Billie's niece, 76-year-old Pat Simpson, remembers her aunt's musical career well.
"The family was musical. It goes back three or four generations, to my great grandfather. He had 28 children, and every one of those children played a musical instrument," she says. "My father [Billie's brother Marion] played violin, banjo, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin. Aunt Willie played guitar, and piano, and so forth.
"And so they had what they called the Maxwell Family Orchestra," she says with a smile. "I have to laugh when I see that term, because there was only four members, and actually what it was was a hillbilly band. To call it an orchestra, I think, was overstating it a little bit. None of that music has been written. It was just passed on from one generation to the other."
This "orchestra" comprised Billie, her father, E. Curtis Maxwell, her uncle Frank, and her brother Marion. While the Maxwells' music was a part of daily life, so was the lifestyle that informed it. Billie wrote about Western life from a little-heard perspective: She was an authentic cowgirl, unlike other early country artists, who merely imitated the lifestyle to further their image.
There may have been more like her, but they never made it to wax. Not surprising, given the difficulty in making these recordings. Even now, life in the mountains of eastern Arizona can be tough and isolated. The Maxwells would know — to date, the family has been living there for at least seven generations. It's hard to imagine what people in the '20s would have to do to get their songs pressed into a record.
Simpson finds it hard to describe, and she was there.
"We lived a kind of a — you would have to have lived then, because there's no longer anyone living the kind of existence that we lived — I guess we were hillbilly," she says, almost surprised. "Just people taking care of each other, very poor, not having a lot of money . . . We had to raise all the food we ate, there were no supermarkets or anything. And [Billie] was born in that kind of environment."
Given that they couldn't drive down the street to buy food, you can only imagine what was involved in making a record. First, the Maxwell family auditioned to record with the Victor label, which later became RCA Victor, and was accepted. They had to go to El Paso to make the record, which was not an easy task, given the rugged landscape and primitive transportation in a small town in the late '20s.
The drive from Nutrioso to El Paso today takes about 5 1/2 hours. That's in a comfortable, air-conditioned car with sophisticated tires gliding over asphalt. Billie's drive in 1929 would have been closer to what you see in the old Oregon Trail video game, along roads that were shared by both cars and horses, in a vehicle that likely didn't go faster than 30 miles an hour when it wasn't overheating or getting a flat. Oh, and you'd better fill up when you could, because there weren't gas stations on every corner back then.
"By the time they got there, they were almost broke," Simpson says. "After several breakdowns, and flat tires, and running out of gas, and having nothing to eat, and so forth."
Ultimately, the White Mountain Orchestra, previously called the Maxwell Family Orchestra, recorded four songs. Billie was asked by Ralph Peer, a well-known producer who had also made a number of field recordings in the South, to record some of her own material. What resulted were three solo discs with two songs each, which are now the object of Johnny D and Al Perry's quests.
Those brittle old records are even more interesting because they are some of the only evidence we have of such music. The Maxwell family was not formally trained — or educated past eighth grade — so their music isn't written anywhere. Recording was far out of reach for most, so songs were passed down through the family through an aural tradition. Then, when they were recorded in a studio, only a very few copies were pressed. Oh, and 78s broke easily.
Given all that, it's clear why the albums are so hard to find, and why people like Dixon will pay so much for them.
"[The records] were distributed mostly in the major markets, and they didn't make that many 'cause they really weren't hits," Dixon says. "They probably made between 1,000 and 2,000 of each of these records. They're 78s, so a lot of them have been cracked, busted, or whatever over the years. They made so few of them that I wouldn't even venture to guess how many still exist. Maybe there are only 20 copies or something. [But] it only takes two people to drive the price of the record up."