Roughly 45 miles west of the New Mexico border,
Willcox has a population of about 3700. The town was originally established
as a whistlestop along the Southern Pacific Railroad, but has been reinvented
several times since then. The large old railroad depot now houses Willcox
Town Hall. The town was meant to be a main centre along the Southern-Pacific
but once it was realized that the town was unknowingly built in the middle
of a flood plain, the depot was abandoned and the main stop moved to Bisbee.
At one time Willcox was the largest beef-producing town
in America, giving it the nickname the Cattle Capital of the West. Currently,
Willcox is in an up-and-coming wine region, which grows 74% of Arizona's
wine grapes. There are over a dozen wineries in the area, many with tasting
rooms. Seventeen miles north of Willcox on what was once the York ranch,
there are now miles of apple orchards and pistachio groves.
In the town square, a larger-than-life sculpture of Rex
Allen by prominent Arizona artist Buck McCain looks over the town.
Rex is keeping an eye on more than the passers-by, though. In front of
the sculpture is a section of concrete imprinted with ranch brands, and
beneath the concrete lies Rex Allen's famous co-star and stallion, KoKo.
KoKo travelled half a million miles with Rex.
Willcox is the birthplace of "The Arizona Cowboy" Rex
Allen, who wrote and recorded many songs and starred in several Westerns
during the early 1950s. Later he was in the syndicated television series
Frontier Doctor (1958–1959) and he narrated countless Walt Disney nature
programs. A downtown must-stop is the Rex Allen Museum just across
the street from the large bronze statue of the "last of the singing cowboys"
in Historic Railroad Avenue Park.
As a boy, Allen performed in a barber shop on the street
where today stands the Museum. The museum itself is in the old Schley Saloon
building. Every year the town still celebrates him with what they call
Rex Allen Days in the first full weekend in October. The high school also
plans its homecoming at the same time.
I was a fan of his movies, comics and songs back in the
'50s. A friend of ours, radio personality Lorne Ball, emceed a show in
Winnipeg featuring Rex and other country stars in the early '60s. Rex had
lent him one of his western-style dress suits for the show. A few days
after that show Lorne worked with us at the Morris Stampede and he wore
the same dapper suit . . . he and Rex had lost contact after Winnipeg show
and Lorne hadn't had a chance to return it to him yet.
Associated with the Rex Allen Museum is the Willcox
Cowboy Hall of Fame which features portraits of old-time cowboys who
worked in the ranch industry in the area.
A few doors down is the museum for another famous Arizona
singer and actor, Marty Robbins, although he was from Glendale.
This museum was moved here from West Phoenix where it was crowded out by
busy freeway overpasses. I had been a fan of Marty since seeing him in
the Country Show series on TV back in the '50s. When he performed in a
small town near our hometown in the early '60s his lead guitar player was
sick and Mary played lead and piano during his whole show. Much of the
time he played guitar, sang and chatted and joked with us while he sat
informally on the edge of the stage. Needless to say I never strayed far
from that stage apron.
Around this time I was a regular listener to Ralph Emery's
all-night show on WSM radio out of Nashville. Marty often appeared on this
show where he took song requests -- backing himself on guitar and piano.
I stayed up most of the night taping these shows on my new reel-to-reel
tape recorder. Years later, Sue-On and I saw him a number of times on the
Grand Ole Opry at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. He always came on near
the end of the Opry broadcast after racing his stock car over at the raceway.
And he always ran overtime past midnight to the mild frustration of the
folks at the nearby Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Each Saturday they moved the
record displays back against the walls to make room for a SRO crowd that
gathered for their live midnight radio broadcast.
Another country music star, Tanya Tucker, spent
her early childhood in Willcox. We've never met her but Sue-On has performed
many of her songs over the years - Delta Dawn, etc.
Apache Leaders Cochise and Geronimo are from here
and gunslingers Warren Earp & Johnny Ringo are buried here at
the Willcox Historic Pioneer Cemetery.
Much of the 1993 movie Red Rock West starring
Nicolas Cage, Lara Flynn Boyle, J. T. Walsh and Dennis Hopper was filmed
in and around Willcox. A short film documentary called "Lonesome
Willcox" released in 2018 documented the town and in particular,
its country music radio station KHIL. Other town events are "Wings over
Willcox" in January and the popular 4th of July fireworks display.