Playing With The King Of Western Swing: A Commentary By Tony Norris

Sep 28, 2012

Folk singer and storyteller Tony Norris grew up in Central Texas in a musical family - his uncles played with the pioneering King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.

When Norris eventually moved to northern Arizona, he was delighted to learn that a fellow Texan lived nearby - a musician who may have known his uncles and Bob Wills. So, Norris set up a time to talk to him and ended up hearing quite a tale.

I sat down at a table in a Denny's Restaurant in Williams, Arizona and ordered a coffee. Soon, an elderly man in white cowboy hat and boots stepped through the door. He sat down across from me. For five decades Buck Wheeler played music in little prairie schoolhouses and big dance pavilions, on the radio and even on his own TV show. He talked with wit and amazing recall about encounters with swing musicians from Milton Brown to Spade Cooley.

I mentioned that my uncles June and Kermit Whalin had been in Bob Wills' original Playboys. That was in 1933 before wills cut his first 78 records and bands played live in radio station studios.

"I once played with your uncles and Bob Wills," Buck said with a half-smile on his face. "On the bridge on the Brazos River."

Buck said he was headed home one night from playing a dance in the small town of Rising Star when he pulled onto a metal bridge near Waco. It was awful late - in just an hour he would have to milk 23 Holstein cows, but ne needed to answer a call of nature.

So, he said, he let the old Dodge roll to a stop nearly in the middle of the bridge.

And, clear as a bell out of the night, came the sound of twin fiddles swooping across the cow pasture. Then he recognized the voice of the WACO radio announcer saying, "That's Bob Wills and his Playboys". Buck Wheeler leaned in close and said, "The sound was definitely from a radio, but my car didn't have one". He walked the length of the bridge looking for a clue, and established that the broadcast was originating from the air around the bridge. He sat on his fender for a moment and hummed to the strains of Bob Wills and my uncles on the breeze.

Then, Buck said he reached in back and pulled out his battered Kay bass and began to pluck along with Bob and his band. Buck grinned and I just shook my head.

Strange things can happen on a bridge late at night. And I've heard amazing accounts of broadcasts being audible on telephone poles, metal gates and barbed wire fences.

Since Buck passed away a few years ago, I've spoken to some experts who  say it's possible, but not likely. Still, I've accepted that one magic night, Buck Wheeler played music with my uncles and Bob Wills on a bridge on the Brazos River.

Tony Norris is a folk singer and storyteller based in Flagstaff. His commentary was produced by Cindy Carpien with production assistance from Gillian Ferris Kohl.