Looking Back — by Doc Williams with Barbara D. Smik – Creative Impressions/publisher 0-974888028. Paperback, 176 pages, b&w photos, $20.00. (Creative Impressions; PO Box 902; Wheeling, WV 26003, http://www.docwilliams.com)
Review by Art Menius
Original publication in Bluegrass Unlimited
Doc & Chickie Williams and the Border Riders stand among the most popular regional country music acts of the period following World War II. With their base on WWVA’s “World’s Original Jamboree” supporting extensive touring north and east from Wheeling, they ranked as major stars in the northeastern USA, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada for 25 years after the release of their first records in 1947. Besides a fascinating first person account of their career and deep felt relationship with their fans, Looking Back also tells a love story about a couple who stuck together for more than sixty years, including 52 as a performing act, and their family. Barbara Smik, who put the book together from tapes dictated by Doc and the family’s rich archive of photos, is Doc and Chickie’s eldest daughter called “Peeper Williams” on their programs.
Although born Andy Smik in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914 to Slovak immigrant parents, like so many bluegrass musicians the future Doc Williams had a coal mining father and the expectation that he would do the same. The dawn of commercial radio when he was six changed everything. By age 19 he had started a career in music on a radio show hosted by Morey Amsterdam. In May of 1937 he reached WWVA with a band he calls “almost bluegrass” – fiddle, mandolin, rhythm guitar, and bass fiddle. The classic Doc Williams sound (“My music was not bluegrass and it was not modern country either.”) soon evolved into Doc’s guitar, his brother “Cy” on fiddle, and accordion, first played by the blind Marion Martin, along with a girl singer and bass player. In 1946, following the birth of their three girls, Chickie Williams temporarily filled in as the girl singer/bass player with her husband’s band. The “Girl with the Lullaby Voice” and movie star looks, she remained in that role until suffering a stroke in 1998, even recording a hit with “Beyond the Sunset.”
From road stories to playing fireman’s carnivals fascinating details about touring in the day abound. A 1951 date in Maine earned $369.90 in ticket sales from which $52.95 went to entertainment tax, $25 rent to the venue, and $31 to the promoter. The band sold 509 78s on the tour of Canada that followed to net $258 profit. Doc discusses frankly the pros (controlling the masters to keep everything in print into the 21st century and higher income) and cons (limited distribution, airplay, and promotional support) of operating one’s own recording label. He accepts that this and WWVA’s focus to the north and east kept them from the highest level of stardom. “It was a great time to be alive and doing live radio and concerts.”
The book’s unpretentious layout never gets in the way of compelling, albeit occasionally redundant, stories and fascinating illustrations. As editor, Ms. Smik places preserving her father’s voice ahead of imposing rigid order on his recollections. One paragraph jumps from a Tupelo fiddler named Billy Mitchell to General Billy Mitchell to the first time Doc saw Elvis in 1954. Thus while frustrating those who wish to read a chronological, or simply logical, account, Looking Back reads like a series of wonderful afternoons listening to an nonagenarian country music great ramble warmly through his adventures, share life lessons, and brag on his one true love. AM