In 2004, the Western Swing Music Society of the Southwest held its Hall of Fame Showcase in Yukon, Oklahoma, a little west of Oklahoma City. The event featured three days of dancing and performances by bands of the genre. On its final day, the group honored twenty-five people by inducting them into its hall of fame. They were Hank Thompson, Sid Barnes, Clyde Brewer, Troy Burgin, Gene Carter, Bud Duncan, Bill Garner, Red Gillian, Keith Holter, Dick Heil, Gary Howe, Frankie McWhorter, Bill Mitchell, Ray Poe, Charlie Mudford, Sam Necochea, Russell O’Neal, Billy Parker, Stan Peters, Bill Philley, Duane Pollard, Rod Rodriquez, Don Tolle, Harold Whacker and Lynn Ward.
Frankie Gene McWhorter was born in Memphis, Texas on June 13, 1931 to John McWhorter (1907 – 1967) and Evelyn Tucker McWhorter (1911 – 2009). Frankie was their oldest child and a third generation Texan after his father, his grandparents Thomas “T. I.” McWhorter (1883 – 1957) and Gertrude “Gertie” Conrad McWhorter (1887 – 1978). His great grandparents on the McWhorter side were John McWhorter (1858 – 1949) and Jessie Harris McWhorter (1860 – 1935). Both of them had been born in Tennessee just prior to the Civil War, but later joined many other families in relocating to North Texas after the war ended.
Various biographical sketches of Frankie refer to the fact that his whole family was musical. They all could sing but the instrumental music side of the family was probably on his mother’s side, the Tuckers. His grandfather Isaac J. Tucker was a keyboard player, song leader and composer and his uncle Floyd Tucker was a long time fiddler. Frankie said in his biography that his uncle Floyd won the Alabama state fiddling championship so many times such that finally he was no longer allowed to compete in the contest. His grandfather I. J. Tucker was written up in Alabama newspapers as being the guest song leader at gospel singing conventions and also at various funerals. According to various accounts, I. J. also composed a number of popular songs, but signed away his rights to them, leaving others to be credited for the compositions.
Most of his adult life, Frankie worked as a cowboy in North Texas and the Panhandle and found that he was very good at it. Despite his childhood exposure to the fiddle, he came to embrace fiddling in earnest only after he became a teenager. He was working for another rancher/musician when the subject came up. Frankie decided to start learning tunes from his boss and went on from there to become a performer.
He continued to work as a cowboy and even managed a large ranch (the seventeen section Cooper Ranch from 1984 to 2002) but added performing to his repertoire. Over the years, he worked on a number of ranches including Goodnight’s JA Ranch and credits the JA’s wagon boss for teaching him more tunes. He continued to improve as a musician and also took lessons from a professional fiddle player as well as learning on the job. Both careers were interrupted by his service in the United States Army during World War II.
Frankie noted that he became acquainted with the music of Bob Wills as a boy, recalling an occasion when Wills was the sole player for a Panhandle ranch dance. At that time, his family was living in Plaska, now a ghost town, in Hall County. Plaska is a few miles southwest of Memphis and another twenty-five miles from where Wills once lived in Turkey, Texas. Frankie went on to perform more with many different groups and also played with Bob Wills for a few years, believed to be 1960 – 1962. It is estimated that between 400 to 500 different musicians played with Wills at different times during the band leader/musician’s career and McWhorter was proud to be among them. He did some recording sessions with Wills, but they would be hard to pick out from the mountainous number of Wills tracks. They are believed to be some of the Liberty sessions from 1961.
In a newspaper interview, McWhorter said that he played with Wills for about two and a half years before leaving to put together his own band in 1963. In the interview, he said that his favorite Bob Wills story went like this, “This woman danced by (the stage) an told Bob the music made her teeth hurt. Bob said ‘I’ll lay ’em here on the piano till the dance is over and you can come back and get ’em.'”
Other appearances of Frankie and his various bands, as reported in area news over the years: McWhorter and his six piece Western band in the second annual Will Rogers Day Celebration in late August, 1963; another Will Rogers Day in Higgjns, Texas the last weekend in August, 1969 billed as Frankie McWhorter and the Westerners; St. Patrick’s Day Celebration located in Shamrock, Texas in March, 1971 ending in a dance featuring Frankie McWhorter and the Westerners; a dance in Pampa, Texas in late July, 1974 with a band called the New Sons of the West that included twin five string fiddles played by Frankie McWhorter and Jack Bailey; the Asharena Rodeo in Throckmorton, Texas in July, 1991 that included nightly rodeos and dances in which the Western Swing Band of Higgins and its twin fiddlers, four of whom (including McWhorter) were veterans of the Bob Wills Texas Playboys band.
In addition to playing on other recordings, McWhorter has recorded two albums of his own, “The Ranch Dance Fiddle” and “Texas Sandman,” both of which can still be found. He also wrote two books: “A Cowboy Fiddler in Bob Wills’ Band” and “Horse Fixin : Forty Years of Working with Problem Horses.”
Frankie knew numerous other musicians including Buck Ramsey, once a working cowboy himself until he suffered a riding injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Despite his injury, Ramsey became a well known musician and poet. Once when McWhorter was playing at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Ramsey was also there to having just received the Golden Spur Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. In a newspaper interview, McWhorter recounted coming to Ramsey’s hotel room to tell him that he and his fellow musicians appreciated what Ramsey was doing for cowboy music, leading Ramsey to remark, “Frankie, that means more to me than any Golden Spur Award or any other award.”
Frankie McWhorter passed away on February 7, 2008 in Higgins, Texas. His memorial service was held in the Higgins High School Auditorium followed by interment in the Higgins Cemetery. His obituary lists some of his many accomplishments. He was inducted into the Western Swing Society in 1987, he won the Western Music and all around Cowboy Culture Award in 1999. He also was inducted into the Nebraska Western Swing Hall of Fame and the Western Swing Music Society of Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
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