Cowboy Music: Billie Maxwell
Billie Maxwell was the first woman to record country music, known at the time as “cowboy music.” She was the real deal, too, born in 1906 and raised near Springerville as the daughter of Curtis Maxwell, a talented fiddler who would entertain his community by playing western folk songs learned from his father. When Billie was young, Curtis formed a string band called the White Mountain Orchestra. The group would tour the surrounding communities on horseback, playing gigs at events in the area, usually community dances held on ranches. Billie joined her father’s band as a teenager, playing guitar beside her brother. She kept playing after she got married in 1929 at the age of 23.
In the 1910s and '20s, bands like Tin Pan Alley were popularizing western music throughout the country. Audiences were beginning to hunger for authentic music from locally known stars. The talent scout and recording pioneer Ralph Peer traveled the country in these decades, looking for local legends to record outside the studio. A few months after Billie’s marriage, the White Mountain Orchestra impressed the audience at an audition for field recording sessions by Victor and traveled to El Paso, Texas in 1929 for a recording session.
In El Paso, Peer asked Billie to sing after hearing her play several songs with the White Mountain Orchestra. After Billie sang “Billy Vanero,” Peer asked her to record solo. The songs Billie recorded with Peer—“Arizona Girl I Left Behind,” “Billy Venero, pt I,” “Billy Venero, pt II,” “Cowboy's Wife,” “Haunted Hunter” and “Where Your Sweetheart Waits For You”—were the first western-style songs ever recorded by a female. At that moment Billie Maxwell officially became the first recorded woman singer of cowboy music.
After the recording session, Billie continued to play with the White Mountain Orchestra as they toured parts of New Mexico and enjoyed a recurring gig in a saloon called the Smokehouse. However, Billie hung up her guitar after the birth of her first child. She never recorded again. Her surviving records are exceptionally rare, and exceptionally important.
The Phoenix New Times lists “Cowboy’s Wife” as the #2 song that defined Arizona. The song, recorded in a minor key, laments the challenges of a woman living on the frontier while embodying the selfless strength and grace required of a pioneer wife. Billie’s wistful tone and unpolished voice over a waltz-based melody make this a tune a haunting, rare, and crucial piece of American music history.
Listen to Billie’s song courtesy of the Phoenix New Times.