Once upon a time in the not-so-old Southwest, before the interstate was laid down four lanes across, when rail travel was still the high life and Highway 70 was the southernmost route for travelers on wheel or foot, the town of Duncan hosted the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Slim Whitman, Spade Cooley, Bob Wills and Luke Wills, as they passed through from Austin to Tucson, from Los Angeles to Memphis. They stopped in Duncan to play for a night at the little back highway spot called Apache Grove, thirteen miles out toward the big copper mine at Morenci, before moving on to the next city. Even the young Bob Dylan played there in an homage to his creative forbears. The Apache Grove is still there out on Highway 75, though it’s been years since live music rocked its corrugated tin walls. Live acoustic music has a new place on the Gila River now: the Simpson Hotel in Duncan.
Among those greats, Bob Wills and his band The Texas Playboys carved out a niche in the history of American music by blending traditional “country” music with the big band sensibilities arising from African-American musical lineages. In his spare time, Wills listened only to big-band jazz and, unschooled though he was as a musician, incorporated much of its sophistication, as well as its playfulness, into his own arrangements. Wills is a hero and an icon to many contemporary musicians. Willie Nelson is seen as the principal carrier of the Bob Wills flame into the present day. Listen to Willie’s recent collaboration with the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to enjoy the latest fruits of this cross-fertilization. The Texas band Asleep At the Wheel has devoted a big part of its career to keeping the Bob Wills’ genius a living part of contemporary musical vernacular. Their show, “A Ride With Bob: The Bob Wills Musical” still goes out on the road every year. See http://www.aridewithbob.com/.
Duncan has one native son who has made the big-time: young singer-songwriter Troy Olsen, now based in Nashville. Troy’s parents run the Stage Stop gas station and convenience store around the corner from the hotel. Sometimes when Troy visits, he’ll perform for the public. We hope to have him at the Simpson one day soon. Hear his music at troyolsen.com. Troy is the real deal, a true singer-songwriter.
Just 35 miles away, in the city of Safford (chain motels and big box stores—stay in Duncan!) there are musical events worth noting. Eastern Arizona college sponsors a concert series with ensembles from around the world. But, perhaps more importantly, this is one of the communities keeping traditional American music alive. Every February, the Graham Country Fairgrounds hosts the Annual Eastern Arizona Old Time Fiddlers Contest, sponsored by The Arizona Old Time Fiddlers Association, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving, promoting and perpetuating the art of old time fiddling. The dates this year are February 14th and 15th. The contest begins at 8:45 AM Saturday and 9 AM on Sunday. And there is a dance on Saturday night at 7:00, free to the public! For more info call Frank at 928-428-1728 or Ida at 928-428-3413