|Studio Insider--April, 2013
Studio Insider #181 April, 2013
Faded Love and Bright Memories of Texas
I’m paging through an incredible sequence of memories as I return to California after a week in Texas. It’s a compulsion of mine to grasp every bit of equity out of a trip to another part of the country, and this time was no exception. My wife Marty Kendall and I went to Dallas for a conference, so I decided to do a bit of detective work and see if I could find Bob Wills’ birthplace (in central east Texas) and get some footage of the spot where he spent his first eight years. I also hoped to find and interview a woman who played bass and sang with Wills in the 1950’s, and ask her about “Faded Love,” Wills’ now-classic country song and fiddle tune.
How can I help you?
Marty and I were holed up several days in the Dallas convention center, completely cut off from the vast Texas sky and the brisk spring air. But with the telephone help of mandolin virtuoso Paul Glass, I managed to get contact info for Louise Rowe, now 80 years old, and the only female to work both as a singer and an instrumentalist with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. One afternoon, I reached her. “Yes, this is Louise Rowe. How can I help you?” I explained to Louise that I was trying to piece together the history of Wills’ haunting “Faded Love,” and that our mutual friend Paul Glass had suggested I talk with her. “Oh, honey, you can come and hear me play tonight at the Texan Kitchen restaurant in Ueless, TX. It’s only about 20 minutes from Dallas.” We weren’t able to make her gig, but we set up an interview for Sunday afternoon, just before Marty’s flight home.
In the early 1950’s, Louise went on an 18-day tour of California, singing with Wills and the Texas Playboys. During that tour and subsequent work in Texas and Oklahoma, Wills realized that Louise could also play guitar and bass. After jams and some tutoring from guitarist Eldon Shamblin and other band members, Louise was promoted. She could fill in for regular players when they were absent, and her work with the band increased.
Pieces of the puzzle
I asked her about her musical formation, and she told me about growing up in a musical family. Her father James Rowe wrote gospel hymns and taught music lessons, and her brothers performed in a hillbilly string band in Oklahoma, Texas and California. They recorded as the “Seven Rowe Brothers Band.” One of their records was of great interest to me. “Polk County 2-Step” is a medium up-tempo 2-step dance piece based on the melody of “My Darling Nelly Gray.” The brothers used it as their theme song, playing it at the beginning and end of every show. Bob Wills’ “Faded Love,” recorded in 1950, is clearly based on “My Darling Nelly Gray,” but thanks to Louise, I found an intermediate piece between “Nelly” (published in 1856) and “Faded Love.”
The birthplace of Bob Wills
Louise shared some photographs and stories with us over lunch, and then it was time to take Marty to the Dallas airport. I then pointed the car southeast and headed towards Kosse, about 45 miles east of Waco, in the same part of Texas I had visited many times while researching the Westphalia Waltz. I reached Kosse as the sun was about to set, casting a golden glow under a beautiful clear sky. A hand-painted sign on the highway announced: “Welcome to Kosse, the birthplace of Bob Wills.” Wills is a god in Texas, and his influence can still be heard all over the state. Kosse is barely a hamlet -- a crossing of two highways and a few meandering blocks of houses. Only one block of the old downtown remains from Kosse’s heyday. The town has been losing people, money, and buildings since the great depression and the end of the oil boom.
I had done a little preliminary research, and with the help of my iPhone and Google maps I found the old road leading out to the Moss Springs area northeast of town, where the Wills family had supposedly lived. Many of the roads aren’t labeled, and the paved surfaces soon gave way to gravel and sand roads, some oiled. I was surrounded by cattle pastures. The sun set, and I reached the end of Moss Springs Road, closed off by a cattle gate. I turned around and headed back towards Kosse. As the darkness fell, I could barely make out the spooky outlines of the old Eutaw cemetery sign and a few headstones. Eutaw was a tiny settlement that preceded Kosse in the mid nineteenth century.
Helpful, friendly folks
It was dark when I got back to Kosse, and I didn’t have lodging or dinner figured out, so I decided to go into the Kosse Café and grab a quick bite before heading up to Groesbeck and a motel. Sitting on the bench out in front was an older man leaning on a cane, smoking and surveying the darkened street. He was George Rasco, owner of the café. I told him why I was in town. “See those people right there at that table, fixin’ to leave? If you hurry, you can catch ‘em. They know all about Kosse. Kelley and her mom Nell used to run the newspaper, and they even had an article about Bob Wills a few years ago with a picture of the house.”
I thanked George and went inside and introduced myself to the folks at the table. They immediately warmed to my quest, and soon names and addresses and possible connections were flying faster than I could write. Kelley Young teaches school today, but for many years she and her mom Nell McKinney ran the Kosse Echo, a small monthly newspaper. Nell promised me the issue with the Wills story and the picture of his house. Kyle Ingram got his grandfather Jack Foshe on the phone, and passed it to me. “Yeah, tomorrow I’m not doin’ anything, and I can take you out to the old place.”
I drove back to Kosse in the beautiful early morning light and met Jack at the café. We took my car so I’d have my cameras and equipment, and he directed me out the old, sometimes mis-labeled roads. “These roads used to be just sand. They were awful in the summer – your tires would just sink in. That’s why they couldn’t grow cotton on the east side of town. Soil’s too sandy. It’s great for cattle, though. Now they mix oil with the sand and dirt and pave the roads with that. It’s not as good as asphalt, but it’s cheaper and you can drive on it.” We stopped at several places to get a key to the cattle gate that we’d have to open in order to get in to the property that was the Wills’ farm 100 years ago. Nobody was home at any of the places where we stopped. We drove around to Jack’s boyhood swimming holes, saw the old springs and creeks, and passed the sites of old buildings he remembered, but which have all vanished. We finally found old Leamon Cox at home, and he took us out to the locked cattle gate. “The woman who managed this land before me let folks come in here and hunt. She used the old Wills house to store grain, and one night the hunters were careless and burned the place down. Chimney’s still there. Just head out towards that break in the trees, and watch out for the gully. You’ll see the chimney and the well. Stay as long as you like.”
Jack and I drove slowly between cow pies and ant hills and finally found the chimney and well. We poked around and I shot lots of pictures. The chimney is falling down. There are bricks every where, along with pieces of roofing tin, hunters’ debris, and iron rock that was used to support the house. Leamon roared up on an ATV. “This is where the front wall was – and this was the corner. The door was here, and there were windows on each side.”
I returned a couple of days later and filmed again, this time enjoying the late afternoon light and the solitude of the wind-swept pastures. The Wills family had lived in a beautiful, peaceful place. The cows watched me this time, and as my tiny car crept along through the herd and headed back to the cattle gate, they eyed me quietly.
The next morning, soon after I began my drive back to Dallas, I stopped by the side of the road and called Johnny Gimble, who played with Wills and went on to a lifelong career as one of America’s premier fiddlers. I asked him about “Faded Love,” the Rowe Brothers, Louise, and his own history with the tune. Johnny’s memories came easily, and he corroborated much of what I had learned from Louise and other sources.
As I drove through the beautiful rolling hills and small towns, I reflected on the richness of the music that came out of this part of Texas, and on these communities who nurtured it and valued it so highly.
See you at Grass Valley!
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Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. Joe’s composition “Hymn to the Big Sky” was heard in “The Dust Bowl,” a film by Ken Burns, which premiered nationally on PBS November 18 and 19, 2012. Joe recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by visiting joeweed.com.
By: Rick Cornish
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Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
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