The name of Frankie McWhorter is likely to come up early when the topic of conversation turns to Texas fiddlers. Having worked with western swing legends such as the Miller Brothers (1957-1959) and Bob Wills (1960-1962), he has earned a place among the top players from the Lone Star State. Nowadays, he often appears with former members of the Texas Playboys and fronts his own band for dances around the Texas Panhandle. None of these activities are unusual for a professional musician of this caliber, unless you take into account that this wiry, silver-haired gentleman primarily makes his living as a working cowboy. From that standpoint, the name of Frankie McWhorter takes on a whole new dimension.
As a youngster, Frankie grew up in a country home in Hall County, Texas, singing at his mother's side and playing French harmonica just as she did. His uncle, Floyd Tucker, won the Alabama fiddle championship several times, but the instrument did not initially take hold with Frankie. His early years were spent singing and listening to his grandfather I.J. Tucker play the pump organ. "Pa" Tucker was a prominent composer who penned but sold his rights to "Wait for the Wagon," "Be My Life's Companion and You'll Never Grow Old," and "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella on a Rainy Day." "Most of the time we just sang and played for each other," Frankie remembers. "We had a radio, but we only played it for the news to keep from running down the batteries."
Having grown up with music as a part of everyday life, Frankie continued the tradition wherever he went. Still in his teens, he began breaking horses after school for legendary horse trainer Boyd Rogers. Rogers also played fiddle and took note of the young ranch hand's natural inclination for music while on a trip to New York. The two had set out in a 1923 Dodge truck to deliver a load of polo ponies they had trained. With no passenger seat, Frankie rode atop a five-gallon bucket using a saddle blanket for a cushion while whistling, singing, and playing harmonica. The elder Rogers supplied requests and encouragement. "You ought to be playing fiddle," Rogers suggested. "You can already whistle anything you want." Frankie took the advice to heart, learning tunes from Rogers whenever he could. Often his new mentor encouraged fiddling to cool tempers whenever an ornery horse proved difficult.
During these times, the Wills standard "Faded Love" had reached the top of the charts, and Frankie poured dimes into a café jukebox until he knew it by heart. Upon demonstrating his accomplishment to Rogers, the elder fiddler commented, "You're playing that tune too slow, son. Where did you hear that?" Rogers knew the melody as "Forsaken Lover," an earlier, more up-tempo version as it had been played at an old "Trapper Rendezvous."
Frankie continued to broaden his repertoire as he drifted more in the direction of cowboy and ranch work. Protesting an overzealous inclination to "give one too many whippings," he left school and signed on as a cowhand for the JA Ranch founded by Texas legend, Charlie Goodnight. There, in addition to working cattle, Frankie began learning breakdowns from wagon boss Bud Long, who whistled tunes around the chuck wagon while Frankie tried his hand on the fiddle.
Eventually, Rogers arranged to have renowned Texas fiddler Eck Robertson travel on weekends from Amarillo to ranch country to teach the young fiddler. Frankie learned tunes and techniques such as keeping time with the bow in case a guitarist failed to show for a dance. Robertson's style represented an era when cowfolk held dances in country homes cleared of furniture to make way for dancing. At such times, a lone fiddler often stood in a doorway, playing for dancers in adjoining rooms.
Of his childhood, Frankie recalls one of these ranch dances when Bob Wills was the lone fiddler. Unfortunately, Frankie as a boy only caught a fleeting glimpse of Wills before a matronly attendant shooed him to a back bedroom with the other small children. Little did he know at the time that he would eventually tour and perform with this Texas legend. Frankie now holds the distinction of being the 463rd member of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
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For more information on Frankie McWhorter visit www.ranchdance.com
[Lanny Fiel teaches fiddle in Lubbock, Texas, and plays with the Ranch Dance Fiddle Band. His video Reading Music Naturally for Fiddle is available from Ridge Runner Video, 1-800-FRET-PRO.]