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Panel discussion during Bob Wills Fiddle Festival & Contest honors final recording

Forty years ago the world watched president Richard Nixon resign after the Watergate scandal, cheered Hank Aaron as he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, and applauded the 47th annual Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Godfather Part II.

In the middle of 1974 United Artists Records released For the Last Time, the final recording by the King of Western Swing Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The quiet landmark endures four decades later. For the Last Time has in fact become the benchmark, the blueprint for the modern day Western swing sound.

The record not only serves as an introduction to a new generation of old-time country fans, but it’s also a respected beacon for established admirers and artists infinitely inspired by Wills’ legacy.

“This is the album to give to the new person to introduce Bob Wills and Western swing,” says Brett Bingham, a Bob Wills Heritage Foundation board member and a lifelong fan. “It still sounds modern and it’s easy to see how musicians like Merle Haggard, George Strait, Ray Benson, et al were influenced.”

For the Last Time commands center stage during the inaugural Bob Wills Fiddle Festival & Contest in Greenville, Texas. A panel discussion titled “The Making of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys ‘For the Last Time’ Album” takes place Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, from 12:45 to 1:25 p.m. at the Courtyard Stage between the Texan Theater and Courtyard Pub in downtown Greenville. The free event features panelists Dr. Charles R. Townsend, Wills’ biographer; former Texas Playboys vocalist Leon Rausch; and Western swing fiddler and bandleader Jody Nix.

Nix, also a noted vocalist and drummer, has first hand knowledge of For the Last Time. He was a young, sprightly 21-year-old musician when Wills handpicked him to be a part of the For the Last Time sessions. For Nix the journey began Dec. 2, 1973 at Bob Wills’ Fort Worth home.

“We went to Bob Wills’ home for a jam session, a meal, a get together, a rehearsal, a homecoming of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in preparation of an album which was to make musical history, and I was part of it,” Nix said.

Wills was already ailing, having suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. But he was still alert, jovial and ready to record what would become a monumental album. He personally chose the songs, including staples such as “Faded Love,” “San Antonio Rose” and “Milk Cow Blues,” and invited an impressive room full of musicians – former Texas Playboys and many more.

The recording took place Dec. 3 and 4, 1973 at Sumet-Burnet Studios in Dallas, Texas. The album’s personnel reads like a Western swing dream come true: bandleader Bob Wills; Johnny Gimble on fiddle, mandolin and harmony vocals; Keith Coleman on fiddle and harmony vocals; Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and vocals; Eldon Shamblin on guitar; Leon Rausch on bass and vocals; Al Stricklin on piano; Smokey Dacus on drums; Hoyle Nix on fiddle and vocals; Jody Nix on drums and vocals; Merle Haggard on fiddle and vocals; and Tommy Allsup on bass as well as the project’s record producer.

Day one of the recording session was nothing short of miraculous. Wills was in high spirits, calling on his musicians when it came time for their solos and chiming in with his trademark “Aaah Haaa!” Even though he was in his wheelchair, brought into the studio by loving wife Betty, Wills was enthusiastic and much attuned to his surroundings.

“He was smiling and excited to be there,” Nix said. “All the Playboys were greeting him and saying hello. My daddy Hoyle was elated, because Bob Wills was his hero. They rolled him into the middle of the studio and the band was just around him. The atmosphere was just overwhelming; the charisma of Bob Wills was evident.”

But by late afternoon, after several songs had been recorded, Wills grew tired. He wanted to go home. As Betty rolled him out of the studio Ray Benson and his newly formed Asleep at the Wheel band walked in. They briefly met Wills. It would become a historic changing of the guard. The King of Western Swing was essentially passing on the baton to the still active purveyors of the sound. His legacy found its curator.

That night Wills suffered another massive stroke that rendered him comatose.

“They had a homecoming one day and a recording session the next, and he [Bob] loved every bit of it,” wrote Dr. Charles R. Townsend in his book, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. “He went home, played with his granddaughters, listened to his music, kissed Betty good night, and peacefully, perhaps serenely, slipped into unconsciousness.”

News of Wills’ illness altered the mood of that second and final day of recording, which featured the just-arrived Merle Haggard. Without the fearless leader at the helm, the revered King of Western Swing, the making of For the Last Time took on new meaning. Now, more than ever, it was about respect and honor.

“The atmosphere changed in the studio,” says Nix. “All the Playboys were quiet, but there was a job to do.”

Haggard sang three songs, “Playboy Theme,” “Yearning Just for You” and “I Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do.” He played fiddle. He hung around for most of the day. He soaked up the spirit of the great Bob Wills.

Wills’ days of performing were done. He spent the last 16 months of his life in a nursing home. He never regained consciousness and passed away May 13, 1975.

But For the Last Time made its mark. In some ways it’s become a most unique tribute album, a truly heartfelt homage with the honoree present in the studio.

For the Last Time sadly reflects my father’s final years, yet at the same time it stands as a fulfillment of his final wish,” says Carolyn Wills. “Today I’m in awe of the whole experience, in love with the story and so very thankful to everyone involved for such an enduring and extraordinary tribute.”

Forty years later a musical monument stands as a testament to the fortitude of a man and his music. It’s still here to be forever shared.

By Mario Tarradell