Legendary Lawrence fiddler Billy Spears dies

Billy Spears, the Lawrence fiddler who influenced numerous local musicians and toured the country playing Western swing and country, died Saturday. He was 82.

“He had a really full life, with lots of music,” said his daughter, Carol Latham, noting that she’s received an outpouring of support on Facebook from musicians who were impacted by her father. “It’s really comforting to know how many people’s lives he touched.”

Spears died peacefully at his Lawrence home in the arms of his wife, Doris, just five days after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Billy Earl Spears was born in Hartsthorne, Okla., on Oct. 26, 1930. His family could be described in one word: musical. His uncle Earl taught him to play the fiddle; his first gig was on a radio show with his brothers Ronnie and Dale.

Billy Spears in 2008

Spears started playing professionally in the early 1950s, traveling with such acts as Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard and T. Texas Tyler. He met his wife when she asked him for an autograph at a show in Great Falls, Mont. They moved to Lawrence in the late 1950s, when Spears took a job at Kansas University in the food department at the student union. He played in local bands during his free time.

After one of his four daughters, Sally, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1975, Spears decided to dedicate his life to music full time. He retired from his job, formed the Billy Spears Band and hit the road, reaching some of his greatest heights as a musician.

His road manager at the time, Dwight Haldeman, remembers how Spears, who also played the electric mandolin, excelled at breakdowns — “he could play faster than people could hear” — and how he could “milk the emotion out of a ballad.”

“He was brilliant. He was a genius. He attracted the best-of-the-best young players,” Haldeman said. “He was as fine a human being as you’ll ever find and as fine of a fiddle player as you’ll find — in that order.”

The band toured the states in an old school bus playing a mix of Western swing, country, bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz and rock. They filled dance halls in the South and Midwest, played at bluegrass festivals and in ski-resort towns, and performed in the famous Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., which often played host to Bob Wills, aka the King of Western Swing, one of Spears’ greatest musical influences.

Unfortunately, that part of Spears’ career was cut short when, in 1978, he dove into a swimming hole in his native Oklahoma, breaking his neck. Doctors predicted he would never again walk, let alone play the fiddle. He eventually taught himself how to do both, though he later admitted that he never played quite the same after the accident.

“I think, pound for pound, when Billy had that band that included (guitarist) Junior Brown (in the 1970s), I think that was the best band that ever called Lawrence home. Those guys were jaw-droppingly good,” Lawrence harmonica player Lee McBee told the Journal-World in 2009. “If Billy hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have gone on to do far greater things.”

The Billy Spears Band in 1978: Bob Case, Andy Curry, Billy Spears, Bud Pettit, Jim Law and Junior Brown

Still, Spears kept at it, performing mostly locally in the years that followed.

“I played with him all over Kansas and Missouri — every place we went somebody knew him,” said Steve Montgomery, a Lawrence bass guitarist who performed alongside Spears for nearly two decades. “He was one of the best guys I knew. He was an excellent friend and a great musician.”

Spears mentored numerous performers in Lawrence, many of whom went onto have successful careers of their own.

Chuck Mead, of the Grammy-nominated country group BR549, used to hang around Richardson’s Music (now Richard’s Music) in Lawrence when the Billy Spears Band was at its apex.

“He was a legend around town,” Mead once said of Spears. “He’s easily one of the greatest, most original talents to ever come out of Kansas really.”

Around the turn of the millennium, Spears formed Billy Spears and the Beer Bellies, and played Johnny’s Tavern twice a month for more than a decade. He never lost his passion for music or his adopted hometown. “Lawrence is full of different music. All styles. It is a good town for musicians,” Spears said in 2009.

He was also proud that he was able to pass his love for music onto his daughters. Carol sang with her father for many years, while Lisa was a pedal-steel guitarist who lived in Nashville and played with famous country singer Porter Wagoner; she later returned home and performed with her dad.

Spears was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2009 at a ceremony at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall. He continued performing until a few months before his death, telling the Journal-World in 2008: “If you want to play, you’ll play. If I don’t play, Doris thinks there’s something wrong with me.”

Spears is survived by his wife, Doris; daughters Carol Latham and Lisa Spears-Tenpenny; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by daughters Sally and Lawna and grandson Christopher Latham. A celebration of his life is scheduled for Aug. 10 at Eagles Lodge, 1803 W. Sixth St. More information will be forthcoming. Check the Facebook pages of Spears and daughter Carol Latham for details.