Throughout the 1930s, the image of the singing cowgirl was dominating popular old-time music. Millie and Dolly Good, the Girls of the Golden West; Patsy Montana; Texas Ruby—all dressed in fancy cowgirl outfits and sung of their love for the range or for cowboys. Few of these performers, excellent though they were, could really be called as authentic as the first singing cowgirl, a slim, dark-haired beauty from Arizona named Billie Maxwell. Though Billie only made a handful of records—in 1929—they are prized as examples of authentic western singing, and as instances of a woman creating her own highly personal and highly successful songs.
Until recently our knowledge of Billie Maxwell has been pretty much limited to the pages of the Victor Master Book and two old photos that were uncovered in an old Victor warehouse in New York and later published by Robert Shelton in his Country Music Story. Some recent research, however, has led to the discovery of Billie’s family, and telephone interviews have helped to piece together the story of this fascinating performer.
Billie Maxwell was born in February 1906 and died in 1954. She was raised near Springerville, Arizona, then very much a part of the real frontier, and part of the last vestige of the American West. Her father was E. Curtis Maxwell, known throughout the area for his fiddling. Curtis, in turn, learned many of his tunes from his father, William Beatty Maxwell, who had come originally into Nevada from Illinois; later in the 1800s he moved down into the old Arizona Territory. Curtis formed a band called the White Mountain Orchestra, and played throughout the country for cowboy dances. His son-in-law recalls: “He could play any tune those old cowboys called for,” and he often played at ranch dances that went on all night. Often the band had to travel to dances on horseback.
In addition to playing a lot of older fiddle pieces, Curt Maxwell was known for tunes he himself composed, including “Frolic of the Mice”