They say there are just six degrees of separation between any two individuals—there are certainly less than that between Billy Lister and some true legends of country music.
Billy and his dad, Weldon, who you may have seen featured in the last issue of EXPLORE in the article titled “Art of the Carve,” were ready to make a trip to Nashville. Weldon was attending to a couple of professional matters while there, and he and Billy were going to take advantage of a special offer of a musical nature from a relative.
“The main reason for the trip was due to an invitation from my Aunt Leona. She was hosting The Midnite Jamboree at The Texas Troubadour Theatre. She got me a spot to go share an original song there.” It’s apparent when Billy talks about music that he’s grateful to share his songs. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”
Leona Belle Helton, professionally known as Leona Williams, is an established songwriter in her own right. At one time, she was married to Billy’s cousin, Dave Kirby, the nephew of Big Bill Lister, who we will learn more about presently. Dave was a talented songwriter and session musician in Nashville. Leona married Dave in 1985 and they remained together until Dave’s death in 2004. Prior to that, she was married to a little-known country artist by the name of Merle Haggard. Two of Merle’s Number 1 Hits were penned by Leona with “Someday When Things Are Good,” and “You Take Me For Granted.”
For a long time, the Midnite Jamboree was at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Broadway. After the Grand Ole Opry, typically everybody would just pick up and go to the record shop, continue to play. and that would be broadcast on WSM out of the store there.
“Everyone would go there and have a big jam session together after the Opry. They were just continuing the night’s fun by putting on another performance. It has now evolved to being done out of the Texas Troubadour Theatre which is nearby, also on Music Valley. It was a really great time and something really special for me to join.”
Earlier, we mentioned Big Bill Lister, who was Billy’s grandfather. Big Bill was close personal friends with Hank Williams Senior. He often collaborated with Hank and opened shows for him. Bill came by his nickname honestly; he was a big man in the world of country music, literally and figuratively. He stood at 6’7” and performed regularly at the Grand Ole Opry with many of the well-known acts of the era like Little Jimmy Dickens, Minnie Pearl, Del Wood, and The Carter Family.
Big Bill Lister and Hank Williams were close friends. They went hunting and fishing together regularly, shared their love of music, and the same stage many times. One day, back in the early 1950’s, Bill called Hank, and told him that he needed a good beer drinking song to record. Bill was with Capitol Records and they wanted one on the album, So, Hank told Bill, “I’ve got one that will cock your pistol.’”
Hank was in the studio recording an album at that time. After the session that day, Hank hung around with the engineer and recorded a demo on a little acetate disk. He then sent Bill a copy of a song called “There’s A Tear In My Beer.” Hank had decided against recording a version of the tune himself at that time, and wanted his friend to record it. Bill ended up doing the first album release of the song.
“Fast forward a few decades.” Billy continued the story, “My grandpa moved from Nashville to Boerne, Texas.” Like in many interstate moves, “stuff” accumulates. “One day, they were going through the attic and found an old box of records amongst a lot of things that they almost were going to throw out. They decided to look through the albums and came across that old acetate disk with the original unreleased track Hank Senior had recorded of ‘There’s A Tear In My Beer.’” This was, quite literally, the only recording of that first version of the song.
Like his son after him, Big Bill was a gifted hammer and chisel engraver. Hank Senior had now been gone many years; Hank Junior became a great lover of guns so Billy’s grandpa engraved a couple of his guns. Later on, Junior decided he also wanted to have some guns done by Weldon, so he could be the proud owner of guns crafted by multiple generations of the gifted Lister men.
When Big Bill had found the record, he tried to reach Hank Junior to let him know what he had discovered. Junior’s office sort of gave Bill the runaround initially, not realizing the significant familial connection and nature of the reason for the conversation. Junior happened to be on tour and coming through San Antonio and connected with Weldon on some gun engraving work he wanted to get done. At the concert, Big Bill tells Junior’s manager, Merle Kilgore, that he’s got something he wants to show them. Here comes “Tear In My Beer” and their jaws hit the floor. Kilgore exclaimed, “For God’s sake, Bill—get the needle off that record.”
Junior asked Bill what he was going to do with the record. Bill replied, “Your daddy gave this to me, but this belongs to you.” From there, the record was taken to a studio in San Antonio and transferred to another medium. The record was left in San Antonio briefly until a Williams’ family representative came to retrieve it with a climate-controlled briefcase to the family estate.
Needless to say, the Lister family is proud to have some truly special memorabilia from an important era of country music. After all, Big Bill played with Hank and other greats, and there are other family members like Dave Kirby and Leona Williams. So, Billy and Weldon ended up getting to have a conversation on this trip with another country music great, Marty Stuart.
Marty Stuart is getting ready to open the Congress of Country Music in Philadelphia, Mississippi. “We got to meet with Marty, and the heart behind this project is to help educate people, but also really to keep the heart of country music alive. He’s got this passion to really preserve the history and artifacts so that younger generations can continue to enjoy the greatness of the genre.” Billy was even able to share a couple of his original songs between Marty, himself, and his dad. They discussed some of the pieces to put on display and next steps for this exciting, unique project. “It was one of those moments that was just really amazing. Sharing my songs with Marty, and my dad being there, and talking about this special project. It was amazing.”
“I just have to make sure and give love and thanks to my wife, Carley. The last year has presented some challenges in life that she has just been amazing through. Going through an uncertain transition in the work area of life, and telling your wife in the middle of that all that you think now is the time that you want to pursue music full time, and having her be totally supportive has been incredible.”
It’s apparent when Billy talks about his wife and family that he is a blessed man. By all accounts, there are some exciting things happening in Billy Lister’s life and developments for him as a musician. Personally, I look forward to seeing what is coming next for Billy on his journey as a songwriter and storyteller. He certainly has some powerful influences from which to draw inspiration.
Here are Billy’s social media and web links for you to follow him on his musical journey: