Bob Dolle: The (bypassed) heart of western swing in Southeast Missouri

Friday, May 19, 2006
Bob Dolle played keyboard with other western swing musicians Thursday night at the VFW hall in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Local man wouldn't miss the second annual musical showcase that begins today -- even after open-heart surgery.

Not even open-heart surgery would prevent Bob Dolle from pursuing his passion.

Less than two weeks ago the 75-year-old Cape Girardeau musician underwent a quadruple bypass, and he's not shy about showing his scars.

"I'm doing real well," he says beaming before unbuttoning his shirt and show off the remnants of an incision from nearly his throat to his waist.

Even when he had the surgery he knew he couldn't miss the event that was his creation -- the second annual Cape Girardeau showcase for the Western Swing Music Society of the Southwest.

Of course, Cape Girardeau isn't really western swing country. The art form started in the dance halls of Oklahoma and Texas as a blend of country-western and big band jazz. The sound was made famous by men like Bob Wills and Milton Brown, but mostly stayed in the Southwest.

But Dolle found western swing at a young age, and he's already gone a long way toward developing a following for the music in Cape Girardeau.

Last year the first showcase here went off without a hitch, drawing in about 1,500 people for music and dancing. The society only has about 1,000 members, all of whom have come on board since its inception in 1998.

But both Dolle and other society members were concerned about whether Cape Girardeau would take to western swing. In an area where country and bluegrass are king, would there by any room for their jazzy, bluesy cousin?

"We were worried," society president Chuck Hayes said. "I said 'Bob, that's not much western swing country up there.'"

Hayes hails from Muskogee, Okla., right in the heart of western swing country, where he grew up listening to Wills' radio show.

"My dad was a swing player," says Hayes. "He tried to teach me how to play but I never learned."

Instead he took up the steel guitar.

In Oklahoma, western swing is king. But in Southeast Missouri few even know of the genre.

Dolle is one of those few. He got turned on to the music at a young age. Now he plays keyboard and fiddle with a band for four months out of the year in Texas called the Texas Variety Band. He's also in four western swing halls of fame.

Dolle pressed on with his festival anyway. And the results were better than he could have asked for.

Wife Virginia Dolle said the event was so popular that several locals even joined the society.

Dolle's not the only western swing musician in the area, though. Mike Squires of Jackson and Earl Bennett of Cape Girardeau have played the form for years, as well.

Both are transplants -- Squire from Texas and Bennett from Nebraska. And both learned the western swing craft through family ties.

"Nebraska's not really western swing country either, but my dad was really into it," said Bennett.

Squires said he'd quit playing in the area for a long time, until he found a few others around with an interest in the music. Now he, Bennett and Dolle are trying to form a group.

Even before Bennett and Squires had met Dolle, his reputation preceded him.

"I hadn't met Bob until today, but I'd heard his name 100 times through Mike," said Bennett.

In Southeast Missouri, Dolle is the face of western swing.

But he's growing old, and he hopes to foster some interest in the area before he can't anymore. Hopefully the three-day showcase that continues today and Saturday at the VFW hall will help that purpose.

For Dolle and his colleagues, the music speaks for itself. The people will come.

"The whole purpose of our group is to preserve western swing," said Hayes. "That's because we think it's a unique musical art form in the United States. It's as much art as the old blues that came out of the old South."

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