The music man of Sanderson, Texas
By LONN TAYLOR
Bill Smith of Sanderson has done a lot of different things during his life but there has always been one constant, music. Smith was born in Marathon in 1948 into a family of Big Bend pioneers. He told me that his grandfather Smith, who was one-fourth Cherokee, drove a herd of 700 goats and sheep from Eldorado, Texas, to the Big Bend in 1920 and only had to take down one fence to get them here. Grandfather Smith was a hard man. He objected to the way his 10-year old son raced his horse when they started out from Eldorado so he took the horse away from the boy and told him he would have to walk the 150 miles to the Big Bend, which he did. After they got here their 700-head herd was quickly reduced to 200 by coyotes and mountain lions, and Smith’s grandfather gave up ranching and took a job as a government trapper in order to pay off the sheep and goats he had bought.
When Smith’s father got out of high school he took a job as a cowboy on a ranch south of Marfa. The rancher put him out in a line camp and told him he’d be back the next day with groceries. He didn’t return for a month, and Smith’s father lived on rabbits and the occasional deer. When the rancher finally showed up, he announced that he had forgotten the groceries again but would bring them the next day. Smith’s father said, “Never mind, just give me a ride back to town.” He gave up cowboying and spent the rest of his life doing construction work and running cafes.
When Smith was born his parents had just leased the Big Bend Café in Marathon. They had been operating the restaurant in the Marfa bus station. Smith told me his mother was reluctant to leave Marfa because she thought Marfa was genteel and Marathon rough. “Every dance in Marathon ended in a fight,” he told me. “There were some old boys in Marathon who just loved to fight.”
Grade school in Marathon was not easy for Smith. He was bored. “I went at lightning speed and the others just inched along,” he told me. He skipped the eighth grade, and was a little happier in high school, because by then he had begun to exercise his real talent, music. “I started playing the piano in the Baptist Church when I was 16,” he said. “I would learn one hymn and play it for six weeks while I learned the next one.” The piano came easily for Smith because there was always one in his home. “My mother played it, and so did my aunt. She looked and played just like Joanne Castle, Lawrence Welk’s pianist. Joanne Castle was my inspiration.” Smith realized even as a child that he had an uncanny ear. “There were some boys that lived down the street that had a band, the Cook brothers. When I was 3 or 4 I would go over there and sing along while they practiced. They would change key on me in the middle of a tune, just to tease me. I could always pick it up and change along with them. Sometimes they would change three or four times in the middle of a song, but they never lost me.”
After high school Smith went to Sul Ross, where he majored in biology, but he also took as many music courses as he could. “I took piano but I spent all of the time talking with the teacher because I knew as much about the piano as she did.” By the time he graduated he had decided that he wanted a life in music. “I wrote to every organ company in the United States asking for a job,” he told me, “and I was hired by the Wicks Organ Company in Highland, Illinois. It was owned by a Swiss family and they built organs from scratch. I started out on the road crew, servicing and installing organs in churches all over the Midwest, but I eventually moved to the voicing division, adjusting the openings of the pipes so that they produced the right sound. It was a wonderful job and I had a natural talent for it, and I did that for seven years.”
One of Smith’s colleagues at the organ factory, an experienced organist, warned him that playing the organ could be dangerous. He told Smith about the time he was hired to play at a rodeo and arrived to find the organ not in the grandstand but on a platform in the middle of the arena. He took his seat and was opening up with “Entry of the Gladiators” when the second bronco out of the chute kicked the organ and sent it flying in pieces all over the arena. The organist ran for his life to the barrier. But Smith says that the worst thing that ever happened to him was when a pipe fell out of a church organ while he was playing for a funeral. Smith caught it with one hand and finished the hymn with the other.
Eventually Smith got lonesome for Texas, and he was having a hard time supporting his family on his organ company salary. He came home, got a teaching certificate at Sul Ross, and found a job teaching junior high school science in Sanderson, which is what he did until he retired seven years ago.
But he never abandoned music. Every Sunday for the past twenty-three years has found Smith playing the organ for at least two and sometimes three church services somewhere in the Big Bend. “I’ve played for the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, and the Episcopalians,” he told me. “At one time I played for three services every Sunday in Alpine, all at different times. One church there really abused me. They would call me at midnight and say,’ I forgot I had a solo tomorrow. Could you come down to the church so I can practice?’”
But Smith kept it up because he loves music. Today, he not only serves as the computer technician for Terrell County and curator of the Terrell County Museum in Sanderson, he drives 222 miles every Sunday to play the organ for St. Paul’s Episcopal in Marfa and St. James’s in Alpine, leaving home at 5am. It’s a long drive, but Smith says it’s worth it. And so do the congregations he plays for.
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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk