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Archive for Saturday, October 27, 1990

AT 60, THE FIDDLER PLAYS ON

October 27, 1990

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Billy Spears has two fiddles mounted on the wall in his house, but he hasn't hung his music up with them.

At 60, the fiddle-sawing Spears still goes out on the road with his current band. And although his '70s dreams of national fame dimmed after a debilitating accident, he still has a lot of music left in him.

"Nothing ever quite turns out how people think it will," said Spears, looking back on his career as a noted Lawrence country musican. "It's all worth it just to play my music and be with my grandkids."

In honor of Spear's 60th birthday Friday, his family and friends organized a reunion of the Billy Spears Band, which toured the Midwest and flirted with national fame in the mid-'70s. That band, and Spear's current ensemble, performed Friday night at the Flamingo, and tonight the musicians and the family will gather at Spears' East Lawrence home for some more music-making.

"THE NEIGHBORS are used to it," said Doris Spears, Billy's wife. "They know there's music in here."

Music fans and musicians talk of Spears with affection. Just ask Jimmy Ray Law, a guitarist who played both in the '70s and the late '80s versions of Spears' band.

"My goodness," Law said. "Billy has been such a big influence to me. He's helped me all along the years. I've learned everything from him. He's more or less family to me. He just keeps getting better and better."

Spears was born in Hartshorne, Okla., to a family that stayed in Oklahoma during the dark days of the Depression. His father was a mechanic, but he said his whole extended family loved and played the music of the region. His uncle taught him to play.

"BACK THERE, we had a lot of dances and some in homes, all acoustic music," Spears said. "All I've ever played in were clubs and dance halls."

After high school, Spears went off into the 45th Infantry Division just at the time of the Korean War. Thanks to good timing, he got to play music and avoid fighting.

"I got out just before my division was going to Korea," he said. "I had my time up, and I got to come back from Japan when everybody else was going over there. Some of the guys in the service and I would play together."

He earned a degree in, of all things, food service at Oklahoma State University's technical school, and in 1955 he came north to ply his food service trade at Kansas University.

BUT BY 1975, he heard the music calling. So he quit.

"I always really enjoyed playing, and I figured I'd see how good I could get," he said.

And so the Billy Spears Band took to the road Spears, Law, Buddy Pettit on drums, guitarist J.B. Brown, steel guitarist Bob Case and Andy Curry on bass. They found green pastures in Colorado, during ski season, and they toured throughout the Midwest, stopping every month or so in Lawrence. He found a receptive audience.

"Well, we had quite a few people in the '70s coming from the college who were into the contemporary country sound," he said. "A lot of rock bands had country roots, like the Grateful Dead and some other groups. They came out with a new sound for country that kind of got me into playing again."

PROSPECTS WERE good. An album and Nashville were on the horizon. But in August 3, 1978, on a trip to his hometown, Spears went to swim in a pond. After playing his fiddle for the other swimmers, he decided to dive in himself. He hit a log head-on, leaving him partially paralyzed.

The Lawrence community pitched in with a benefit that raised $2,600, and Spears fought against his doctors' pessimism and regained a great deal of movement in his arms and hands. He began performing again with somewhat limited stamina. But fame no longer was in reach.

"I never really stopped working," Spears said. "I was always playing one or two nights a week on weekends, but in the '70s when I quit working on the road the band broke up and scattered."

Eleven years later, Spears has a new band, which he started three years ago. The current lineup includes Law, bass player Steve Montgomery, Torrence Buckner on drums and Mike Fowler on harp. Playing a mix of '50s rock, old and new country, they tour in about a 100-mile radius of Lawrence, which suits Spears fine.

"I want to get back to our own bed all the time," he said.

HIS TWO daughters, Carol and Lisa, both play country music. Lisa lives in Nashville and played steel guitar professionally until taking a break for parenthood. Carol plays in Lawrence-area bands and sometimes tours with her father.

Spears relishes the time he can spend with his grandchildren.

"I'm a babysitter now, that's my biggest job," he said.

And Spears appears happy just to keep playing his music among his fans and those who love him.

"There was things maybe that I was pushing hard to prove, and I was dedicated to playing the fiddle," he said. "It's just like anyone becoming dedicated to something, some people get into golf. I'm happy I could make a living out of it."

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