Bob Wills and Tulsa will be forever linked. It's been that way since the early 1930s, when Wills and the Texas Playboys settled in T-Town. Cain's Ballroom became Wills' epicenter and performances were broadcast through the region via the behemoth 25,000-watt radio towers of KVOO.
Wills has been voted into both the country and rock music hall of fames while selling millions of records, but Drew Wilson felt that Wills' legacy was unappreciated. Wilson didn't sit around and do nothing, he got a camera and made a documentary. Bob Wills Ain't Dead is Wilson's loving tribute to the musician and cultural icon that he's been listening to his entire life.
"Wills' music was in my house a lot growing up. My dad's bragging rights was that he had an uncle who played with Bob," Wilson said.
Wilson began making Bob Wills Ain't Dead completely by accident. In 2007, while doing interviews with another subject for a separate project, one name kept cropping up in the conversations: Bob Wills. Wilson was given a sheet of phone numbers that included people like Merle Haggard and Johnny Gimble. When Wilson called them, they were eager to talk about the man they idolized. Let the filming begin.
Wilson traveled to 12 states, thousands of miles and shot 250 hours of footage before declaring his ode to Wills finished. And yes, Tulsa and Cain's Ballroom features prominently.
"I kind of got consumed by making and finishing this documentary," Wilson said. "I shot it all myself, I was my own crew, but I'd sometimes hand the camera to a stranger if need be. At one point I'd been filming for four hours, realized I was dehydrated and handed the camera to a guy just standing there. He took over for a little bit while I went to get water."
That kind of loose-limbed, off-the-cuff, made-by-one-guy aesthetic runs throughout Bob Wills Ain't Dead. It's a collection of performances of Wills' music and conversations with youngsters, oldsters, regular people, unknown and famous musicians such as Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Benson and various Texas Playboys. There's flashier and more produced material on Wills but Wilson's sincere love for his subject is evident throughout the documentary.
Just what made Wills the legendary figure he's become? Known as the "King of Western Swing," Wills was the originator of what would evolve into western swing. Wills' western swing was a new musical innovation, a mash-up of styles such as country, swing and blues while giving it a good beat to make it "swing."
"Nobody put all that music together before Bob did. He was like a musical Da Vinci," Wilson said. "Merle Haggard says in the documentary that he didn't know what celebrity was as he was growing up -- there was Joe Louis, Franklin Roosevelt and Bob Wills."
Wills left Tulsa in 1940 for Hollywood and the lure of the silver screen. There he would go on to star in cowboy musicals while playing extensively up and down the West Coast at dance halls. While his connection to Tulsa is etched in permanence, Wills spent more time in the west than in Oklahoma, utilizing the same formula for success he'd perfected at Cain's, KVOO and Oklahoma: radio and constant touring.
Audiences will have their first opportunity to see Bob Wills Ain't Dead on September 26 at 1pm at Circle Cinema. Wilson wanted it shown in Tulsa before anyone else gets a chance to see it.
"There are a lot of musicians from around Tulsa in it and people just have this special connection to Bob's music here. I wanted to keep the spirit of Bob Wills alive by premiering it in Tulsa," Wilson says.
Wilson will be in attendance to introduce Bob Wills Ain't Dead and will do a Q & A afterward; for more information or to purchase tickets contact Circle Cinema at (918) 585-3504 or circlecinema.com.
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