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Billie Maxwell's Records Are the Oldest Made By an Arizonan-- and John Dixon Wants One

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Still, for someone like Johnny D, owning that artifact is a worthy quest. It's not that they can't hear the songs otherwise — in fact, we've got tracks from Maxwell for readers to listen to at — it's just something about owning that piece of history.

"Number one, she's the earliest Arizona recording artist that I know of. So because I collect Arizona records, that makes it unique to me," he says. "I think I read somewhere that she's credited as being the first country girl singer. So that, to somebody else, might be the more interesting thing. Or maybe they're making a run on Victor records. For me it's just that she's got an Arizona connection."

Whether it was obvious or not at the time, what Billie Maxwell did was pave the way for women in country music. Not only was she able to be taken seriously as a musician and singer at a time when many women weren't, but she articulated the struggles of working-class women from an honest and forthright perspective, years before pioneers like Loretta Lynn were even conceived.

Johnny D also points out that Maxwell didn't receive recognition or appreciation for her work aside from the audiences at the dances where her family played, and she probably never heard herself on the radio. (There weren't likely radio stations in the White Mountains at the time.) Though Simpson said that the family was given some recordings to distribute to friends, any that were in the family seem to have been lost. Simpson knows of a few people who own some of these records, but when she tried to buy them, the owners wouldn't part with them.

Maxwell died of a rare cancer at 48, but in her short life, she and her modest family — the First Family of Arizona music — came to represent an important part of the cultural milieu that is Arizona. They worked the land, played at community events and dances, and passed their music down through the generations — all the way down to guys like Johnny D, who feel the connection despite living a very different life a few hundred miles west and several decades later.

Simpson, of course, feels that connection, too. Like Dixon and Perry, she'd love to get her hands on a copy of her aunt's record.

For now, her connection is in a purely aural form, like most of the songs her aunt and her family sang. Likewise, that connection can take on a fleeting physical manifestation from time to time. Simpson obviously beams with pride knowing that Maxwell's story, the story of a heartsick but dedicated cowboy's wife raising her voice in El Paso, will be told in pages that'll quickly yellow and be discarded like so many cracked 78s.

Simpson shows those feelings much as her aunt did in song — a subtle glimpse into deep desires, delivered with humility but with great sincerity.

"To me, it's delightful," she says. "I love to read about things like that."

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Sarah Ventre