Fiddlers name “Wild Bill” Lyell to Hall of Fame
From the Gatesville (Texas) Messenger, June 4, 2011
Wild Bill Lyell has been playing guitar for most of his 88 years, and has played with some of the top fiddlers around the country.
Lyell received a call recently informing him of his selection by the fiddlers in the hall of fame at the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho.
“I’m in the Halletsville Hall of Fame so I’ve been there before but I didn’t expect it at Weiser because I haven’t been there for three or four years,” Lyell said. “It’s more of an honor because the fiddlers chose me”. As a guitarist, Lyell often accompanied fiddlers in the Weiser contest during more than 30 years of attending the festival from 1977 to 2008.
“They have several divisions for youngsters, teens, adults and older people”, Lyell said. “The grand championship division has been the best fiddlers in the U.S. and Canada. They usually have about 500 fiddlers and one year I played for about 120 of them.”
Lyell won the best accompanist at the contest 10 different times and is the only one to earn the award five consecutive years.
He started playing guitar at around age 11 in Waco. “A man drove a Tom’s Peanut truck let me ride with him—I was his radio,” Lyell recalled. “His wife wanted him to take a child along so he would get home on time and not imbibe as much.”
Over the years, he has performed with many of the greatest names in country music and the fiddle industry, including Hank Thompson, Alison Krauss and Mark O’Conner, who Lyell said is considered the best. O’Conner is a classical and multi-genre violinist who hosts an annual fiddle camp.
Jana Jae, who was formerly a member of the Buck Owens Buckaroos band and a regular on Hee Haw, often called on Lyell to accompany her for Wal-Mart grand openings.
The winner at the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest is invited to play each year at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, TN, and Lyell has accompanied the winner on seven different occasions. “What impressed me (about the Grand Old Opry) is they don’t allow you to touch the microphones,” Lyell said. “It was nothing special, I was just part of the act.”
Although he has accompanied fiddlers for many years, he never had much interest in picking up a bow. “Pat Hopson from Mound got me interested in fiddles, I played it about five minutes and put it down,” he said. But his wife, Stephanie, decided she did not want to be left home while her husband traveled around the country. “I told him I want an instrument, so he took me to McGregor and got me a fiddle.” She has also had a measure of success at Weiser, placing in the top 10 in her division.
Lyell’s background is not exclusively in music. He retired as a full Colonel after 31 years in the Air Force. He flew helicopters for 23 years and was an instructor to the chief of staff. “(General Curtis) LeMay wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter,” Lyell reported. “Arthur Godfrey was a good friend of LeMay’s and he could fly a helicopter, so LeMay wanted to learn to fly a helicopter like Godfrey.”
Lyell entered the Air Force in 1943 during World War II and retired in 1974. He attended Officer Candidate School, which allowed him to rise from the rank of private to a full colonel before his retirement. He chose to become a helicopter pilot rather than a fighter pilot “because helicopters don’t fly near as high or as fast.”
While in the service, he was limited on playing the guitar except when he was overseas. He performed at an NCO club I Tripoli and was in Libya when Gaddafi took control of the country.
Like many in the military, Lyell was not fond of formations. He once appeared for formation with one rounded-toe shoe and one pointed-toe shoe. When asked about the footwear by the inspecting officer, Lyell responded, “I have another pair just like it back at the barracks.” The officer did not care for the remark, but his buddies certainly got a kick out of it.
After retiring from the Air Force, the Lyells moved to Gatesville and became more involved in playing guitar. In addition to his expertise with an instrument, he is known for is unusual hat bands. His favorite is a rattlesnake with its mouth wide open.
Because of his failing eyesight, Lyell will not be able to travel to Weiser for the induction ceremony at the National Old-Time fiddlers Contest. He will be represented by a friend in that area.