When husband and wife authors Bill and Bobbie Malone moved to San Antonio in June 2020, after a quarter century in Madison, they needed a new primary care doctor. His name is Michael Lichtenstein.
Shortly after meeting the Malones, Lichtenstein pulled out a copy of “Country Music USA” for Bill to sign. Bill’s seminal book on the genre had led filmmaker Ken Burns to tap Bill as lead historian for his “Country Music” PBS documentary, out the year before.
From that point on, doctor visits begat music conversations. Recently the Malones told Lichtenstein they’d finished cowriting a biography of Tim O’Brien, an early bluegrass legend who expanded his singing, writing and playing across genres. The book, entitled “Traveler,” will be released this fall.
“What are you working on now?” Lichtenstein asked.
Bill replied, “Have you ever heard of the group Riders in the Sky?”
Bill and Bobbie have started researching a new book about the famed Western music and comedy group.
“They sang at my wedding,” Lichtenstein said.
This may become the quintessential Bill and Bobbie Malone story. They wound up interviewing their doctor. Lichtenstein and his wife brought their wedding album over for the Malones to peruse.
Bill and Bobbie were back in Madison, which they dearly miss, for two weeks starting in late July. The purpose was to escape the Texas heat, visit friends and eat too many pancakes at their beloved Original Pancake House on University Avenue.
They slipped in a bit of work, too, if you could call it that. When the Malones first moved to Madison in the mid-1990s — Bobbie had accepted a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society — Bill began hosting a weekly radio program, “Back to the Country,” Wednesday mornings on WORT-FM.
Somebody once said that Bill Malone hosting a local country music radio show was like Meryl Streep doing community theater.
But Bill loved it, and he kept at it even after their 2020 Texas move. The program airs every Wednesday with differing hosts; Bill’s turn is the fourth Wednesday of every month.
“Live from the breakfast bar of our kitchen in San Antonio,” Bobbie says.
They timed their Madison visit so they could be in the WORT studio for the July 27 Wednesday morning show. Many well-wishers showed up. “A wonderful reunion,” Bobbie says.
When I had a chance to catch up with them, drinking root beer at an outside table on Monroe Street, they were anticipating the publication of “Traveler,” the O’Brien biography, and told me they first saw him play July 4, 1986, at the Nacogdoches Bluegrass Festival. Texas natives, the Malones were living in East Texas at the time. O’Brien was playing and singing lead for Hot Rize, an acclaimed bluegrass band that thrilled the Malones. “We couldn’t get enough of them,” Bobbie says. The band endured, but O’Brien also embarked on a solo career, as well as performing and recording with other top musicians, Steve Earle and Mark Knopfler among them.
“His name just kept popping up everywhere,” Bill says, and the Malones began to think of O’Brien as “the Renaissance Man of country music.”
One unusual aspect of Hot Rize is they have a famous “back-up band” called Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, which is in fact the members of Hot Rize, who don cowboy outfits and do Western Swing.
When Hot Rize played the Stoughton Opera House in May 2018, O’Brien and the band — whom the Malones had befriended — provided Bill and Bobbie with Red Knuckles garb which they wore while taking in the show from their box seats.
The Malones started their O’Brien research almost immediately after their previous book, “Nashville’s Songwriting Sweethearts: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story,” went to press.
“What’s next?” Bill, who turns 88 later this month, asked his wife.
Bobbie, in less of a hurry to dive back in, said, “Somebody we both like.”
They settled on O’Brien, who cooperated with the new biography from the outset, providing names and contact information of family, friends and professional colleagues.
The move to San Antonio has been a mixed bag. “More family, less winter,” Bobbie told me at the time. This Texas summer, however, has been stifling. Bill and Bobbie were in their car one day, close to home — the air conditioner not yet kicked in — when Bill began singing, “Take me back to my old Wisconsin home.”
“Is that a song?” Bobbie said.
“I’m writing it now,” Bill replied.
When I phoned last week to check something for this story, they were en route back to San Antonio. I heard something in the background when Bobbie answered.
“We’re at the Woody Guthrie Center,” she said. “It’s really terrific.”
They’d stopped in Tulsa. For Bill and Bobbie, the musical adventure never ends.
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