About The Artist
An old souvenir booklet surfaced in our collection and got our interest. It took a bit of research, but there is a bit of connection to some of country music's stars in the 1930's and beyond.
Grace Alexander was born to Frank and Susan Copeland Alexander in Graves County, Kentucky, probably in April 1900 per the 1900 US Federal Census. She had five brothers and sisters. But tragedy struck the family early as the 1910 US Federal Census shows her mom was a widow and she was the only one living with her mother.
However, Grace Alexander was better known as "Billie Walker" to country music fans and it is an interesting and winding trail researching her career.
On July 6, 1917, Grace married Euclid Franklin Wagner in Weakley County, Tennessee. To the parents, Virginal Pearl Wagner was born on December 5, 1918. But tragedy struck the young family when she passed away from polio complicated by influenza on January 21, 1920 while they were living in Amarillo, Texas.
Later, on October 6, 1920, Susan Juanita Wagner was born to the couple. The birth certificate stated her father was a machinist while mom was a housewife.
The family had moved to Charleroi, Pennsylvania when the 1930 US Federal Census was taken. The family now included Frances Wagner. Euclid was listed as a bridge engineer.
Miss Billie Walker and The Texas Longhorns — A Journey
It is likely this move to a town about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh gave Billie the idea to try performing. October 11, 1935, the radio program listing for KQV shows Billie Walker and her Texas Longhorns for the first time.
Personal appearance ads were not in abundance during her time in Pittsburgh. But often there would be snippets from local gatherings were Billie and her Texas Longhorns provided the entertainment. Some examples would be:
But during the summer, Billie and Her Texas Longhorns had taken off and moved to New Orleans, LA. The radio logs were showing that Billie had a 15-minute show at 12:30 pm over WWL. The logs did not mention the Texas Longhorns.
In December 1936, her 15-minute program was being aired at 7:00 am over WWL. A half-hour round-up show followed then a 15-minute show by Montana Slim.
From an old booklet she published, it appears Billie and the Texas Longhorns were working out of WMC in Memphis, Tennessee. The booklet tells readers they were the "Tri-State String Band Champions of 1938". A group photo shows Billie with the other four members.
The booklet provided to fans contained a few pictures, but very little biographical information about Billie and Jackie Boy Pennington. Therewasa a brief one page biography of Billie's daughter, Juanita, who was known as "Honey Gal". The booklet contained mainly 'answer' songs to popular songs of the day written by fans perhaps relatives. A Harris Pennington was credited for a couple, but research has not determined therelationshipp, if any, to Jackie Boy.
The "answer" songs provide also maybe an indication of the songs that were popular in the late 1930's - see the list below.
Index from "Billie Walker's Booklet No. 2" (Circa 1939)
During 1938, she appears to have dropped out of sight from performing. A question and answer type column in Pittsburgh told readers that as far as they knew she was still on the schedule on WWL but had not heard her in a while.
By early 1939, it appears she had divorced her husband Euclid F. Wagner. The reason is that Ancestry records show that she married Woodrow (Woody) Wilson Schaffer on April 9, 1939 in Crittendon County, Arkansas. The marriage license data shows that both were living in Memphis, Tennessee at the time.
That marriage did not appear to pan out as research has shown that Woody married Hattie Doyle (date unknown). Both Woody and Hattie died in Jackson, TN and are buried there. Woody was a native of Bethlehem, PA.
By 1940, Billie had apparently revamped her group. She was now being billed as Billie Walker and Her Hillbilly Girls - an all female band. She had started appearing on the Plough Dixie Jamboree that aired over WMC. Research on the internet turned up an interesting nugget in that singer/songwriter Rex Griffin joined her band in 1940 and had previously worked with her in the mid-1930's.
In April 1940, the Plough Dixie Jamboree - which mixed 'rural rhythm, down-to-earth humor and hillbilly music' went on the air over WMC on Saturday Nights at 1000 pmm. The show originated from the 3,000 seat Memphis Municipal Auditorium. The show initially featured such artists as Bob McKnight and His Ranch boys (they played 'cowboy ditties and mountain music'), Billie Walker and Her Cow Girls, Rex Griffin, the Sterling Singers - a male quartet (they recalled 'the good old days' and featured 'memory music and hymns). The master of ceremonies was Uncle Abner Peachwhistle (Uncle Abner J. Green) who tried to get Herman J. Bugfuzz, a comedian, 'out of impossible situations.'
The show was to air for an hour. Plough, Inc., the show's sponsor, made the Mufti Shoe White and Mexican Heat Powder. The show aired over the South Central Quality Network which included WMC (Memphis), KARK (Little Rock), KWKH (Shreveport) and WSMB (New Orleans). Katerm the Harmonica Hot Shots (a group of five male harmonica players 'who make mouth organs laugh and cry' made several guest shots on the show.
In June, one broadcast featured a 'battle of yodelers'. Bob McKnight was to coach the guys, Billie Walker to provide her experience for the girls. The article mentions that Gene Baggett would provide guitar accompaniment. The Stamps Dixie male quartet were to sing old-time musical selections.
However, the show only had a short run. The last broadcast per the KWKH radio listings was on Saturday Night June 22, 1940. Which meant another change in venue was next for Billie.
In January 1941, Billie Walker's Hillbillies is now on KRLD with a half-hour show from 12:30 pm to 100 pmm. She then became a part of what was called Uncle Gus Foster's Texas Round-Up. He would put on package shows at various venues. One such event was at the McKinney High School Auditorium in McKinney, Texas. There was to be two shows. Lower priced tickets for matinee show. The proceeds of the show were earmarked for the Welfare Fund of the Jaycees. Tickets could only be bought at the door. An April 1941 article tells readers that most of the acts were heard over KRLD and would include Billie Walker and her Hillbilly Gals as the featured act. Others on the show were Georgia Slim, the Callahan Brothers, Miss Ludy, Miss Cleo, Honey Gal (Billie's daughter), Cecile, Verne, Hank, Happy Howard and Huckleberry and Oscar.
A day later, an article provided more details about what to expect of the acts. Shybuck was America's number one trick fiddler, Miss Ludy was termed a little gal with a loud voice. Verne Morgan was a swiss yodeler, Georgia Slim was a Southern and Texas State Champion old time fiddler. Cecile was said to be the South's best girl fiddler. Billie Walker was described as that 'tall, long lean, lanky gal from Tennessee. Hank Huggins was said to be an outstanding guitarist and bass fiddle player. Honey Gal was noted as the sweett little belle' from Tennessee. Research later shows she married Mr. Huggins. Cleo was described as playing the squeakiestaccordionn over the airwaves. Huckleberry was touted to be the number one barn dance comedian.
During her time in Texas, she would do dates in Texas as well as Oklahoma. But an October 1941 article in the Jackson Sun of Tennessee maybe foretold another career direction change. She was to appear with Captain Thomas Overton, who led the Salvation Army in Jackson, as part of a revival meeting. Billie Walker was described as a "former show womann and hillbilly singer" and would appear as a soloist. The year of 1942 did not see any mention of her performing in various newspapers.
In early 1943, she had found her way to Jackson, Tennessee where she had a morning program on WTJS. She was also part of the station's "Farm and Home Hour" show as well which aired from 11:00 am to noon. In May, it appears she went to Beaumont, Texas for a series of "World's Champion HIllbilly Jamboree" shows. She was one of the featured acts along with Ted Daffen, Leon Harris and his steel guitar, Patsy and Her Buckaroos and a local Beaumont band, the Palace Swingsters. 50 radio stars were advertised. Ticket prices were 85 cents for adults, 35 cents for kids.
But October gave rise to a serious illness and surgery. For about a week, she was broadcasting from her bedside over the station's mobile transmitter WJSN. After that week, she was back at the station as usual.
As the calendar pages turned to 1944, Billie became part of a new network show that was to be called "Mother's Best All Star Jamboree". The stars were to be Cowboy Jack Hunt's Cowboys, Slim Rhodes' Mountaineersandd Miss Billie Walker's Hillbillies. It was to be broadcast over the Mid-South Network. The program was to begin airing on Saturday March 25 at 600 pmm.
But that effort was short-lived. The next we see Billie, she is on KGBU in Corpus Christi, TX. But by January 1945, she appears to have a show on KTUL in Tulsa, OK; personal appearance ads are promoting "Billie Walker and Oklahoma Round-up." But in March, she journeys back to Jackson, TN and is a special guest on a new "barn dance" program that WTJS has put together. The show would be held at the Armory in Jackson. The show would start at 800 pmm and end at 1000 pmm. Dancing would go on until midnight. The broadcast over WTJS was for an hour. On March 24, 1945, Billie was promoted as the special guest artist of the night.
The Hayloft Frolic show that WTJS put together went on to run a number of consecutive weeks. The promotional ads never really advertised who was playing. Some regulars such as Happy Jack Trio featuring the Hammond Organ or Zeke Martin and The Tennessee Hillbillies were seen. On occasion, teaser ads would promote 'Nashville acts next weekend'.
In May of 1945, mentions of Billie were now being seen in Missouri - she was broadcasting over radio station KWOC out of Poplar Bluff. By August, she looks to have hooked up with Cowboy Slim's Ozark Jamboree and was being featured as "Billie Walker and Dixie Plaid Boys." The ad also stated they were being hear over 21 radio stations each day.
Billie Walker and her Dixie Plaid Boys
Early January 1946 brought a new audience to hear Billie and her gang in a show sponsored by the millers of Justrite Flour over WFBC in Greenville, SC. They debuted on Sunday night at 7:30 pm. But their normal show would be at 730 amm each morning for 15 minutes.
For a time in August, newspaper short briefs would indicate that their show was sponsored by Big 80 Flour. But then mentions would revert to Justrite Flour.
The show appears to have been a transcription as personal appearance ads were never seen for her in South Carolina that year. Another indication was the fact that radio station WTJS in Jackson, TN announced Billie and her Dixie Plaid Boys would begin airing a 15 minute show sponsored by Buhler Mills. So far, her it seems her popularity was well known and it was common for flour mills to sponsor country music acts.
Radio logs we have found in 1946 show Billie Walker and her Dixie Plaid Boys show was also being heard over KMLD in Monroe, LA. But again, nary a personal appearance ad was seen. But an ad was seen notifying fans that would not be able to make a scheduled appearance in St. Joseph, LA on October 5 as she was making recordings under contract.
She appeared to still be anchored in Jackson, TN as the local WTJS shows a regular show for "Miss Billie Walker" each day. Some appearance ads were seen for Mississippi.
But the last airing of Billie Walker and her Dixie Plaid Boys over WFBC in Greenville was at the end of February 1947. But while that show sponsored by Justrite Flour was ending, she was on her way to another show.
Billie Walker and her Dixie Lily Boys
On January 1, 1947, Billie Walker and her Dixie Lily Boys made their debut on radio station WCTA of Andelusia, AL. The sponsor was the Dixie Lily Flour mills and in Alabama, was distributed by the Andalusia Grocery Co. A promotional advertised the product as "Light as Air - White as Snow."
In April, the Hayloft Frolic and Dance show in Jackson, TN advertised a 'treat' for fans with the appearance of Miss Billie Walker and All The Dixie Lily Playboys and Girls. But no mention is made of who was a part of her troupee. An ad for the show on May 9 advertised her as a coming attraction. But subsequent ads do not show her appearing. Research did find that Billie Walker and her Dixie Lily Boys along with Curly Cole and his Rocky Mountain Boys appeared at a Jamboree show in Dawson Springs, KY for the Jaycee's. The May 23 ad for the Hayloft Frolic told readers that the May 31 show was the last of the season as it would be "...suspended during the hot months."
But it appears the series of Miss Billie Walker and her Dixie Lily Boys had also ended by this time.
Miss Billie Walker — On The Move in 1948 and 1949
The beginning of 1948, it appears that Billie was not on the air. But she continued to do personal appearances near the Jackson, TN area. But as we shall see, 1948 was a busy year as Billie continued her entertainment endeavors.
May of 1948 found Billie Walker doing a 15-minute show over WKYB in Paducah, KY. She was also doing personal appearances in the area at that time as well and shows included Grand Ole Opry acts such as Minnie Pearl as well.
In June, her radio show had a special guest, Russell (Lucky) Hayden, a western movie star. Hayden had appeared in about 40 of the "Hopalong Cassidy" series with Bill Boyd. He was the star in his own pictures and worked with Randolph Scott on a technicolor movie, "Albuquerque." A few weeks later, Mr. Hayden made an appearance at the Ohio Theatre ("Cave-in-Rock"). Showing on the screen was one of his movies, "Rolling Home", that co-starred Jean Parker. Miss Billie Walker, Queen of the Hillbilly Singers, was also appearing with him.
On October 31, 1948, The Dixie Broadcasting Co., owned and operated by Aaron B. Robinson announced that WDXI of Jackson, TN would start broadcasting. Billie Walker was to be a part of the initial programming, appearing at 30 amam for a half-hour show.
By 1949, research shows she was out of the limelight. She did have a regular radio show over WDXI but that seemed to end by March 1949 from what radio logs show. Whether she was a part of a troupee that did Jamborees is not known as some of those shows did not list who was a part of it. But it would be hard to imagine they would not mention her due to her long time popularity. In March 1949, she and her "orchestra" provided the music for a square dance program as part of local Farm Frolic show that was to benefit a trip for the local 4-H Club educational trip to Washington. The callers were to be Fred Colby and Lonnie Safley of Nashville and Columbia. One appearance was found at the Gibson County Fair in Trenton, TN in September 1949. Perhaps she was exiting the a full time musical career at this stage of her career.
Miss Billie Walker — Minister
Her focus was now more on her ministerial duties. A short mention in the local Jackson Sun newspaper in October 1951 indicated that she was the guest soloist at a revival meeting at the local Salvation Army. Capt. Overton was to lead the preaching at the meeting. The article describes Miss Billie Walker as "former show womanman and hillbilly singer."
March 1952 Miss Billie was the guest speaker at a revival series that was hosted by the Salvation Army on Union Street. In May of 1952, she was leading the special singing at a series of revival services at her church where Rev. Joe Darity from Columbus, OH was the evangelist and soloist.
The city of Humboldt had an annual community Thanksgiving service each year. In 1952, that service was held at the First Methodist Church of Humboldt. It was held the day before Thanksgiving. The preacher for the service was the Rev. Hayward Highfill, pastor of the First Baptist Church. Members of the Humboldt Ministers Association — Robert Y. Horton, William Huie, Jessee Neuenschwander, Frederick Pudsell, William Wilbanks and Billie Walker — were to assist in different parts of the service. The offerings given that night were always distributed to the P-TA, assisting that organization to supplement the free lunches and welfare work at school for those in need.
The end of 1952 saw some changes in Billie's life. She was turning over the pastorship of the Church of the Nazarene located at 16th and Elm Streets in Humboldt to the Rev. Wesley Campbell who was formerly fromchurchuch in Clarksville, TN. Billie was instrumental in building the Humboldt church.
The day after Christmas 1952, the newspaper reported that the Billie Walker Furniture store that was on Main Street was sold to Floyd Davidson. He then moved the store to a new location and Baggetts Market made the store their second location in town.
Miss Billie Walker — Grace Alexander Shapard
Miss Billie Walker died on December 11, 1970 at the Obion County Hospital in Union City, TN.
She had been ill for several months. Her obituary indicated she and her husband (Carl Shapard) had lived there for over 20 years. She operated a service station with her husband (Carl and Billie's DX Service Station" on Reelfoot Avenue in Union City.
The obituary mentioned that Carl and Billie had been married for some 15 years.
She was still active in recording studios until she suffered a stroke about six weeks before her death.
Her obituary mentioned her most recent recording on the Alley Label which was also released on the Rimrock Records label. Both labels were based in Arkansas.
A picture of her headstone was found on the Find-A-Grave web site. It shows her name as "Miss Billie Walker" on the first line and "Grace Alexander Shapard" on tsecondond line with a musical score at the top of the stone.
Family Information Found DuriResearchrch
Credits & Sources
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