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Click to see a full size picture - then hit your back button to get back here-:) Big Bill Lister

Although warm and engaging, with a ready smile, Big Bill Lister has always been an imposing presence: 6 foot 7 1/2 inches, with a deep, drawling voice and a disarming directness. He's also a performer whose significance looms larger now, in many ways, than it did at the height of his career. Although he has been mostly retired from professional music for well over forty years, he's an amazingly vital link to country music's golden age - and not just because of his close association with country legend Hand Williams. A commanding performer at this writing, at 75, he sounds as good as ever, is still writing songs, and still hews determinedly to the sound he had featured from the beginning. Lister is a walking history lesson and a charismatic storyteller, unapologetically country to the bone, a friendly but uncompromising reminder to the country music establishment that, as he puts it, "if the roots don't get no attention, that tree is gonna die."

Unquestionably, Big Bill Lister's lasting significance emanates from his association with Williams, including his months as Hank's opening act, rhythm guitarist, and hunting and fishing buddy (as well as confidant). It revolves particularly around his recording of Williams' There's a Tear in My Beer and his subsequent unearthing of William's original demo for the song, which led to the historic recording and video of the song that featured Hank, Jr. 'duetting' with his father and became a #1 hit in 1988, almost forty years after the demo was made.

Lister's music stands on its own, however, and he remains interesting for more reasons that the Tear in My Beer saga, not least because he's living proof of historian Bill C. Malone's insistent claim that, contrary to popular impression, Texas country music is more than just western swing and dance hall honky-tonk. He may have loved to sing the old cowboy songs and may have cut his share of beer drinking honky-tonkers, but Lister was not a dyed-in the-wool honkey-tonker at heart. He was influenced by singers who straddled both sides of the Mississippi, both geographically and stylistically - Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tub - but his sound reflected as much a traditional, Southwestern hillbilly sensibility as it did a Southwestern one, and he was far more a stage show singer than a beer joint one. He also felt the impact, very early on, of the Nashville-West Coast scene acrimony that is usually focused on Capitol Records' West Coast orientation and the Nashville establishment's resentment of stars like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Lister appeared to suffer, rather, from the opposite, from the fact that he was not West Coast-based in the years when the label's country division was firmly based in California and tended, some feel, to nurture nearby artists at the expense of those based farther East.

Lister's original recording career lasted less than four years (and all the sides from the fourth of those years have remained unissued until now), though he returned to recording for an unusual, effective one-off album in the 1980s, then again in 1998 to record a live tribute to Hank Williams.

Bear Family collects all Bill Lister's early recordings here, including un-issued tracks, as well as pre-Capitol sides he made for San Antonio's Everstate label in 1949, both solo recordings and duets made with friend Del Dunbar. Included are Hank Williams' Countrified, The Little House we Build (Just Over the Hill), and There's a Tear in My beer, as well as other standouts like Lister's cover of Rocky Bill Ford's Beer Drinkin' Blues and Blowin' The Suds Off My Beer, and typically wry, self-penned numbers like What The Heck Is Going On? and Happy Lonesome.

He was born Weldon E. Lister on January 5, 1923, in Kenedy, Texas, an hour or so south of San Antonio, but he grew up further north and west in Brady. "My dad played a little harmonica once in a while," he says, "but other than that I was the only one in our family that decided I wanted to do something with music." Like seemingly every rural youngster who came to music from the late '20s through the early 1930s, Lister grew up listening to and idolizing Jimmie Rodgers. But there was plenty of local talent around, too, and Brady's KNEL in 1935 boasted not only Bobby Kendrick's (a.k.a. Bob Skyles) family medicine show band, the Skyrockets, but also a young cowboy singer, Slim Rinehart, though both acts moved out to KIUM in Pecos in 1936.

The Skyrockets would begin a successful sting at Bluebird records in 1937, but Rinehart would never record commercially. Still, through radio broadcasts on powerful Mexican border stations, where he headed from Pecos, he became one of the most popular and influential performers of his era, before dying in a 1948 car accident in Michigan. Lister knew Rinehart in Brady. "I got to know Slim quite well, and that was a real inspiration to me. I think maybe even Ernest Tubb had a little Slim Rinehart rub off on him. I know in later years, after Ernest went with Decca, he did his best to talk Slim into making phonograph records and Slim wouldn't do it. He was afraid it would cut into his songbooks that he sold on the border stations. That's really a shame, but Slim didn't do that. He might have, had he lived a little longer. Slim got called away pretty early in the game."

Ernest Tubb became another early inspiration. He was broadcasting as the Gold Chain Troubadour on KGKO out of Fort Worth in the early 1940s. "I had a great deal of respect for him, Lister recalls. "Fortunately in my time working in Nashville, I got to go on the road with Ernest a few times and I really appreciated him and what he'd done for country music." Tubb was indirectly responsible for one of Lister's early breaks in radio in San Antonio. "Tony Bessan was the program director at SMAC. When I first went over there with my guitar, he was king enough to put me on the air. After I moved to Nashville and came back for a visit, I dropped by KMAC an visited with Tony. Tony never was really a great fan of country music … but [KMAC] tried to program the station where it would cover everybody. Tony laughed and told me, I'm gonna tell you, the main reason I ever put you on the air here is because I turned Ernest Tubb down. And he went over to KONO. And I could always see the same drive and interest that you had in country music that Ernest had, and I didn't want to make the same mistake twice.' But, you know, I never got to tell that story to Ernest."

According to a 1946 article by pioneering country journalist Floy Case, Lister began picking guitar at 14. "A Sears Roebuck catalogue got him started on his career in music with an offer of a brand new guitar and a five minute course in how to make music with it, all for only $3.98. Bill became the proud owner of that guitar and immediately started banging away on it. Then as practice began to make perfect, he began playing for the parties, dances, and school affairs that go to make up the social life of a rural community." Lister made his radio debut at KNEL in Brady in 1938 (Floy Case gives the following year). "That was sixty years ago I started and I haven't learned nothing yet.", Lister laughs. As it would be for much of the early part of his career, it was just Lister and his guitar -like Cowboy Slim Rinehart, the young Tubb, and, at times at least, Rodgers, as well. "I was fortunate to be here in a time that I think was the golden days of radio. Before television came along. Then, it didn't seem to take as much to entertain people as it does today. But I spent a great part, the first part of my career, with just me and my guitar."

At some point over the next few years, Lister also made transcriptions for XEG. At 18, he met Lila Mayfield ("…compared to Bill, Lila surely is little." Floy Case noted, "for she stacks up to just five feet, two inches."), whom he married after what Floy Case described as a "whirlwind courtship," in July 1941 in Medina, Texas. A few months later, around the time the US entered into World War II, the couple moved to San Antonio, where Lister appeared briefly on WOAI before landing a spot on KMAC. He tried to enlist, as well, but his height worked against him.

"I was in the Merchant Marine for a short time. On account of my height, they discharged me, and I tried to join everything else. The wouldn't take me. Now days, six-seven is ordinary stuff. Back then, there wasn't many of us. It kind of broke my heart when the Marines' enlistment people told me I wouldn't be worth the price of a uniform. But anyhow, during that time, I entertained a lot of recruits that came through Lackland Air Force Base, and different troops around."

By war's end, Lister was at KTSA, and for the first time added another musician, giving youngster Tommy Hill the first break in what would be along country music career as a performer, songwriter and producer. "When I first moved over to KTSA, I needed a guitar and Tommy came down to audition for me. At that time, Tommy was 16 ears old, and as soon a I heard him I said, 'You'll do for me. I'll go for that." So I actually gave Tommy his first picking job. And Tommy and I have remained friends all through the years." Lister and Hill also played a program with a full group that included comedian Clarence Chesseman ("We called him the King of Country Corn"), veteran western swing fiddler Charlie Gregg, and diminutive girl singer-guitarist Lou Pickens. Soon after, when Tommy Hill's brother Kenny came out of the Navy, Lister and the Hills formed Bill Lister and the Texas Hillbillies. "Kenny played bass mostly. Then later, as times demanded, we added drums and Kenny played drums for us - I'd still rather play without drums, but some situations just almost demand it." At KTSA, Lister worked with up an coming announcer/deejay, singer-songwriter Joe Allison, and their friendship would prove important when Lister went to Nashville in January 1951.

By the summer of 1946, Lister had both a 6:45am show on KTSA and a noon show on KABC, which had recently gone to 50,000 watts. Not yet billed as 'Big Bill', Lister was touted as Radio's Tallest Singing Cowboy. Both shows were sponsored by Luck Optical and the midday show was broadcast from Luck's San Antonio offices, which, as Floy Case write, gave "him an opportunity to meet many of his fans personally, and he says that's his favorite hobby." Case added that other hobbies included hunting, fishing and riding - hobbies that would stand Lister in immediate good stead with the like-minded Hank Williams and Drifting Cowboy band members a few years down the line. He also liked "eating that good fried chicken and apple pipe that Lila dished up for him." Case also noted that "it's Lila who gets Bill up each dawning in time for his 6:45 broadcasts on KTSA, and that isn't always an easy task,", adding, a bit more seriously that "Bill doesn't read music and since Lila had a musical education, she is right on deck when it come to helping Bill learn new songs".

In 1947, San Antonio's premiere western swing group, the Texas Top Hands, moved over to KABC from WOAI and before long, the station began an hour-long Noonday Jamboree that features Lister, the Top Hands, singer Del Dunbar and girl singer Betty Jo Catlett, who was replaced in 1948 by Betty Jane Henry. Dunbar was a smooth western singer originally from Oklahoma ("As soon as he found out about Texas he got down here," Lister laughs) who had been on San Antonio radio since 1945; he also created a rube alter ego that he would use on the duets he recorded with Lister in 1949-50.

Although Floy Case had written in the summer of '46, "We hear that Bill is being contracted to do some recording for one of the big labels,", no label, gig or small, came calling, and he finally made his debut for the local Everstate Records ("We called it that because we figures we could cover every state,", recalled Texas Top Hands leader-pianist Walt Kleypas) during 1949. Everstate was apparently the brainchild of songwriter John Currie, although its ownership seems to have included Currie, the Texas Top Hands and Kerrville rancher Art Rodgers, among others. It began either in late 1948 or early 1949, inaugurated by the Top Hands' Bandera Waltz, which became a regional smash. The Top Hands were the label's house band and most prolific act; they backed many of the label's singers, too, like Red River Dave, Dunbar and, eventually Lister himself. The label's 100 series featured unrelated releases, while a 1000 series features unrelated bands like Smiley Whitley's and Jimmie Revard's (though this delineation was never very strictly adhered to; local jazz fiddler-cum-Latin dance bank leader Emilio Caceres even had at least one 78rpm issued in the 100 series). Lister appeared in both series, and it's unclear which were cut or issued first.

Lister and Dunbar cut both duets and solo sides for Currie. "John Currie did quite a few records on the Top Hands, then finally decided he would branch out and take me and Del under wings" (actually Dunbar had sun with the Top Hands on some of the label's earliest releases). Recording at Lister's old station, KMAC, and backed only by their own guitars on some songs, augmented on others by Top Hands Leonard Brown on tenor banjo and Knee-Hi Holley on bass, the duo cut several engaging and decidedly hillbilly sides, with Dunbar clearly in comedian mode, offering asides and singing harmony to Lister's lead, while Lister was pretty much just himself. These included a cover of Wayne Raney's current smash Who Don' You Hall Off and Love Me, which was coupled with a Dunbar effort backed b the full Top Hands band on Everstate 113. Everstate 1006 coupled local deejay John Harper's A Plan to Arkansas and the maudlin Daddy Oh Daddy. A fourth side, There's a Million Ways to Say I Love You, though originally recorded for and intended for issue on Everstate, was finally issued several years later, backed by an unreleased side by Sonny Connor on the Pilgrim label. Lister provided the sole lead instrument on these duets- infectious, hard-bitten acoustic lead that fit the flavor of the records perfectly. "That’s the only place I ever tried to play a little bid of lead on my guitar," he laughs. "I'm a rhythm man."

Lister's solo sides on the label - he was billed as America's Tallest Cowboy - found him firmly in Ernest Tubb territory on the A side, This Time Sweetheart, and echoing Jimmie Rodgers, filtered through Hank Williams on the jaunty flip Local Yokel. Both sides were strong, engaging originals, with apt, lively accompaniment by a contingent from the Top Hands (Easy Adams on lead guitar, Rusty Locke on steel, and Brown and Holley back on tenor banjo and bass). As it would be on all his recordings, Lister's insistent, ringing rhythm guitar was both a prominent and distinctive touch.

Good as the Everstates were, the label failed to live up to its name - its coverage didn't extend much beyond San Antonio, where the records sold well. "They did real good," Lister recalls. "I think if we'd had real good national distribution, especially Del and I on the duets, I think we've gone a pretty good ways with it." Lister later tried to get Dunbar to Nashville. "I always felt like out of the whole bunch of us down there around San Antonio that Del was probably the smoothest singer. We all had kind of a real honky-tonk, hickory-smoke voice, but Del was a pretty good singer." Dunbar never made it to Nashville, but he and Lister remained lifelong friends and in later years were near neighbors in the rugged hill country northwest of San Antonio until Dunbar's death. "Del and I always said we were brothers by choice and not by circumstance."

While the Everstate cemented his reputation and following in central Texas, Lister yearned for more. He continued to plug away- the noontime show and occasional show appearances with the Top Hands (a highlight of these involved Top Hands bassist Knee HI Holly, who was four-foot-eleven, standing on a chair to sing duets with Lister). Although Dunbar worked some dances with the Top Hands, Lister says "I never did work dances with them. At that time, I was more interested in playing shows - schoolhouse, theaters, what have you." He did work a few dancehalls with the reformed Texas Hillbillies. "We'd come back and play anyplace they'd let us."

Finally, in December 1959, Bill and Lila decided to pull of stakes, to see if America's Tallest Cowboy could make the big time. "The Hillbillies and I had been working together, and I told Tommy that I thought I was gonna move out. So I left KABC. I'd gave my notice I'd be leaving the first day of January, 1951. Pretty quickly, Lila and I packed our extra shirts and moved to Nashville - just king of cold turkey. I knew if I was gonna accomplish anything more than what I had here, I'd have to go to Nashville. Decca, Columbia, those people, in earlier times they had come to San Antonio and recorded, but during the period of time that I was here they were either doing it in Dallas, Fort Worth or Houston. They just seemed to bypass San Antonio. I got acquainted with Tex Ritter - I opened a number of shows for him down through south Texas. And Tex suggested that if I really wanted to do anything, I needed to either go to the West Coast or Nashville. And Nashville appealed to me quite a bit more than the West Coast did. I know a lot of things were happening on the West Coast, but I had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. The West Coast was more western, western swing - Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, that king of stuff. Tex Ritter and I talked about this. Of course, I loved them old cowboy songs, and still do, but Tex told me, 'Big Bill, if you're really gonna do anything you need to get more like that stuff that Earnest tub is doing. That's what's gonna sell. Me or you, either one, ain't gonna make a living singing cowboy songs.' Of course, Tex had changed and, along that time, he'd had some pretty good hits."

Lister followed Ritter's advice, and soon after arriving in Nashville ran into his old friend Jose Allison, who was a past associate of Ritter's, as well as a fellow Capitol Records artist. "I found out that Joe had one of the hottest records shows in Nashville, It wasn't on WSM, it was on WLAC, I believe. But everybody in middle Tennessee was listening to him. Anyhow, Joe kind of took me under his wings for old time's sake and started opening doors for me around Nashville, and I'll tell you, then as now, unless you've got an inside track somewhere, Nashville's a tough nut to crack. And Joe just opened many doors for me."

One of the doors that Allison at least cracked for Lister, even if it could not be opened entirely without the leverage of a major label contact or a hit record on a smaller one, was at the Grand Ole Opry. Allison got him backstage at the Saturday night show, where Lister's cocksure audacity endeared but almost threatened to sour WSM Artists' Bureau chief Jim Denny. It’s a classic story that Lister tells with self-effacing good humor:

"We went down on Saturday night and I met a fellow by the name of Jim Denny. I didn't know it at the time, but Jim was head of the Artist' Service Bureau at WSM and handled all of the shows that went out under the Opry name. I met him that night and didn't know who he was. He wasn't dressed like a hillbilly. He was dressed like a banker. I visited with him quite a bit, and he asked me, 'Big Bill, what're you doing down here?' And I told him, 'Well, I come to get on the Opry.' Pretty cocky, you know? He said, 'Well I wish you a lot of luck.' And I told him, 'Thank you, Jim, I'm sure I'll need it.' As the evening wore on, we visited in between the music that was going on stage - it was kind of chaotic backstage at the Opry - but we visited quite a bit. After I told him I'd come down to get on the Opry, he said, 'You know, they have auditions on Monday mornings over at WSM.' I said, 'Yeah, my friend Joe Allison set me up with an audition over there. Some joker's gonna listen to me this coming Monday.' So he said, 'Well, good luck.'

"Anyhow, Monday morning came around and I went over to WSM and they sent me back to Studio B, where my audition was supposed to happen. I got in there and kind of tuned my guitar up, getting ready, and all of a sudden my old friend Jim from Saturday night walked in. 'Jim! What in the world are you doing here?' He looked at me and just started dying laughing. He said, 'I'm the joker you're supposed to audition to!' But Jim was really kind, listened to me, had me sing a few songs, asked me if I could read a commercial. Told him, 'Not really, but I can talk 'em.' So he gave me a couple of commercials to do. Anyhow, when we got through, he kind of broke my heart. He said, 'Bill, the way the Opry works, you don't come down here and get on the Opry. When you get hot enough and well enough known, got a good record, we send for you. You don't even have a record contract, do you?' I said no. He said, 'Well, there's not much I can do for you. If you can get a record contract we might work out something.' I told him, 'Well, when I drove in here I was in a bunch of good fishing water and a bunch of good squirrel timber. I'm gonna just stay down here and fish and squirrel hunt 'til I get on this thing.' I had auditioned for two or three record companies there in Nashville and nobody wanted to sign me. They all told me, 'If you were on the Opry, we'd sign you.' And, of curse, the Opry was telling me, 'If you had a record, we'd be interested in you."

Lister cooled his heels hunting and fishing, and fortunately Tex Ritter soon came through town. Ritter found out that among those who had turned down Lister was Dee Kilpatrick. Capitol's Nashville-based country A&R man. "Dee and I later became very good friends." Lister says, "but Dee had turned me down, and Tex told me, 'Well come on. Let's go back out there.' So we went back out to the Capitol office. Texas was pretty powerful stuff with Capitol at that time, and Tex just told Dee, 'I want you to sign this boy'. And Dee whipped out a contract and signed me."

Armed with a recording contract with a major label, Lister went immediately to see Jim Denny at WSM. "I said, 'I just want to find out if you're a man of your word.' He said, 'What's that?' And I laid my contract down." Denny excused himself, picked up the phone and wheeled his chair around, back to Lister. In a few minutes, he turned around. "He asked me, 'Would you like to go on the road with Hank Williams? I said, 'My goodness, yes! Would Hank like to go on the road with ME?' And he said, "Well, I'll tell you what I want you to do. I want you to go on the road with Hank, open shows for him. And Hank does an early morning broadcast for Mother's Best Flour. I want you to play on that. And when you're in town, I'll let you do two songs on Saturday night.' And that just sent me to Cloud 9 to think that I'd be traveling with Hank Williams. I had become a Hank Williams fan long before I got to the Opry. The first songs I heard him do on the old Sterling records, I thought, 'Man on man, this old boy's really got it.' And he did have it."

Not surprisingly, as word got out that Lister had signed to the Opry, the record companies that had turned him down before suddenly came eagerly calling. "I could've picked my record company then. Of course, I had picked it pretty well. I really wanted to be on Capitol Records. Joe Allison was a pretty good singer and he'd cut some records for Capitol. And, of course, I knew Tex and admired him for a great deal. I'll say this, had it not been for Joe and Tex, I'd probably still be looking for a record contract."

Lister began working with Williams sometime in February 1951, and he hit it off with both Hank and the Drifting Cowboys immediately. "I really enjoyed working with those boys," he recalls. "The first show that I did with them was in Evansville, Indiana. We opened there on a Sunday afternoon, and , of curse, they [the Drifting Cowboys] had never heard me, you know. And just before we went on state, they asked me, 'What you gonna do?' I named off a few tunes and they said, 'Okay, we've got you covered.' And they did. If you don't have your own band, a lot of times, you end up singing backup for a band instead of a band backing you. But they really listened to what you were doing and got the feel for it. And I want to tell you, I was scared to death when walked out on that stage, representing the Grand Ole Opry and opening for Hank Williams. I was just scared to death. And those boys fell in right behind me there and made me just feel at home. They were just a great bunch of musicians.

"Hank and I became real good friends. We had an awful lot in common that a lot of people maybe didn't have with him. You know, being born the same year, and growing up listening to some of the same people. When I originally went out there, I wasn't supposed to stay on the stage when Hank came out. I was just opening the show. But before the week was over, Hank asked me if I'd mind playing second rhythm with him because he and I played almost identical rhythm. And I think the reason being, we both grew up listening to Jimmie Rodgers and Cowboy Slim. Hank and I always had a family fuss going on about Jimmie Rodgers. He wouldn't admit that Jimmy was any influence to him. And I'd tell him, 'Ah Hank, come off that.' And he'd say ,"nah, I didn't pay no attention to him.' And I said, 'Where did [the intro to 'Lovesick Blues'] come from?' That's pure Jimmie Rodgers, just Don Helms putting it up on steel. And we'd laugh and kid each other.

"He loved to hunt and fish and I did too, and that was a very tight bond between Hank and Jerry and Don and myself. We all of use lived and breathed that stuff ..we'd play the early morning show live, with our shotguns usually leaning over in the corner. Soon as we got through with the show, we were gone to squirrel timber - either that or fishing."

Lister made his first Capitol recordings on March 13, 1961 at the Castle Studios at the Tulane Hotel ("Some of the engineers over at WSM set that up. WSM was the "Air Castle of the South,' so they selected Castle for their studio name. Everybody that was recording back then recorded at Castle"). It was an unusual session, with a spare backing that seemed deliberately designed to distance Bill Lister from any association with Texas, cowboy music or a Southwestern honky-tonk sound and to reflect his affection for an East-of-the-Mississippi hillbilly sound. For lead instruments Dee Kilpatrick brought in the versatile session guitarist-fiddler Grady Martin, who played acoustic mandolin, and an unidentified union harmonica player (Jimmy Riddle was supposed to make the date, but had to go to Germany with Roy Acuff), with Ernie Newton on bass and Lister's own ringing, open-chord guitar seconded by Chet Atkins acoustic sock rhythm. "To tell you how naïve I was," Lister laughs. "Chet Atkins had just come down to the Opry with Mother Maybell and the Carter Sisters, and Chet wasn't as well know then, of course, as he became, but everybody in town knew he was a heck of a guitar player except me. If I'd had known, I would have told Dee, 'Hey let that old boy over there pick a little bit.' But he just sat there and played rhythm right behind me." (Later, Lister got to know Atkins pretty well and recalls with a laugh, "In my younger days and his younger days we kind of looked alike, and he asked me one night back stage at the Opry, 'Big Bill, when you're out on the road, does anybody every ask you if me and you are brothers? I said, 'Well year, the do, Chet.' He said, 'They ask me that all the time.' I said, 'Well do you know why? He said no and I said, 'Its because you play guitar so muck like I do!".

Although Martin played deftly and tastefully, his mandolin dominating the session's feel, the quiet, almost gentle backing may have been an interesting experiment, but it didn't necessarily fit Lister's voice, nor the material, particularly the cover of Texas honky-tonker Rocky Bill Ford's Beer Drinkin' Blues that was coupled with Vic McAlpin's RC Cola and moon Pie for his first Capitol release. Capitol had suggested Ford's song - "I guess they figured my voice sounded beer-y enough to do it."

The other sides from the first session, Help Wanted and Lovin' Country Style were held until after the Hank Williams-penned Countryfied and The Little House we Built from the second session were issued. Although Beer Drinkin' Blues became a modest hit (though not enough to make the then-short 'Billboard' country charts), Dee Kilpatrick quickly decided to rethink his approach, especially since Lister was now appearing with the Drifting Cowboys. "Dee told me, 'We better do something right quick and get some of them Cowboys to back you up so out on the road you'll sound like your records.' And so we right quick set up another session, and Don Helms and Jerry Rivers, Howard Watts and Sammy Pruett, which were the Drifting Cowboys behind Hank, recorded with me. They changed their sound a little, so it doesn't really sound like the Drifting Cowboys band."

The second session was held on April 24, just over a month after the first, and indeed the casual listener would probably not guess it was the Drifting Cowboys behind Lister, though Sammy Pruett plunked away on the electric 'sting' rhythm that had become a Williams' trademark. Williams' imprint was on the session in other ways, however Lister recorded The Little House WE built (Just Over the Hill), which Williams had co-written with Don Helms, as well as his Countryfied, which seemed tailor-made for Lister (it was similar in theme to Local Yokel). Lister says both songs were written on the road. "He and Don Helms together wrote 'Little House We Built (Just Over the Hill),' and they were bouncing lines back and forth while we were driving and I told them, 'Hey if you guys shape that thing up, I'll record it. 'Okay'." So they did and I did. Then 'Countryfied' - Hank wrote that while we were riding along and was kind enough to let me have it." Also cut were the Ernest Tubb-like There's Another in Your Heart and Lister's own catchy novelty What The Heck Is Goin' On? It was a strong session, and the simple, but effective backing was far more apt and sympathetic than that of the first date.

Down in Texas, an old San Antonio friend, Biff Collie, now a popular deejay in Houston, both plugged his buddy's records and captured the secret to some of Lister's appeal in the weekly column for the local North Side Highlights of June 8, 1951: "Bill was the first h.b. singer I ever worked with in the business. Every time you buy a Bill Lister record of punch a Bill Lister tune you on the juke box, just remember he appreciates it. He's one of the finest guys I've ever known an equally deserving. Bill is a little fellow about 6' 7 1/2" tall and weighs a sagging 175. We used to call him "Radio's Tallest Singin' Cowboy', and I guess he must be."

In the meantime, Lister settled into a routine of tours, Opry appearances, Mother's Best Flour radio shows and, when he, Williams and the Drifting Cowboys were to e out of town, transcribing those shows, with as much hunting and fishing as possible on the side. In August 1951, they embarked on what was planned as an almost two month long tour with notorious Louisiana Senator Dudley LeBlanc's star-studded Hadacol Caravan. LeBlanc, whose Happy Day Company had begun selling the substantially alcoholic, supposedly restorative Hadacol in 1945, had been associated with Williams before, when he sponsored the 'Health and Happiness' shows at WSM in 1949. As Colin Escott points out in his book 'Hank Williams, "the politically ambitious LeBlanc was spending far more money that he was making on an enormous advertising budget. He had first mounted a Hadacol Caravan in 1950 and the 1951 show was, according to Escott, "the largest show of its kind ever staged; it was the last great medicine show." Williams and company, along with Minnie Pearl were anchors for the show. Although Pearls husband Henry Cannon would fly Hank and Minnie back to Nashville for Saturday night Opry performances, Lister and the Drifting Cowboys would stay behind and play the dates, which would at times also feature big name Hollywood personalities like Bob Hope, Milton Berle and others. LeBlanc hired a fleet of Pullman cars to train the troupe around the country - through 18 states - in style.

"The only way you could get into that show was with a Hadacol boxtop," Lister says. "And believe me, we played to crowds of ten, twelve thousand people a night. Back in those days there wasn't many auditoriums that would hold that many people. We played ball parks, race tracks - you know anywhere where they had enough big bleachers to handle those kind of crowds: It was a tour which, thought it ended unceremoniously two weeks ahead of schedule when LeBlanc sold the company and dismantled the show (it closed on Hank's 28th birthday, September 17, 1951), revealed the enormity of Williams' grown impact and star power.

"The reception surprised even Hank," Escott writes, "Every night he had stadiums full of people eating out of his hand, and the legit entertainers were forced to work as his supporting acts." One of those 'legit' entertainers was Milton Berle and his egomaniacal attempts at scene stealing drove the rest of the troupe to near violent distraction. As Lister told Colin Escott, "I told Hank, if that joker comes out doing that when we're out there, he's really gonna mess things up. If he wants a good laugh, I'm gonna get this old guitar and crown him with it." Hand said, 'If you do, I'll buy you any guitar that you want," but the word circulated around and Milton's manager got him plumb offstage somewhere."

Amid bounced check-lows and high-profile, show-stealing highs, however, Lister, who roomed with Williams on the tour, remembers the Hadacol tour as the time when Williams' life really began to unravel. "Hank really started losing hold of the things. He was having lots of problems at home, and, of course, rooming together, he'd bend my ear on that quite a bit. He told me stuff that I'll never ..I'll take 'em to the same place Hank took 'em. But I didn't try to advise him. That isn't what he asked me to do. He asked me to listen, and as a friend I listened, and it broke my heart that I couldn't reach out and touch him, help in some way. I was listening to Hank - the whole world was listening to Hank, except his wife Audrey. And I've often thought down through the years that it could have been a complete different ending to the Hank Williams story. But that wasn't to be."

Back in Nashville, in late October, Lister recorded again for Capitol. Dee Kilpatrick had departed the label to take over Mercury's country division, and Los Angeles-based Ken Nelson, previously head of Capitol's transcription department, took over the label's hillbilly A&R. His field trip to Nashville (he would then wind through Louisiana and Texas) was the first of many trips Nelson would take East, but Capitol's lack of any permanent presence in Nashville would have an impact on its artists there - a negative impact, Lister feels, at least in his case. "After Dee Kilpatrick left Capitol, Capitol just kind of left me dangling. They didn't really do anything. I wasn't a West Coast artist. Of course, you never know, but Dee, at the time he left Capitol and went to Mercury, asked me to move over to Mercury with him. Just due to my feeling like I'd really let Tex and Joe Allison down, I wouldn't go. I told Dee,  I've got a record contract with Capitol.' He said,  I've got a lawyer who can tear that up'."

But Lister demurred and under Nelson's aegis cut eight songs over two days, October 2-26, at Castle, with the Drifting Cowboys augmented this time by the piano of Owen Bradley, himself already one of the most important men on the local recording scene as the right hand man of Decca's Paul Cohen. The material and the performances were uniformly strong and engaging. The first day yielded the pretty heartbreaker A Nickel For A Dozen Roses, the engaging novelty All I want To Hear you Say is You Love Me, as well as Double Crossin' Lies and Shop of Love, but it was the session held the following day that would prove of lasting significance.

Lister told Escott, "We didn't get no radio play on beer drinking songs, but they was killers on the jukebox, so every session I had to do at least one beer drinking song." To date Lister, had only cut one beer drinking song, Beer Drinkin' Blues, but it had done well and Nelson wanted something like it. Lister didn't have anything, however, he recalls that Williams was recording the night before his October 26th session and that he asked for Hank's help at that time, though there's no evidence of a Williams MGM session around that time. Escott speculates that Williams may have been transcribing some radio shows, but it seems just as likely that he had simply dropped by Lister's October 25th session. Whatever the case, Lister recounted to Escott, "I told Hank I needed a beer drinkin' song and he said, 'Don't worry about it, Big un, I got you covered. I got one that's hotter'n a pistol". The next morning Williams dropped by Lister's house with an acetate of  There's A Tear In My Beer.

Not one of Williams' most enduring classics, There's A Tear In My Beer is actually fairly similar to Rocky Bill Ford's Beer Drinkin' Blues, except that Williams threw in a little heartbreak where Ford's biggest worry, other than whether he could stand long enough to drink his fill, was that his "honey …don't want me to drink beer") though she wasn't bothered enough to leave him, stroking his drunken head instead..). There's a Tear in My Beer's significance, beyond the rediscovery of Williams' demo and the subsequent hit duet with Hank Jr., is that it is one of the few songs in which Williams dealt with drinking. Because of his well-publicized problems with alcohol, it certainly wasn't a song he was going to get to record himself - "MGM or WSM didn't want him doing no drinkin' songs." Lister says - he was more than happy to slide it Lister's way.

Lister learned the song, and came up with another beer drinking song himself to boot: One More Beer (Then I'm Goin' Home). The songs were cut with steel man Don Helms laying out and were dominated by Owen Bradley's rollicking near-approximation of Southwestern honky-tonk piano ("We called Owen 'Half-Moon'" laughs Lister, "cause he was half as good as Moon Mullican'), with Sammy Pruett abandoning the electric 'sting' rhythm on both sessions for more straightforward acoustic sock-rhythm. Also cut were the novelty Give it Back To The Indians and Every Tear I Cry. In all, it was a strong, and particularly jukebox friendly double-session, although it yielded no hits. Capitol's subsequent indifference - whether its stemmed from his not being a West Coaster of form the label's realization that Lister's deep and engaging, but raw and uncompromising, voice would probably never yield the sales that major label status demanded in an increasingly competitive and specialized market - would mean that only two of the eight sides that he would record subsequently would be released.

In 1952, things in the Hank Williams camp really began to unravel. He and Audrey split, he disbanded the Drifting Cowboys, had back surgery that kept him out of action for awhile, and slipped deeper into a alcohol and drug induced decline that culminated in his death at New Year, 1953. Lister says he hung on in Nashville until about July '52 before heading back to Texas (Ironically, old buddy Tommy Hill took Lister's place as Williams' opening act in those last months), but he seems to have gone home somewhat earlier. He recorded a session in San Antonio in April 1952 at KCOR, a station that catered to the city's Mexican-American population and where Cajun swing fiddler Harry Choates had cut his final session shortly before his death the previous summer in San Antonio. He was backed by the highly-regarded guitarist Spud Goodall, a former Texas Ritter sideman who takes some straightforward but typically incisive and deft sols, steel guitarist Wayne Tanner, and a as yet unidentified fiddler and bassist. Of the four sides cut, fellow Texan Jimmy Heap's Haunted, Hungry Heart, a minor hit that was also covered by Slim Whitman, and Lister's Another night To Wonder were left unissued, while In The Shadow Of the pine was coupled with another Rocky Bill Ford honky-tonker Blowin' The Suds Off My Beer for what would prove Lister's penultimate Capitol release; it would be followed by Double Crossin' Lies b/w Every Tear I Cry from the October '61 sessions and none of the sides Lister would cut at a final session the following April would be issued.

"When I left Nashville after things had fallen apart with Hank, I had a long talk with Jim Denny, because none of my activity at that time would have occurred without Jim Denny." Lister remembers. "He said, 'Well, kind of let things cool down and if you feel like it come back. 'And I did, and Jim set me up with a bunch of different show dates with different artists." Lister was on the road with Little Jimmy Dickens in Jackson, Mississippi when old KABC buddy John Harper called from Dallas to try to persuade him to come work on the Big D Jamboree, then one of the most important and popular Saturday night country music showcases in the country. Harper had recently become one of the show's hosts. "He wanted me to come down and talk to Ed McLemore, that actually owned and ramrodded the Big D Jamboree. And they made me such an offer financially that I couldn't afford to say no. You know, the Opry itself don't pay no money. It never did and never will. You make your money on the road. And by then I was getting pretty tires of that road. Ed McLemore made me a deal and I left again. Before I left, I talked to Jim Denny again and he said 'Well, try it. If you don't like it, come on back home. 'Well, I tried and stayed at the Big D Jamboree a good long time."

Surviving Big D Jamboree programs show that Lister was a regular by March 1953 and possibly earlier. He lived in San Antonio and commuted to Dallas for what became a very full weekend of work. It included rehearsals and an afternoon TV show on Saturday, the main Saturday night state and radio show - Lister was one of the show's segment hosts, along with Harper, Johnny Hicks and Big Al Turner, in addition to singing several of his own songs each week - a Sunday afternoon new talent show which Lister hosted, and a Sunday night gig at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club. "As soon as I got through with that gig that night, I'd drive back to San Antonio, then spend the rest of the week squirrel hunting, fishing and messing around. Then the next weekend the same thing all over again. It was pretty hectic, long weekend." Lister wold occasionally play a show locally during the week, but not often.

Shortly after the Dallas deal began, Lister cut his last session for Capitol. Although Dallas was a hotbed of country recording activity, much of it centered around the famed Jim Beck Studio, Lister took off from Big D appearances in the last weekend of March and the first of April and, apparently, recorded this final date in Nashville. There's some confusion because Lister doesn't recall returning to Nashville to record after heading back to Texas (and in his memory, the order of this session and the April '52 KCOR session should be flip-flopped, though evidence in Capitol's files and other sources indicate otherwise). He used several Drifting Cowboys at this date he says. Jerry Rivers, Don Helms and Sammy Pruett, augmented with guitarist Jack Shook and bassist Ernie Newton. Cut were Lister's Happy Lonesome, All Dressed Up, Hog Calling Song, and The Human Thing To Do, which he had co-written with Del Dunbar. Happy Lonesome was about as close Lister got to Hank Williams' style and he had had hopes before Hank's death that he would record it. None of the songs were released, and with two sides from the session in San Antonio still in the can, as well, it's debatable whether Nelson or Capitol had must interest in Lister by this time.

In any case, Lister settled into the grind at the Jamboree. As much as his taste for the road and the music business was beginning to diminish there were still fun times amid the grind. When one of Ed McLemore's wrestlers, Big Bill Brookshire started dabbling with singing on the Jamboree, Lister assured Big D audiences (quoted by Johnny Hicks) in the program for May 30, 1953 that he didn't share "Brookshire's versatility …and…would sure hate to have to put on a pair of tights and get into a wrestling ring against some chunky powerhouse." The same program also remarked on the popularity of Lister's Sunday afternoon TV show on KRLD, which features new talent discovered on the Jamboree the previous night.

Lister appears to have stayed with the Jamboree through 1953-54, but finally gave it up. "I was just kind of burned out with the music business. I never did get back to Nashville", he says, adding that the road was still getting to him - though he wasn't traveling nearly as much as before, it was still too much. Also, he admits, "I didn't like Dallas- I should've moved to Fort Worth."

"After my Capitol contract ran out, I didn't even bother to look around, you know? I probably could have called Dee Kilpatrick and got something, but I didn't. I decided I was going to get out of the business for a while, And I did …Elvis was coming on mighty strong and hillbillies wasn't doing too good anywhere, so I just kind of drifted out of the business." Colin Escott writes in 'Hank Williams' that Lister had '"correctly conclude[ed] that no one cared about six-foot-seven-inch singing cowboys anymore."

Correct or not about his decision to hang it up, Lister took up jewelry making, then gun engraving, a profession that had fascinated him since childhood. He did well, but we always kept a foot in, kept the old door cracked. "I never did completely quit playing misc. I was always gigging around with somebody, you know… I just wasn't fighting it full time, all the time, no more." He did not record again until the 1980s, when Salt Lick, a Fort Worth bluegrass-based acoustic string group, found out he was still around and asked him to record. The resulting sessions were engaging and surprisingly good (an album was issued but fully as much material remains in the can). The results, with harmonica and mandolin among the instruments, were vaguely reminiscent of the first Capitol session. "I enjoyed it. They were basically bluegrass people and I'm not really bluegrass, but we did just a real neat acoustic country thing."

Lila's accidental rediscover of the Hank Williams demo of There's A Tear In My Beer and the subsequ3ent attention Lister received for it - Han, Jr. not only gave him a portion of the resulting duet record, but later brought him to Nashville and presented him with a gold record - could have signaled a period of new activity for Lister but didn't. Lister was pleased with the recording, "I was real pleased with the way Hank [Jr.] added the sound that he added to it. I think it was very much like Hank wold have done it himself, had he done it a the time." (Lister had been re-introduced to Hank, Jr. years before at a San Antonio appearance by Minnie Pearl, who told Jr., "Everywhere you go you talk to somebody who says they made music with our daddy. I want you to know this one is real." And the two had become friends.)

In the 1990s as Colin Escott's acclaimed Hank Williams biography, which drew nicely from interviews with Lister, appeared and interest in older styles grew in isolated pockets, against the backdrop of Nashville enjoying an unprecedented world wide surge in popularity, despite the flash, saccharine quality of most of the music coming out of it, Lister was drawn back. He cut his call to a return to roots. Take Me Back, for a various artists CD on the Heat Of Texas County label, and then, as interest in Williams grew as his 75th birthday approached, cut a live tribute album to Williams (the release on which, on Neon Nightmare Records, should roughly coincide with this reissue). His voice is even deeper, and even rawer now, but it's unmistakable and as strong as ever.

"The old dinosaur has started a second career,", Lister jokes. "Who knows what's going to happen next? There's a lot of little brush country Opries, or cowboy jubilees, what have you, going on around the country and I play once, maybe twice a month at some of those. I feel like now, maybe, I've been given a second chance to really promote traditional country music. I think of country music as a tree, and it has many branches, but the leaves and the fruit of the tree, if the roots don't get no attention, that tree is gonna die. I feel like maybe in the past sixty years maybe I've become part of the root system and now, maybe, it does give me the best opportunity I've ever had to speak up for traditional country music.

"I'm not gonna knock shingles off of nobody's roof, because I know they're all out there to make a few bucks, but sometimes I think the tree needs pruning and to get back more to what traditional country music is and was and can be again …I've always been proud that I was part of country music back before it took so much to dazzle people."

KEVIN COFFEY
August 1999

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Bill & Lila Lister, Colin Escott, Al Turner,
Andrew Brown, Phillip Tricker, Dave Sax, Bob Pinson,
Ronnie Pugh, Dave Booth (Showtime Archives),
John Case (Floy Case Archive),
Walter & Lucille Kleypas, Rusty Locke,
Ray Szcepanik

Copyright of BigBillLister.com 2000-2008
All Hank material used, is with permission of the 
Hank Williams Estate and Family.

 

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