the first of many shows he’d play in the area with his dad. Bob also spent much of his youth in the fields alongside Black and Hispanic workers, whose music would greatly influence his style. But the cotton patch was rough on a fiddler’s delicate hands. In his early twenties, he quit farming to become a barber, cutting hair at the same shop that’s still on Turkey’s Main Street.
Bob eventually outgrew the regional dances he played and, in 1929, moved to Fort Worth, where he met another young musician, Milton Brown. Their band, the Light Crust Doughboys, thrilled radio listeners by innovating a brand-new sound: a gumbo of jazz, blues, polka, tejano, pop, and old-time fiddle tunes. Western swing had been born. (Brown would die shortly after forming his own band, in 1936; some historians have argued that, had he lived, Brown would have contested Wills’s claim to the western swing crown.)
Wills formed his now famous Texas Playboys in the mid-1930s and continued experimenting. He added drums, steel guitar, and horns, and amplified his sound. Their takes on “Ida Red,” “Faded Love,” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” made the Playboys one of the most popular dance bands of the era. Then, in 1940, came “New San Antonio Rose.” The song brought Wills international fame and became an American standard. Listening now, it can be hard to remember just how radical Wills’s music was at the time.
Though western swing’s popularity had declined by the fifties, the music informed the genres that followed: honky-tonk, rockabilly, and rock and roll. Fats Domino said he modeled his early rhythm section on the Texas Playboys, and Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybellene,” was adapted from their version of “Ida Red.” Country stars like Merle Haggard and George Strait have kept western swing on the airwaves, while traditionalists such as Asleep at the Wheel, Jake Hooker, Billy Mata, Jody Nix, Ginny Mac, and the current iteration of the Texas Playboys have kept the torch burning, especially in Bob’s hometown.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else in the country that has worked harder to keep western swing on the forefront of people’s minds than the people in Turkey,” Carley told me, as she helped check in guests at Hotel Turkey. But she also made it clear that there was more to town than Wills.
Hotel Turkey, which opened in 1927, is at the heart of an effort to ensure that this tiny burg doesn’t calcify into a shrine to a beloved figure, that it continues to attract and support new artists. Pat and Tina Carson bought the hotel in 2015. I sat with Pat at breakfast in the dining room, and over biscuits and gravy, he told me how the hotel now hosts music every weekend year-round on the back patio. These gigs have become popular with fans and musicians from the Panhandle to the Metroplex and beyond. Visual artists are making a mark too. During this year’s festival, San Antonio-based painter Matt Tumlinson and David Bond, a traditional sign painter out of Waco, collaborated on a mural riffing on Red Steagall’s song “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music.”
“In a little town like Turkey, some of the older folks, they don’t want things to change,” Pat said. “Well, I think it’s always changing. You have your choice, whether it’s changing for the better or for the worse.” He listed four new businesses that had opened in the past year and a half, including a winery, and he noted that young families, like Carley and her musician husband Dave Martinez, have recently moved to town. “Those are the folks who make this thing fun,” he said. “And people are looking for property here as hard as they can.”
Even though the hotel now attracts visitors year-round, Bob Wills Day remains Turkey’s biggest draw. While it’s morphed into a several-day fiesta, the actual “Day” is always the last Saturday in April. The day’s full schedule began with a parade, the first I’d ever seen with western swing being played on floats. The just-coronated Bob Wills Queen waved past, followed by a Texas-flag limo and Shriners in fezzes doing doughnuts in teeny go-karts. The West Texas A&M Herdsmen herded a young bison down the road, and members of the Panhandle Antique Tractor Association popped along in gleaming restored rides. Gibson McConnell, age 5, collected fistfuls of Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and suckers that rained down from the floats. Noting my lack of candy, he offered me a piece of Dubble Bubble gum.
Attendees split off for the community barbecue or the fiddle competition, which has been hailed as one of the best in the nation. Later that afternoon, folks headed toward the old football field for the free outdoor concert with the Texas Playboys. Charles Townsend, Wills’s biographer, emceed the event, welcoming musical guests, such as Brennen Leigh and Monty “Hawkeye” Henson. It was scorching and windy, but the farm-tanned crowd didn’t seem to mind. Halfway through the set, Carley and members of the Wills Foundation paused the music to honor Townsend, the last living founder of the organization. “From now until forever,” Carley announced, “whenever someone graces this stage, they will now be on the Dr. Charles Townsend Outdoor Stage.”
After the presentation, I spoke with Wills Foundation president Lisa Campbell. She and her brother, Pat Carson, have volunteered on the board for thirty years each. “When I first started doing this,” she said, “people always wanted to tell me where they’d seen Bob Wills. If they had seen him in person, that’s all they wanted to talk about. It was like an Elvis sighting. And most of them, a whole bunch of them, met their spouses at a Bob Wills dance.”
The king of western swing himself attended the first two Bob Wills Days, as did his Texas Playboys, who’ve played all fifty years with an evolving lineup. Wills died in 1975, and since then the festival has been meant to celebrate his memory. Lisa and many others have been attending for decades. Many of them marveled at how wild the festival got for a time. “Oh, the eighties were insane,” Carley told me. “It was like a yearly western swing Woodstock.” Hall County was dry then, so booze was bootlegged in. The sheriff rounded up rowdy drunks and locked them up in a cotton trailer until a friend paid the $25 fee to bail them out. There were mud pits and burning RVs. And almost everyone seemed to remember the year a young woman hopped on a horse while wearing a bikini. “‘That horse took off and so did I,’” Carley said, quoting the infamous equestrian. “‘And, yes, my titties just popped out right on Main Street.’”
Though Turkey still parties, things are much calmer these days. For one thing, the crowd’s gotten older, and western swing hasn’t exactly taken off with the TikTok generation. Still, Carley was happy with the turnout. “The last time we did a real one of these, in 2019, there were serious conversations about, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do? Our crowd is expiring.’ That’s the nicest way to put it. But this year you couldn’t turn around without running into somebody under the age of forty. And that’s huge for the music. That’s huge for the legacy of Bob Wills. That’s huge for Turkey.”
The foundation is now tasked with figuring out how to build on this momentum. It sees education as one key to moving forward. This year, Valley ISD bused in elementary school kids for two-step lessons in the museum, and a local schoolteacher has developed a western swing curriculum. The fiddler’s contest continues to draw in young musicians, who might be inspired to lead their own bands someday.
The next generation stepped up on Saturday night, when a young ensemble from the western swing program at South Plains College got the dance underway. While they played many of the classics, there were also new compositions sprinkled in. This is the Wills foundation’s tightrope: how to honor music that is nearly a century old while building on its legacy. One possibility is opening up the dances to a slightly wider variety of acts. “You know, Bob Wills wasn’t traditional,” Carley said. “He was blazing trails. And I think he would want those people that are making the music now to blaze their own. And then it is our job as a foundation to balance those worlds. I mean, you can’t have Bob Wills without ‘Faded Love,’ but you also can’t have Bob Wills Day with just ‘Faded Love.’”
I knew what she meant. I’d heard the tune no fewer than a dozen times in three days, though I hadn’t yet tired of it. And when Jody Nix wrapped his set just before midnight on Saturday, Lauren and I were still itching to dance. We walked with friends down the darkened streets to the Church of Western Swing. Thankfully, the door was still open, and music spilled into the night. The band played, and we all sang along: “Pull off your coat, throw it in the corner / Don’t see why you can’t stay a little longer.” At one point, a new friend from Amarillo said out loud to no one in particular, “If Texas had its own heaven, this would be it.”
related video: Texas Country Reporter
Watch Texas Country Reporter’s interview with Western Swing pianist Lucy Dean Record from 2017.