Reprinted with permission
At his Anacortes, Wash., home, slide guitar pioneer Bill Gates shows how the instrument is played with a metal bar and finger picks. He built this guitar himself. Gates was honored by the Seattle Western Swing Music Society several months ago.
A fine slide guitarist, Bill Gates of sometimes gets more recognition for his brushes with fame than for his own achievements. He not only shares his name with the world’s richest man, he has played in Loretta Lynn’s band, interviewed Buck Owens on KLKI and backed up Merle Haggard.
But Gates’ own musicianship and contributions to country music took center stage Aug. 10 when the Seattle Western Swing Music Society inducted him into its Hall of Fame as a Pioneer of Western Swing Music.
“That’s quite an honor,” Gates said with a hint of a drawl.
Born in 1930 in Tucumcari, Gates listened to country stations in Clovis, and Amarillo, Texas, as a child. He and his buddy Pete Key decided to learn to play at 13.
“He bought a country guitar and I bought a steel guitar,” Gates said. “It took about a year to be decent enough to play for dances.”
A steel guitar is flat and typically has 10 strings. It is played with a metal bar bigger than a finger, which gives the instrument its characteristic twang.
The young men’s band, the Westernaires, played the music of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. The act split up in 1950 when Gates joined the Navy and Key joined the Air Force. During his tour, Gates took his Western swing overseas and to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. It was at Whidbey he met his first wife, Anacortes native June Hoskins. They were married until her death nine years ago.
After a brief return to New Mexico, Gates settled in Anacortes in 1956. He worked six nights a week at the plywood mill, which prevented him from performing professionally. But when the new Texaco refinery opened he landed a job with nights and weekends off, and resumed his musical career.
“I joined a musician’s union. That helped, although there weren’t a lot of country musicians in it,” he said.
The union called when he was needed.
“I’ve played in bands almost 40 years,” he said.
He remembers performing at the Red Lion, Eagles and Elks clubs and the downtown taverns in Anacortes, as well as the clubs in Mount Vernon. The format was always the same.
“That’s dance music. Western swing, they call it. It’s a little different music than straight country,” he said. “There were very few songs you played that you didn’t dance to.”
In 1957 Gates also started working part time as a country music disc jockey at the brand-new Anacortes radio station, then called KAGT. Because he knew more about country music than other employees, he was dubbed program director as well. It was about 1961 when he first heard about an outstanding girl singer.
“I’d heard about Loretta Lynn. A good friend of mine was a musician in Bellingham,” Gates said.
“She was something special because there wasn’t a lot of women singers,” he said.
Lynn and her husband “Doo” had moved to Washington in the early 1950s so he wouldn’t have to work in a Kentucky coal mine. They spent a decade in Custer.
“It’s off in the middle of nowhere between Bellingham and the border. It’s a community, not a town,” Gates said.
Lynn had four kids by the time she learned to play guitar and began singing seriously in 1961, according to her Web site. In her spare time she began singing in Bellingham-area grange halls and taverns, and Gates did a stint as her steel guitarist when her regular bandmate was unable to load and unload the 60-pound instrument and the 60-pound amplifier.
“I was in her band temporarily for six months when her regular steel guitar player broke his collarbone,” Gates said.
Gates said the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” portrayed that era of Lynn’s life pretty accurately — the hard work, the talent, the demanding husband.
“A lot of it was true,” he said. “I was at their house a lot there and at Nashville, I was there a couple times.”
He said she initially sang in a style that didn’t suit her.
“Her problem was, she tried to sing like Kitty Wells when she first started. There were three or four of us told her she should find her own voice,” he said.
He said Patsy Cline, who became Lynn’s good friend, helped her do that.
“She still knows me and when I go see her she makes me stand up and introduces me to the crowd,” he said.
Gates only played with Lynn for a brief time.
“Bellingham was a long way to drive. We didn’t have I-5,” he said.
However, he was able to give her career a boost from Anacortes. During a televised talent contest in Tacoma, hosted by Buck Owens, she was spotted by Norm Burley, who started Zero Records to record her. Gates was around when she got the first copies of her first single.
Gates was the first disc jockey in the country to play Loretta Lynn on the radio, and it was in Anacortes. He knows this for a fact because he got the record in person, before she started mailing them out.
“I got her everyone’s mailing address. When she got her record I had the addresses of all the guys playing country music in the country,” he said. “I was up at her house quite a lot after she made her first record.”
Gates also lined her up to play at the Seven Cedars in Mount Vernon.
“It was a nightclub, but you had to bring your own booze in,” he said. “I would promote her on the radio in Anacortes.”
Gates said she was paid $50 for that gig — a big step up from the typical $25 or $30 bands got in those days.
“That was more than I was making playing dances,” he said.
In 1962 Gates and Lynn went to a disc jockey convention in Nashville, where she got her contract with Decca Records. They remain friends, and he’s still a fan.
“I’ve got all of her records at home,” he said.
With another band, Gates also performed twice on Buck Owens’ television show in Tacoma.
“Buck Owens came down here. He came over to the radio station. I knew him fairly well because I played his records,” Gates said. “I interviewed him on the air and we talked a little while. He wasn’t on a major label then.”
Gates admits that he didn’t recognize every future superstar at first hearing. He was unimpressed with a gyrating young singer who was shocking on television.
“I remember working at the radio station and getting Elvis records and throwing them in the garbage,” he said.
During his career he performed with other country stars.
“I’ve known a lot of other big people, too,” he said. “I’ve worked with Merle Haggard up at Lynden for two nights when he had his first big album out on Capitol.”
He also backed up Little Jimmy Dickens and he played many times with Western swing pioneers Bill O’Conner and Lloyd Hooper. He said it was common in the early days for well-known entertainers to tour without a band.
Gates has built three pedal steel guitars and still owns two of them. He retired from playing professionally in 1986, but he still belongs to the Pedal Steel Guitar Association, the Southwest Steel Guitar Association and the Western Swing Society of Seattle.
“My back bothers me. That’s why I retired,” he said.
Occasionally he still gets out to play, dragging his lighter portable steel guitar, which is about 25 pounds.
Gates was informed of his selection in a letter:
“This honor is bestowed annually to deserving individuals who have performed and perpetuated this wonderful music style for all to enjoy. Upon the recommendation of our selection committee, our board of directors is proud to recognize and honor you for your outstanding contribution to Western swing music,” the letter said.