ROY — Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had a hit song called “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” But had Wills’ muse hit him another way, he could have sung, “Take Me Back to Roy.”
Years before Wills ever moved to Tulsa in 1934, and long before he would be a staple on the radio and movie theaters, the King of Western Swing lived in this tiny northeastern New Mexico agricultural community — honing a talent that would forever alter the course of American music.
Born in Kosse, Texas, in 1905 and rising to national fame from Oklahoma in the late 1930s, Wills spent about two years in Roy beginning in 1927, where he made a living cutting people’s hair and playing music on the side.
Through the years, he’s become revered as an innovator and country pioneer — combining hillbilly string band sounds with Mexican folk music and big-band jazz. The Texas Playboys were the first group to appear at the Grand Ole Opry with drums and horns. His songs, including “Stay a Little Longer,” “Faded Love,” “Time Changes Everything” and “San Antonio Rose,” are classics of 20th-century American music.
Wills’ influence was fondly outlined this month in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, which aired on PBS to glowing reviews.
And at least some of Wills’ musical roots came from Roy.
There’s a large sign commemorating the musical icon on the old, now vacant Floersheim Mercantile building at one of the village’s main intersections, Third and Richelieu streets. Right above a large photo of him are the words, lifted from a Waylon Jennings song: “Bob Wills is Still the King.”
Last week a young clerk at the Harding County General Store told a visitor she didn’t know much about her town’s famous ex-resident, whose smiling face can be seen through store’s the plate glass window facing Third Street.
However, one of her customers did.
“My grandparents told me about Bob Wills,” said Matt Sandoval, a Roy native in his 50s. “They used to hear him play at dances. I think he wrote one of his big hits here. It was called ‘The Yellow of Rose of Texas’ or something like that.”
Sandoval probably was thinking of Wills’ “San Antonio Rose,” which, according to many sources — including the Country Music documentary — sprang from an earlier instrumental called “Spanish Two Step,” which Wills wrote during his years in Roy.
A woman going into the store, longtime Roy resident Donna Milson, said her father used to attend dances where Wills played nearly 90 years ago. “But I don’t know much about [Wills],” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to find anyone here who actually saw him play here.”
She was right.
But one local woman has something of a family tie to Wills.
Sandy Ray, who lives on the Ray Ranch west of Roy and owns a store, Ma Sally’s Mercantile, said last week that her mother-in-law actually performed with Wills when she was in high school. “He sat in with them when her band played in Amarillo,” Sandy Ray said of Geraldine Cates Ray, mother of her husband, George “Dusty” Ray. “She sang and played fiddle and and a little piano. Bob Wills sang with them.”
This would have been several years after Wills left Roy. An obituary for Geraldine Ray said she was born in 1924, which would have made her 3 to 5 years old when Wills lived there.
Geraldine’s band — called The Gloom Chasers, according to her obituary in the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle — played in West Texas and northeastern New Mexico in towns like Red River and long-gone Farley, which no longer exists, her daughter-in-law said.
Ray — who did the research for the Wills sign — said her mother-in-law quit playing music years after she performed with Wills.
“She got arthritis and couldn’t play her instruments anymore,” she said. “But she kept singing. She had a beautiful voice.” Geraldine Ray died in 2014.
A few years ago, Sandy Ray helped the Roy Chamber of Commerce produce a Salute to Bob Wills Dinner and Dance.
Of Wills’ time in Roy, the sign says: “At first people in New Mexico had difficulty dancing to Wills’ music. This was a very isolated society and their dancing, like some of their other cultural traits, were quite provincial. Nevertheless, Bob told the New Mexicans to dance like they felt and he would fit the music to their dancing.
“This Roy, New Mexico experience was vital to the blossoming of Bob Wills’ career, as his music became influenced by the music traditions of the Southwest’s Spanish/Mexican cultural heritage.”
Music writer Lynne Margolis, who, in her entry on Wills in the Grammy Hall of Fame 2015 Collector’s Edition, wrote the musician created the song “Spanish Two Step” “for the largely Hispanic audience that attended Saturday night dances he’d played years earlier while living in Roy, N.M.”
Wills recorded the instrumental with the Texas Playboys for the Vocalion label in 1935, and it is similar, though not identical, to the melody of “San Antonio Rose.”
The evolution of “Spanish Two Step” to “San Antonio Rose” is now part of country music history.
“When Art Satherley, who was handling [artists and repertoire] for Columbia Records, asked him at a recording session if he had any more fiddle tunes like ‘Spanish Two Step,’ Wills said he’d come up with one — and did so on the spot,” Margolis wrote.
“Wills couldn’t think of a name, so Satherley suggested ‘San Antonio Rose.’ With sweet fiddle and pedal steel leads and gentle percussion, the song drew in listeners and sold quite well. But it really took off in 1940 after Wills was asked to add lyrics. He and band trumpeter Everett Stover wrote what became ‘New San Antonio Rose.’ That version, featuring Tommy Duncan’s vocals punctuated by Wills’ falsetto ‘a-has,’ became a hit in its own right, helping launch Wills’ film career, leading to countless cover versions (including a Bing Crosby version that became a million-plus seller) and forever cementing Wills’ reputation as the King of Western Swing.”
With Wills at the helm, the Texas Playboys rode high through the late 1930s through the early 1950s.
The hits stopped coming with the rise of the more stripped-down honky-tonk style in country music — and the rise of rock ’n’ roll later in the decade. But Wills and his band continued performing until the early 1960s, when Wills was sidelined by a heart attack.
In 1973, when recording an album with country star — and lifelong fan — Merle Haggard, Wills suffered a stoke that left him comatose until his death two years later.
And by the time Wills’ western-swing style began its decline, so did the town of Roy.
Like other farm and ranch communities in the eastern part of the state, Roy has shrunk since Wills lived there.
In 1930, not long after Wills left the village for Fort Worth, Texas, the population of Roy was 713, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But since then, it’s declined drastically. By the most recent census in 2010, the population was 234, down from 304 a decade before. Estimates from 2018 put the total number of people at just 220.
And with the decline in population and the passing of time, nobody in Roy can pinpoint exactly where Wills worked as a barber or where he played his music.
There’s what appears to be an abandoned barber shop just across Richelieu Street from the Wills sign. However, closer inspection reveals it’s only a part of a facade, which Ray said was used in a movie shot in the town a few years ago.
Ricky Hazen, a Wills aficionado who operates the Roy Fuel Stop, the town’s only gas station, said he heard Wills cut hair in the back room of a local bar.
Sandy Ray thinks that’s possible. “There used to be a lot of bars in Roy,” she said. “There might have even been one where [the facade] is now.”
The bars and the barbershops are long gone now. But as you look at the large commemorative sign, and listen hard for the strains of “Spanish Two Step,” you can feel Bob Wills smiling upon the town of Roy.