Promoter Bill Wence Sees the Music Biz from All Sides
As you will see, promoter Bill Wence has been in the music business a number of years and he’s worked with some of the greatest. As long as I’ve known him he has always treated me and everyone with a great kindness and respect.
What got you started in the music business and when and why?
I was raised in Salinas, California. My dad loved Hank Williams and the country music of that era. My mom was into a wide variety of music, everything from Harry Belafonte, Yma Sumac, Sinatra, you name it. But when rock and roll came in, she was hooked on Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and all of the hits of the mid- to late ’50s. I was actually exposed to everything, but I started early in the rock era and met Gene Vincent at 15 years of age. That was my first live show and my dad dropped me off and picked me up. Later that year I entered a contest for a Rock and Roll Jamboree in San Jose, California, that featured Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Hamilton, The Four Preps, The Silhouettes, Bill Justis, and Bobby Helms and was emceed by Jimmy Maddin. To win the contest you had send a postcard to Bill Sutton’s Dance Party show on KPIX in San Francisco stating in 25 words or less why you wanted to go. I used their current hits. I’d go “26 Miles” to see the Four Preps, I’d “Get A Job” to see the Silhouettes but Jerry Lee Lewis leaves me “Breathless.” I won and was totally shocked. I had already been playing some piano starting around 13 years old and this just solidified everything.
When I was 16, my parents divorced and my dad met Bobby Bare, who was in the Army at Fort Ord. He brought Bobby by the house to hear my rock and roll band and a few days later he called me and had me come by the NCO club to play with his band. That began a friendship that continues to this day. I’m playing with Bare at the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center in Kentucky on April 21, and this is the 58th year since I played that first date back in 1959. While still in high school I started hanging out at the National Guard armory in Salinas and saw some great shows there before these acts were on top of the national pop charts. Ike and Tina Turner, Brook Benton, Gene Allison, Sam Cooke, Lloyd Price, Duane Eddy — they all treated me really well, and I have pictures of me as a teenager with most of these acts. In the early ’60s I had a band and played music up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles to Anchorage.
In 1967, while in Juneau playing a club five nights a week, I was offered a job at the Midnight Sun Broadcasting Company at KINY Radio and Television. I worked there five years and was the music director and also did the local news and weather on TV. I also got involved in bringing acts to Juneau and brought Bobby Bare up several times and backed him with my band. Also I booked Charlie Rich and Ernest Tubb and promoted those shows. I ended up back in Salinas after a seven-year absence and worked for a few months at KRSA Country there. Bobby Bare was playing a show in Fresno, so I drove over and hung out with him after the show. He told me that if I was really serious about this music thing, I needed to move to Nashville. I drove into Nashville on July 1, 1973. Best thing I ever did.
What have you done since then?
I had been writing songs for years, but once you move to Nashville, you realize that your songs aren’t quite as good as you thought they were. I hit Music Row daily and played clubs and piano bars and wrote more songs. I ended up playing piano with Tom T. Hall for a number of years on the road and we played the White House for Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural Ball, Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas, Hee Haw … it was a great experience. I not only played piano but I drove the bus and I eventually was the contact for the major radio stations in whatever town we played. The Mercury promotion guy would line me up before the tour and I would meet the radio contact after the show and get them together with Tom. I started getting some songs cut in the late ’70s. Cristy Lane recorded one of my songs on an album that went to No. 1 on the country charts. Ronnie McDowell took another song into the Top 40 and eventually someone signed me to a small label and we put out four Bill Wence singles in ’79-’80, and they all charted in the Top 100 on Billboard.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
All those contacts that I made through Tom T. paid off, and since I had worked my own records, artists started calling me to work their records. I started Bill Wence Promotions and I’ve been doing that for over 35 years now. We charted hundreds of singles in Billboard in the ’80s. I worked with Collin Raye for a number of years before he hit it big on Epic records, and I escorted Kimberly Schlapman to her first country radio seminar before there was a Little Big Town. When she and her husband moved to town, we became friends. It took them a long time before LBT hit. It was a different Nashville then, but things change.
I was one of the founding members of the Americana Music Association some 20 + years ago and I still work the Americana Chart as well as secondary country radio. I’ve got a brand new Bobby Bare album coming out next week that I’ll be working. This year I’ve been working Michael Martin Murphey, Buzz Cason, James Talley, and some newer acts that I really love.
What was the first artist or album that got you into Americana music?
In radio I was exposed to most everybody at one time or another, but I came up during the ’60s, when a lot of different genres were thrown together. At one time it all seem to have blended well, but that was short lived. As far as Americana, I worked a good number of Jerry Jeff Walker albums to country in the ’80s and we charted Billboard on several. “Trashy Women,” a Chris Wall song, got into the 60s on Billboard with Jerry Jeff, but Danny Shirley of Confederate Railroad heard Jerry Jeff’s version on a small South Carolina radio station and they took it to the top of the Billboard charts on Atlantic Records. That made everyone very happy.
Who are your favorite artists of all time?
Favorite artists: I got to work with a couple, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall. I think I did close to a thousand shows with Tom T. (’75-’78 full time and sometimes in the ’80s and early ’90s a few times to fill in). I also put the band together for Slim Whitman when he had that TV album career break in 1980. I worked with him ’80-’83 and 1980 was when I started Bill Wence Promotions. Slim only worked about 60 dates a year, so I could do both jobs easily. He was a really unique and amazing artist. I would have never guessed I’d ever play piano with someone like that in a million years. I also loved Charlie Rich and booked him in Alaska before his giant smash, “Behind Closed Doors.” I spent three days with him in Juneau then and later, when I was with Tom T., we all sat around one afternoon at a Holiday Inn in Virginia and drank beer and talked. We were playing Jamboree in the Hills and Charlie had played that afternoon and we weren’t on until the next day. Charlie had remembered me from Alaska, which had been six years earlier.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I think the Americana Music Association has done a fine job of getting the Americana name out there, and of course the Grammy categories are a big help. I’m not sure if defining Americana is relative to its success. The sad thing is that the format may be too broad to be defined at this time. There are some good things that are happening. WMOT in Murfreesboro is a full-time Americana station, and I’m hearing more artists who I don’t know than who I do know there, but that’s a good thing. I do think that playing several album tracks by each artist is a positive in one respect, but what I see lacking is that you do need some sort of minimal repetition to be successful. Although I do hear some songs or tracks that I think are great, I seldom hear them again, and that’s disappointing.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
I wish I knew where radio is heading in the near future, but I’ve never been good about predicting anything. I do know that it’s a lonely drive across this country when you’re trying to find good music on the radio for any length of time. I listen to a lot of the Americana reporting stations online daily. That’s probably the future of radio.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
One of my most memorable experiences at Bill Wence Promotions was in 1989 when I was promoting some Jerry Jeff Walker singles to country radio. We charted three that year in Billboard and “Trashy Women” was one of the singles. Jerry Jeff and his wife, Susan, were in town and we spent the day at my office (which is at my home in Nolensville, in the country). I’m back in the woods and there weren’t any restaurants in Nolensville back then. I was calling programmers and putting Jerry Jeff on the phone to talk with them. By noon, we were all hungry and I said I’d be happy to drive us about 15 minutes away to the closest restaurant. Jerry Jeff asked me if I had any tuna. I said “Yeah, we do.” Then he asked if I had any bread and any mayonaise. Yes, we did. He said “Great, I’ll make us some tuna sandwiches,” and he did!
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I still get to play piano with Bobby Bare and Wanda Jackson some, and last year I played some dates opening up for an act in Switzerland. I’ve worked with so many varied acts through the years and I am continually amazed at how much new, raw talent is out there. It’s just tougher than ever for them to break through.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
I don’t really think about that. I’m too busy enjoying every day, and that’s really all we have.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a a hard worker, a good husband, father, and grandfather, who was loved by his family, wrote some songs, played some music, and had a great time on earth.