Lake Texoma

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Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers

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What was it really like when cowboys in Texas and Oklahoma finished their day’s work in the 1920s? Cowboys earned $20 to $30 a month, plus room and board back then. It cost the average U.S. citizen $620 a year just for living expenses in 1925. The pay for teachers was twice what the cowboy earned. A Winchester 94 rifle cost $31.98 at Sears in 1927. A ranch hand today still works seven days a week, but they do not have to sleep outside with the cattle and sheep these days. (1)

By 1920, it was only a little more than 50 years since the cattle drives to Kansas and Missouri had begun after the Civil War. And, only 35 or so years since the railroads came to the southwest which began the decline of the longhorn cow’s journey on the prairie to the meat markets of the northeast.

Hollywood Cowboys

Hollywood talkies were all the rage in the 1920s. Our western culture intrigued filmmakers. The movies of that era dramatized the cowboy. The fascination with U.S. western heritage in movies and TV reaped big profits and lasted until the 1970s when CBS canceled Gunsmoke 1975. Hollywood forever idealized the U.S. cowboy in several classes, the singing cowboy, the lawman, and the outlaw. The reality is that the cowboy gave birth to several unique American musical genres, one of which is Western Swing.

Who Is Bill Boyd?

One of the most influential musicians who rocketed the Texas/Western Swing genre into existence came from Fannin County, Texas. His name is Bill Boyd of the Cowboy Ramblers. Sure, Bob Wills is the best known of that genre in Texas, but Bill Boyd was as, if not more, significant in bringing the Western Swing genre into mass popularity. Bill Boyd’s legacy continues today.

Bill was born September 29, 1910, as one of Lemuel (Lem) and Molly Boyd’s 13 children. His brother, Jim, was born September 28, 1914. Lem and Molly moved from Cookeville, Tennesee, to Texas and first settled near Whitewright, Texas, but then moved four miles south of Ladonia, Texas, in Fannin County. Lem sang tenor and Molly sang ballads, and Bill’s family grew up with musical bones.

Bill started out playing the harmonica, then he learned to play guitar from the cowboys working on his family 320-acre cattle ranch and cotton farm, southeast of Bonham. Bill bought a guitar through a mail-order catalog. By age 19, Bill played guitar and piano. Neighbors were known to come from all over to hear the Boyd brothers. KPFM radio out of Greenville, Texas invited Bill and Jim, and Howard and Bill Staley to play live in 1926. Lem died that year.

The Cowboy Ramblers

The Boyd family moved to Dallas in 1929, Bill labored hard at odd jobs during the Great Depression while carving out his music career. Jim met Audrey (Art Davis), who played the fiddle and mandolin, in school, and they begin playing for assembly programs. Bill, O. P. Alexander, and Red Stevens auditioned for and began playing on an early morning radio show for WFAA in Dallas in 1930. They called themselves the Alexander Daybreakers. The show ran for two years.

Jimmie Rogers, famous for his blue yodel and guitar technique, held four recording sessions in Texas. Jimmie invited Bill to play in Jimmie’s February 1932 session in Dallas. From there Bill organized his band, the Cowboy Ramblers, also in 1932. His original band included brother Jim on bass guitar, Art Davis played fiddle, and Walter Kirkes was on tenor banjo. The Cowboy Ramblers Moved to WRR radio for two decades. But so much more was happening for the band along with two younger Boyd brothers, John, who played steel guitar, and Clyde, who ended up teaching guitar until the 1970s. In Hollywood, Bill is known as Bill “Cowboy Rambler" Boyd so as not to be confused with William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd. (2, 3, 4)

Timeline of Bill's Texas Swing Success

1932: Bill forms and fronts the Cowboy Ramblers

1932: Bill opens the Boyd School of Music

1934 -1946: RCA Victor’s budget label, Bluebird, signed the Cowboy Ramblers. They recorded 229 singles under this label.

1934: First recording at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio—

1935: Cowboy Ramblers recorded Under the Double Eagle.

1938 -1939: Jim Boyd toured with the Light Crust Dough Boys

1937 - 1942: John Boyd formed The Southerners. John dies in 1942. (5)

1942: Bill Boyd stars in six PRC B movies with soundtracks of the same name of the movies, Along the Sundown Trail, Prairie Pals, Tumbleweed Trail, Rolling Down the Great Divide, Raiders of the West, and Texas Manhunt. (6)

WWII: Bill Boyd tours the U.S. with the Western Minute Men promoting the sale of war bonds. (7)

1946 -1951: Recorded all releases on the Victor RCA label.

1949: Cowboy Ramblers recorded Lone Star Rag.

1949 -1951: Jim Boyd and his band, The Men of the West, record ten singles For RCA Victor.

Mid 1950s: Live radio musicians are pushed out of work. Bill and Jim Boyd retire to become disc jockeys.

1973: Bill Boyd suffers a stroke and retires as DJ.

1977. Bill Boyd dies.

1993: Jim Boyd dies.

1997: Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame Inducts Bill Boyd posthumously.

Date Unknown: Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame for Bill’s contribution to radio at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.

How Bill Worked His Swing Magic

Bill’s recordings found success in instrumental songs, and he is known as “The King of Instrumentals”. Under the Double Eagle, an instrumental and the Cowboy Ramblers’ signature song, was written in 1893 by Austrian composer Franz Josef Wagner while he was bandmaster of the 47th Austrian Regiment. (8)

In 1934, Western Swing music was known as Texas Swing. Where Bob Wills used horns, the Cowboy Ramblers spiced up the genre with string instruments. Eventually, the band had ten musicians. The band flavored the radio airwaves with blues, jazz, novelty songs, waltzes, and fiddle tunes over their long-running career.

Bill main-stayed as a recording artist and radio star and limited his live shows to country fairs and theaters. At WRR, he bought his air time and sold advertising to sponsors. Many of the musicians who recorded with Bill in the beginning were WRR staff musicians who played on other radio shows and toured with the Light Crust Dough Boys.

At the Cowboy Ramblers' fifth recording in 1936, Bill added a second fiddle, and then picked up a union musician with a clarinet in 1937. Besides Art Davis, the Cowboy Ramblers acquired the steel guitar of William “Lefty” Perkins. Multi-talented fiddle players Jesse Ashlock, Cecil Brower, and twin fiddlers Carroll Hubbard and Kenneth Pitts graced Bill’s airwaves and recording sessions. John W. “Knocky” Parker joined in with piano. (2,3,4)

Bill Boyd died on December 7, 1977, at age 67. Both Bill and Jim Boyd are buried at Restland Memorial Park in Dallas. Not much is known about Bill’s married life or his wife and two daughters. Bill’s wife, Mildred Wylie Boyd, from Prescott, Arizona, died at age 95 in 2012. She was also a talented musician and the creative writer for Bill’s radio shows and Drilling Magazine. Mildred was survived by one daughter and son-in-law, two granddaughters, one grandson, and many nieces and nephews.

Sources

1. Theim, John, and Deborah Dimon. Rabbit Creek Country: Three Ranching Lives in the Heart of the Mountain West. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2008. P. 185

2. Handbook of Texas Online, Linc Leifeste, "BOYD, WILLIAM LEMUEL [BILL]," accessed February 27, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbo87

3. http://scratchyattic.blogspot.com/2014/02/bill-boyds-cowboy-ramblers.html

4. http://www.hillbilly-music.com/artists/story/index.php?id=12308

5. Russell, Tony, and Bob Pinson. Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942 New York, Oxford University Press, 2004. P. 125

6. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0101708/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

7. Wolff, Kurt. Country Music: The Rough Guide to Country Music
2000 Rough Guides Ltd. 62-70 Shorts Gardens, London p.75

8. https://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:Under_the_Double_Eagle

Pictures

Pictures of Bill and the musicians he worked with are scarce.

1. Bill Boyd
2. Bill and Mildred Boyd
3. Bluebird Record Label
4. Raiders of the West Movie Trailer Picture
5. Cowboy Ramblers Live Show
6. Cecil Brower




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Lake Texoma Fishing Report from TPWD (May 20)

EXCELLENT. Water stained; 72 degrees; 1.47’ high. Striped bass and white bass are excellent on live bait and topwater baits when fish are near the surface. Diving birds are marking feeding schools on the surface throughout the lake. Largemouth bass are good fishing plastic creatures, shaky worms, swimbaits, and crankbaits in 6-18’. Crappie are excellent on minnows and jigs by boathouses, marinas and brush piles 8-15’. Catfish are excellent on cut bait and minnows in 3-15’.