A fond farewell to Bill and Bobbie Malone

The much admired authors and musicians are returning to their home state of Texas.
Bobbie And Bill Malone
Bill and Bobbie at her cousin's ranch in Texas. (Photo courtesy of Bobbie Malone)

Here is the nation’s preeminent country music historian, Bill Malone, on the nearly 25 years he and his wife, Bobbie, have lived in Madison:

“The years in Madison have been the best years of my life,” Bill said. “And I’ve lived over 85 years.”

It was Bobbie who brought them here — they’re native Texans — when she got a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society in the mid-1990s.

“I loved learning about the state and communicating that to kids,” Bobbie said of the job that included creating Wisconsin history books accessible to young readers.

“Meeting teachers and talking to kids in classrooms,” Bobbie adds. “I just loved being here.”

Those sentiments — expressed in a phone chat with me last week — are timely because later this month, the Malones are leaving Madison, moving to San Antonio.

“More family, less winter,” Bobbie says, offering a shorthand reason for the move.

They have cousins and a favorite niece in Texas, and grandkids out East, who, when family gatherings are planned, insist everyone meet in San Antonio.

Bill and Bobbie will be dearly missed. I know few, if any, couples with more admiring friends, a point driven home last fall when in front of a packed house I interviewed the Malones on the stage of the Stoughton Opera House, an event tied to the debut of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Country Music,” for which Bill was the featured historian.

I first heard the name Bill Malone in 1998 from my friend Bill Dixon, whose own colorful life includes time spent as Wisconsin banking commissioner; directing the 1980 national Democratic Convention in New York City; running Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign; and riding shotgun for his friend Hunter S. Thompson on numerous adventures.

Dixon was listening to Bill Malone’s “Back to the Country” Wednesday morning program on WORT-FM. (Someone once said having Malone, author of “Country Music USA” — the genre’s definitive history — host a local radio show was like having Meryl Streep doing community theater.)

Dixon enjoyed the show so much he began taping it and called Malone to see if that was copacetic.

“Beats me,” Malone said. “But go ahead. Glad you like it.”

I had just started writing a daily newspaper column for The Capital Times. Dixon, Malone and I got together for lunch at La Hacienda, which came close to Malone’s high standard for Mexican food.

The lunch led to a September 1998 column on Malone and the book manuscript he had just finished, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” examining the intersection of country music and the working-class South.

It was the first of more than a dozen pieces I’ve written about Bill, and eventually Bobbie, once we were introduced. The two are basically inseparable. They play music together and after her 2011 retirement from the historical society Bobbie helped with the radio show. Earlier this year they published their first book as coauthors: “Nashville’s Songwriting Sweethearts: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story.”

The Malones’ politics lean liberal, and they are passionate about social justice. Bill once introduced fiery Texas journalist Molly Ivins before a Madison speech. (Bill and Bobbie warmed up the crowd with a rendition of “Beautiful Texas” complete with new Ivins-inspired lyrics.)

In 2003, Bill stuck up for the Dixie Chicks when many in the country music establishment scorned the group for criticizing the American invasion of Iraq.

On a somewhat more visceral level, the Malones share a passion for pancakes, which led them to the Original Pancake House on University Avenue, which in turn led to Bobbie’s 2018 book celebrating the multiethnicity of the restaurant’s staff and clientele.

Sunday morning blueberry pancakes were one of the draws at the Roxbury Tavern, a favored area spot. Bill and Bobbie played music the day of the 2018 farewell party occasioned by longtime owner Tom Gresser stepping aside.

And now, San Antonio. “A really interesting, beautiful city,” Bobbie said.

It’s where Bill in March 2008 received a lifetime achievement award from the Society for American Music.

They were in the San Antonio area earlier this year when the decision to move was made. Ironically, it was February, the same month Mike Muckian’s terrific Isthmus cover story on the Malones in Madison appeared.

“We were at my cousin’s ranch,” Bobbie said. The Wisconsin winters were wearing on them. They’d spoken often about returning to Texas someday.

“Why don’t we move to San Antonio?” Bill said.

Bobbie later recalled, “He mildly suggested it. His wife leaped on it.”

It happened quickly. Their Madison house sold right away.

“Mostly we’re overwhelmed by boxes,” Bill said last week.

While knowing they will miss Madison, they’re looking ahead. There’s another book — a biography of singer-songwriter Tim O’Brien — to finish and something even more immediate on their agenda.

“We’re going to turn Texas blue,” Bobbie says.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.