Big Bill Lister



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    Although warm and engaging, with a ready smile, Big Bill Lister has always been an imposing presence: 6 foot 7 1/2 inches, with a deep, drawling voice and a disarming directness. He's also a performer whose significance looms larger now, in many ways, than it did at the height of his career. Although he has been mostly retired from professional music for well over forty years, he's an amazingly vital link to country music's golden age - and not just because of his close association with country legend Hank Williams. A commanding performer at this writing, at 75, he sounds as good as ever, is still writing songs, and still hews determinedly to the sound he had featured from the beginning. Lister is a walking history lesson and a charismatic storyteller, unapologetically country to the bone, a friendly but uncompromising reminder to the country music establishment that, as he puts it, "if the roots don't get no attention, that tree is gonna die."

Unquestionably, Big Bill Lister's lasting significance emanates from his association with Williams, including his months as Hank's opening act, rhythm guitarist, and hunting and fishing buddy (as well as confidant). It revolves particularly around his recording of Williams' There's a Tear in My Beer and his subsequent unearthing of William's original demo for the song, which led to the historic recording and video of the song that featured Hank, Jr. 'duetting' with his father and became a #1 hit in 1988, almost forty years after the demo was made.

Lister's music stands on its own, however, and he remains interesting for more reasons that the Tear in My Beer saga, not least because he's living proof of historian Bill C. Malone's insistent claim that, contrary to popular impression, Texas country music is more than just western swing and dance hall honky-tonk. He may have loved to sing the old cowboy songs and may have cut his share of beer drinking honky-tonkers, but Lister was not a dyed-in the-wool honkey-tonker at heart. He was influenced by singers who straddled both sides of the Mississippi, both geographically and stylistically - Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tub - but his sound reflected as much a traditional, Southwestern hillbilly sensibility as it did a Southwestern one, and he was far more a stage show singer than a beer joint one. He also felt the impact, very early on, of the Nashville-West Coast scene acrimony that is usually focused on Capitol Records' West Coast orientation and the Nashville establishment's resentment of stars like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Lister appeared to suffer, rather, from the opposite, from the fact that he was not West Coast-based in the years when the label's country division was firmly based in California and tended, some feel, to nurture nearby artists at the expense of those based farther East.

Lister's original recording career lasted less than four years (and all the sides from the fourth of those years have remained unissued until now), though he returned to recording for an unusual, effective one-off album in the 1980s, then again in 1998 to record a live tribute to Hank Williams.