The 1920s and ‘30s were full of cowgirl singers like the Girls of the Golden West (Millie and Dolly Good), Patsy Montana and Texas Ruby, most of whom were just as inauthentic as their better known male counterparts like Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. However, one western performer was the real deal: Billie Maxwell.
One of the two known photos of Billie Maxwell (left), Springerville, Arizona in the 1920s (right).
Billie Maxwell was born in 1906 and raised near Springerville, Arizona, same place where Ike Clanton, one of the Missourian players in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, was shot dead by a detective not 20 years earlier. Her father, E. Curtis Maxwell, was locally renowned as a fiddler who'd amassed a massive repertoire of songs learnt from his father, William Beatty Maxwell, an Illinoisan who’d moved first to Nevada and then Arizona in the 1800s. Curtis Maxwell formed a string band called the White Mountain Orchestra who toured (on horseback) the ranches in the area, playing dances. Not only did Maxwell know many traditional songs, but he composed his own work too, including “Escudilla Waltz” and “Frolic of the Mice.” In her teenage years, Billie joined her father’s band, where she played guitar alongside her brother, Marion, who played mandolin. Eventually she occasionally struck out on her own, performing solo shows in the backcountry.
In 1929, at the age of 23, she married a local schoolteacher, Alvin Chester Warner, and settled down to raise a family. A few months later, in June, her uncle Frank Maxwell (a lawman over in Silver City) noticed a classified in the local paper advertising an upcoming field recording session for Victor over in El Paso. At an audition, the White Mountain Orchestra were deemed worthy and two weeks later Chester Warner drove his wife, Marion, Curtis and Frank to a recording session where they met Ralph Peer.
Jack Thorp (left), John Lomax (center) and Ralph Peer (right)
Back in the 1910s, N. Howard “Jack” Thorp and John Lomax were (separately) traveling the west, compiling books of western songs. By the 1920s, when radio began to proliferate, western audiences were by and large more interested in hearing locally popular music rather than the urbane ditties of Tin Pan Alley. Ralph Peer was a famed talent scout from Missouri who was a pioneer in field recording and, often working as a talent scout, traveled the country recording blues, gospel, hillbilly, jazz and western performers outside studio settings.
Peer listened to the White Mountain Orchestra cut four numbers, “Escudilla Waltz,” “Gooson Quadrille,” “Leather Britches” and “Maxwell’s Old Rye Waltz.” After they finished, Peer singled out Maxwell and asked if she could sing. She sang “Billy Venero” and, suitably impressed, he asked her to record solo. She obliged with “Arizona Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy Venero, pt I,” “Billy Venero, pt II,” “Cowboy's Wife,” “Haunted Hunter” and “Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You.” Although she may not have realized it, in doing so, she was the first woman to record western music.
After the session, Billie continued playing with her dad’s band and they all moved over to New Mexico, where they primarily played in a joint called The Smokehouse. After the birth of her first of ultimately two children, Billie Maxwell retired from music. She died February 18, 1954. Although she never received much recognition nor money for her role as western’s first female to record, her six songs are now part of history. Currently, her tiny but important musical output isn't collected on any one recording. Rather, her songs appear on Let 'Er Buck! - 25 Authentic Cowboy Songs, Hillbilly Honeymoon, When I Was A Cowboy Vol. 1 & 2 and "Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You" is still only available on the original Victor 78. Hopefully, someday she'll be recognized as the pioneer she was.