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Billy Beeman Keeps the Campfires Burning for 70 Years
By Rex Poindexter
(more articles from this author)
2003-03-14
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It’s been a long and sometimes dusty road for 76-year old cowboy singer and poet Billy Beeman from the Texas panhandle to his home today in Reseda, CA. "Nothing ever works out the way you plan it. I’ve gone from rags to riches, to rags, and back to riches again."

At age 6, Woody Guthrie’s uncle showed Billy his first few guitar chords and soon he'd made his stage debut in his dusty coveralls singing with Woody himself all 21 verses of Woody's "May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister."

As his two younger brothers Bob and Don, and eventually sister Shirley got interested, their parents dressed them in matching cowboy outfits and Billy helped his siblings learn a few licks. The act quickly grew from playing for street tips, to serenading in restaurants, to 15-minute daily radio performances in Amarillo after school. Soon, swing-legend-to-be Bob Wills, who was then still "merely a barber," was showing Billy his bowing technique, and the mentoring was a gift Billy would learn to pass on again and again.

Through the years, Billy would meet and work alongside legends Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Spade Cooley and many others. The Beeman family act, through a church connection to Walter Knott's mother, became the very first street entertainers hired to play the new Knott's Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, "back when the thrill rides were the burros, the stagecoach and the narrow-gauge railroad!".

Aside from a break for service duty and a Dallas radio gig, Billy fiddled with various musicians on the streets at Knott's and their venue The Wagon Camp from 1939 to 1968, joining The Wagon Masters in 1954, logging over 9000 shows there. More recently, it's been The Lobo Rangers that Billy is involved with, always featuring the good old-time campfire and swing tunes of his youth.

Along the trail, Billy's adventures have resulted in two marriages, four children and five grandchildren. His zest for gourmet cooking has been shared by son John, now also a part-time musician, father, and a managing partner at the Il Fornaio Restaurant in old-town Pasadena. A keen interest in photography had Billy documenting rare performances and events that has resulted in three handsome self-published volumes of photos and reminisces. He even taught elementary school for 16 years at Garden Grove Unified, and five years at Pepperdine's Graduate School of Music.

Billy's grandmother was half-Cherokee Indian, "But that wasn't something it was safe to be proud of" when he was in school. His heritage, though, was honored by his frequent trips to various reservations, meeting artists and collecting art, that eventually resulted in his ownership of five Indian and Southwestern art galleries, from Laguna Beach to Palm Springs.

When his wife Rachel was diagnosed with a brain tumor and spent three years in a coma before passing in 1977, the medical expenses bankrupted Billy, closing the galleries, and leaving him with just scraps of the past. He's proud to have been able to squirrel away some rare indigenous art and artifacts, which he now selectively passes on.

While mentoring some of today's young musicians, he is finding homes for many of his rare treasures. Those include a 1666 (pre-Stradivarius) Jacobus Steiner fiddle which he still sometimes plays. "I had 25 fiddles, I'm down to 6. I've given away 19. Some of those fiddles are now touring the world again without me, but I get an occasional postcard from one of the players, saying ‘Your old fiddle just played it's way through every pub in Ireland!,'" he chuckles.

Recording first on shellac in the 1930s, many of the Beeman recordings were "reclaimed" or ground-up to make more records, as was common practice in those times of scarcity. With the assistance of Cal Tech instructor Drew Daniels, a former New Christy Minstrels member, and according to Billy, "a genius of sound," many of the surviving recordings have been acoustically rescued from their disintegrating shellac and vinyl beginnings, and are available now on compact disc at www.thewagonmasters.com . "The first time I heard them again, my eyes filled up with tears, I hadn't heard them sounding that good since the day we recorded them long ago, on the studio monitors."

Having played publicly for seventy years and counting, these days Billy accepts few new engagements. "I don't like to play at a party where they can talk louder than I can play. I'll leave it in the case or give it away before I'll do that!"

Unofficially, Billy is hoping to "sit in" casually with The Texas Playboys onstage for a while at the Santa Clarita Cowboy & Poetry Festival March 29-30 (www.santa-clarita.com/cp/).

Meanwhile, for those hoping to tune in to Billy's music should look no further than his latest CD, recorded with The Lobo Rangers, Ten Bits of Texas, which intersperses his warm buttery baritone voice reciting 13 examples of his rarely-recorded cowboy poetry along with 13 tracks of fiddling and singing good old-time songs about the family, Texas, and the wide open range. The Lobo Rangers (Dave & Patty Bourne, Michael Fleming, Don Richardson and Bobby Beeman) create such sweet close-knit harmonies in this live-in-studio recording that you'll swear it was 1935. Unfortunately, record stores no longer have a "cowboy" section, so you'll just have to mosey over to Billy's website to round it up.

His passion for the old songs finds fulfillment now with three hot young groups who still carry on the authentic sounds: Hot Club of Cowtown, Reckless Kelly, and Mickey and the Motor Cars. He remains active today mentoring this next generation and roaming the newest open range: the worldwide Internet, sharing with friends old and new the timeless joys and authentic sounds of the Old West.


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