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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 02:20 pm

The swinging cowboy

Ramsey resurrects a favorite son: Western swing star Tex Williams

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"Hughie Craig?" asks a patron of the Ramsey Cafe. "Nah, I haven't seen him."

Dressed like every other semi-retired farmer in central Illinois--snap-front workshirt, white undershirt, and a seed corn cap--the patron tries to be helpful in a polite but curious manner.

"Have you tried down at the museum?" he inquires. "You know he runs that place."

I do know, of course--that's why I'm here. Ramsey is the kind of place you'd normally speed through on Illinois Route 51 without giving the town or its residents much thought. That could change for fans of country music and, more specifically, western swing. Ramsey--19 miles south of Pana--was home to one of western swing's most recognizable voices, Tex Williams.

The vocalist for the Spade Cooley Orchestra and his own Western Caravan, and the star of 53 B-movie westerns, Williams was born in Fayette County in 1917. Hugh Craig wants the whole world to remember his second cousin Tex, and the Tex Williams Country Music Theater and Museum is his way of making that happen.

If it weren't for the occasional "fifty-cent" word that he slides into conversations, Craig would be difficult to distinguish from any other resident of south central Illinois. But the 70-year-old retired attorney from Greenville has the energy and drive of a much younger man. These days his energy is directed toward his dance hall and museum in Ramsey.

"Eventually I hope to build a larger building along the abandoned railroad tracks to house both the museum and a dance hall," he says. "I hope to be able to attract entertainers to play here."

For the time being, the museum is more dream than reality. A small structure located on the east side of Route 51 houses just a bit of Craig's more substantial collection of Williams memorabilia. The building also hosts a country barn dance every Friday night.

"I'm looking for musicians that can play authentic western swing," explains the piano-playing Craig. "I have a guitar player, and I'm looking for a doghouse bass player."

Finding musicians who can play western swing in the 21st century can be difficult. Finding musicians under 60 years old who have even heard of Tex Williams is even harder.

In 1947, however, Sollie Paul "Tex" Williams was one of the nation's best-known country and western performers. His song "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" topped both the country and pop charts and was Capitol Records first million-selling record. The tune--penned by Williams and Merle Travis ("Sixteen Tons")--eventually sold more than two million records and made both Williams and Travis a tidy sum of money. A "talkin' blues" number that chronicles the annoyances of dealing with "nicotine slaves" at a "pettin' party or a poker game," "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!" persuaded Williams and his record label to attempt to recapture the magic with a string of novelty records. From 1947 to '57, Tex Williams and His Western Caravan recorded songs like "Don't Telephone, Don't Telegraph, Tell a Woman," a good-natured poke at women and gossip, and "Suspicion," about a man attempting to confirm his wife's infidelities. As popular as the talking blues numbers were, they obscured Williams' greatest strength--his rich warm baritone.

Born in Anvil, Illinois, a small village that no longer exists, Sollie Paul was the youngest of Thomas and Tillie Williams' 14 children. Thomas was a blacksmith by trade and an old-time fiddler for hire. In 1930 Tex made his radio debut under the name Jack Williams on WDJL in Decatur. He performed around Fayette County with his brother Earl and a band called the Rhythm Scamps. On at least one occasion, the band appeared on "The National Barn Dance" on WLS in Chicago. Debuting on the air in 1924, the "Barn Dance" became an immediate success, and after just one year its star announcer, George Hay, left for Nashville's WSM to create the "Grand Ole Opry." By 1931 the 50,000-watt clear-channel WLS was beaming five-and-a-half hours of country music all over the Midwest and southern Canada every Saturday night. Its stars included Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, Red Foley and the Hoosier Hot Shots. In 1934 Autry left for California and the movie business, and just three years later he was named the number-one draw by theater exhibitors. The success of Autry must have made an impression on the teenage Williams.

With few opportunities for a young man in Depression-era Illinois, Williams left for Washington state in 1938, joining his brother Mennifee picking fruit and performing with pick-up bands. In the late 1930s small country combos would travel the nation playing on local radio in the morning, often for free, in order to promote a live appearance that evening. Most of these bands barely earned enough to survive. Williams made his first professional outing in 1939 with a small combo called the Reno Racketeers. In 1940 he joined Cal Shrum's Colorado Hillbillies, who got a taste of the limelight when they appeared in a Tex Ritter film. During his days with Shrum's outfit, Tex met fiddler Spade Cooley. When Cooley was recruited to form an orchestra in 1942 by west coast music promoter Bert Foreman Phillips, Cooley hired Tex to sing and play bass. Phillips had opened a ballroom on Venice Pier in Los Angeles, catering to the transplanted southerners and Midwesterners who had flocked to California to work in the defense industry. By 1943, Phillips had five barn dances throughout the Los Angeles area playing music from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. seven days a week. The music of choice at these dances was western swing.

Cooley and his lead vocalist Williams were in the right place at the right time. Musicians who could combine country, pop, swing, and jazz were in demand. The Cooley Orchestra performed at Phillips' Venice Pier Ballroom to nearly 4,000 revelers every Saturday night. Workers coming on and off the swing shifts at munitions plants were hungry for music and companionship. The quick tempered and cocky Cooley ultimately ran into difficulties with Phillips and was replaced by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who had left Oklahoma for the bright lights and easy money in Hollywood. Cooley challenged Wills to one last weekend competition at the Venice Pier Ballroom, and the audience voted Cooley the victor of this "battle of the bands." Cooley then named himself the "King of Western Swing," and the phrase stuck. The combination of country music with big band swing would dominate the country-music business in the 1940s. Fiddler Leon McCauliffe described the style succinctly: "It was dance music played by a fiddle band."

Following the success of Bob Wills, Columbia's Okeh label brought the Spade Cooley Orchestra into the studio to record in 1945. The orchestra's first record, "Shame On You," featured the smooth baritone of Tex Williams. It became a smash hit, staying on the country charts for 31 weeks, and it was voted the number-one country song of 1945. More pop than country in his vocal stylings, Williams attracted his share of the attention, a fact that probably led to a falling out with the difficult Cooley. Williams told country music researcher Ken Griffis in 1979 that he had to work on his bass singing voice: he naturally had a normal vocal range, but with practice he developed the baritone that appears on recordings.

When Cliffie Stone at Capitol Records offered Williams his own contract, Cooley refused to allow it. Cooley also refused to share billing with Williams, so Williams left in 1946 to form his own band, the Western Caravan, with most of the musicians from the Cooley orchestra. The players preferred the easygoing and affable Williams to the hot-tempered and paranoid Cooley. Tex Williams and His Western Caravan were signed to the fledgling Capitol label and continued in the same vein of danceable western swing that had been popular for Cooley, though their sales, while respectable, failed to reach the top of the charts. Just like today, respectable sales won't keep an artist on a major label for very long. Then in March of 1947 Williams discovered Merle Travis and the song that would immortalize him in country music history.

With the success of "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," Tex Williams and His Western Caravan had made it big. The Caravan spent the next five years as the house band at the famed Riverside Rancho. While they were away on tour only the biggest names in country music could take their place: Bob Wills, Hank Penny, Pee Wee King, Hank Williams, and Webb Pierce. Williams wanted to dress his band in a fashion that befitted a top country act. In 1947 he became enamored with the western designs of a struggling Ukrainian-born tailor by the name of Nudie Cohen. Williams sold a saddle to purchase Cohen a new sewing machine, ordered ten suits, and spread the word. By the 1950s a "Nudie suit" had become synonymous with making it big in country music. Cohen even made Elvis' famous gold lame suit, which was commissioned by Colonel Tom Parker in 1957.

After his hit record, Tex Williams went on to star in a series of short Western movies for Universal in the late 1940s and early '50s. The low-budget musicals--sometimes called "oaters"--were used to draw country and western music fans to theaters in the south and west. Williams kept his gig at the Riverside Rancho and later he would appear on television. The singer of "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!" passed away from lung cancer at his California home in 1985.

Hughie Craig hopes that two Nudie suits will be on display at his Tex Williams Country Music Theater and Museum. Currently in the possession of Tex's daughter, Sandra Douglas, the suits and a 1969 Lincoln Continental may soon make the trip to Ramsey. Craig says Sandra has a lot of memorabilia in boxes that have been sealed since the death of her mother, Dallas, in 1999. Craig also hopes to add to his own Tex Williams collection, which already includes movies, 78 records, a guitar, a cowboy hat, and a 1947 fire engine on loan from the City of Ramsey. It was Ramsey's very first fire engine, paid for from the proceeds of a Tex Williams benefit concert.

Craig remembers that concert with great fondness and admiration. He was 15 at the time. "Tex would come back and visit his family in Ramsey about every year," he says. "In 1947 he took me and my father along to Nashville when he performed on the Grand Ole Opry. I was backstage and I got to meet Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb."

The sparkle in Craig's eye as he relives the moment tells you all you need to know about the man behind the Tex Williams Museum. When your cousin has the nation's number-one single and is performing on the Grand Ole Opry, you can't help but swell up with pride. And for Hughie Craig that pride hasn't diminished one bit over the last 55 years.

Those interested in learning more about the Tex Williams Museum or the Friday Night Country Barn Dance can contact Hugh Craig at 618-664-0224.

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