The Willis Brothers were not big country chartbusters, but a hard-working hillbilly/honkytonk band who started out in the 1940s under the name The Oklahoma Wranglers, and switched to their family name as times changed at decade's end. Guitar picker James "Guy" Willis, fiddler Charles "Skeeter" Willis and Richard "Vic" Willis had one big hit, the trucker tune "Give Me Forty Acres (To Turn This Rig Around)" which cracked into the Top Ten towards the end of 1964 and a few lesser entries to follow... But they were used to plugging away as second stringers: their big hit came nearly two decades after they started playing together, and even though they fell off the charts, they recorded and performed prolifically, regularly appearing on the Grand Ole Opry while cutting countless singles and albums for Starday Records. They recorded a whole slew of trucker songs and other novelty numbers, always looking for trend or a surprise hit to put the wind in their sails. The band broke up in the '70s: Skeeter passed away in 1976, followed by Guy in 1981. Vic Willis led his own band for several years and remained an Opry regular, though in 1993 he died in an automobile accident. Most of the Willis Brothers recordings remain out of print, which perhaps isn't so surprising since even in their heyday they weren't exactly the hottest band in the land. Still, those old albums are worth tracking down just to see what a hard-working, old-school hard-country band sounded like, plugging away in an era of slick Nashville pop.
The Oklahoma Wranglers "Hillbilly Rhythm" (BACM, 2007)
Wow - this one's a revelation! The Oklahoma Wranglers were an early nom de hick for The Willis Brothers, years before they had signed to Starday and shifted to a less hillbilly-sounding bandname. This disc goes back to the days when they were still having fun, a great collection of hillbilly novelty songs, punctuated with some fine, rough-edged heartsongs and weepers. These recordings, dating from 1947-50, come from major labels such as Coral and RCA Victor -- the sound quality's great, and the music is a real hoot. Definitely worth checking out! (By the way, if you can find it, The Golden Age Of The Willis Brothers, a collection on Cattle Records, comes from the same era, and is worth tracking down as well...)
The Willis Brothers "The Golden Age Of The Willis Brothers" (Cattle Records, 1970) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "The Best Of The Willis Brothers" (Starday, 1970) (LP)
As noted above, not a lot of the Willis Brothers music made into best-of collections... This album, with its distinctive red cover, was the standard-issue Starday collection and was reissued in a lot of different forms and under different Starday label names for many years.
The Willis Brothers "24 Great Truck Drivin' Songs" (Deluxe, 1994)
The Willis Brothers "20 Great Truck Drivin' Songs" (Gusto, 2008)
The Willis Brothers "In Action" (Starday, 1962) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "Code Of The West" (Starday, 1963) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "Give Me Forty Acres" (Starday, 1965) (LP)*
The Willis Brothers "Road Stop: Juke Box Hits" (Starday, 1965) (LP)*
The Willis Brothers "Wild Side Of Life" (Starday, 1966) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "Goin' To Town" (Starday, 1966)*
The Willis Brothers "Bob -- And Other Songs To Make The Juke Box Play" (Starday, 1967) (LP)*
The Willis Brothers "Hey Mr. Truck Driver" (Starday, 1968) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "Bummin' Around With The Willis Brothers" (Starday, 1969) (LP)
The Willis Brothers "For The Good Times" (Starday, 1971) (LP)
The Vic Willis Trio "Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry" (First Generation, 1981) (LP)
(Produced by Pete Drake)
After brothers "Skeeter" Willis died and Guy Willis retired in the '70s, Vic Willis decided to go it alone and recruited Curtis Young and C. W. Mitchell to round out a new vocal trio... They're backed here by Pete Drake's studio crew, including Hargus Robbins on piano, a bunch of usual suspect guitatists, Pete Drake and Jimmy Crawford on steel, and Vic Willis chugging away on accordion. The accordion is the sole reminder of his 1940s origins; the rest of the record has a contemporary late '70s/early '80s feel, with glossy arrangements and slick-sounding production, and songs by writers such as Rick Beresford and Hapgood Hardy. Includes a nice version of Dave Kirby's "Colorado," alongside covers of recent hits such as "Old Flames Can't Hold A Candle To You" and "If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body." Willis seems to have been aiming at a Bellamy Brothers-style harmony vocals sound, and on a few tunes the trio sounds pretty strong, although when the other guys drop into the background, you can hear the creakiness in his voice. No worries, though: it's not a mind-blowing record, but it is a pretty credible effort for an old-timer of his era.
Hick Music Index