Walking through the Nevada County Fairgrounds during the Fathers Day bluegrass festival, one couldn’t help but spot that shiny silver Airstream trailer. More often than not, there was a circle of pickers gathered outside the Airstream, but the songs coming from the circle generally weren’t bluegrass. Ernest Tubb, Merle Travis, Eddie Arnold, Jim Reeves, and the two Hanks (Snow and Williams) were well represented in the tunes being played. And at the heart of it all was a dapper gentleman whose soft-spoken demeanor belied a life filled with larger-than life experiences and characters. When there was a lull in the music, Bill often would launch into an amusing story about a well-known musician, or “some guy I knew”; sometimes, the two were one and the same. Bill in his travels and in his time spent at bluegrass festivals had rubbed shoulders with everyone from the rich and famous to backwoods moonshiners. A consummate storyteller, Bill rivaled Paul Harvey in the way that he kept listeners hanging onto his words, waiting for “the rest of the story.”
As the words to the old song go, Bill “lived a lot in his time.” In his younger days before moving to California, he had been an ironworker who traveled around the country building bridges and refineries, a job to which he returned for a short time after serving with the Marines during World War II, before fulfilling his dream of moving to the Golden State. After retiring from the Los Angeles Police Department, and before marrying his lovely wife Ruby June, Bill spent five years living on the property of General Chuck Yeager. To Bill, the world-famous aviator was simply “Chuck.” It seemed to me that Bill regarded famous people as regular folks, just as he regarded regular folks as very special people.
Bill first came to my attention when I joined the CBA and began reading his monthly column in the Bluegrass Breakdown entitled “Bluegrass Folks”. Each month, Bill would choose someone from the CBA as his interview subject. Sometimes, the interviewee would be a professional bluegrass musician and other times a member of the CBA rank and file. I was surprised and somewhat reticent when he asked to interview me for the June 2000 issue of the Breakdown. Although I joined the CBA in 1992, I felt like a newbie without a whole lot of cred; I wasn’t an accomplished musician, nor was I a CBA Board member or longtime volunteer. But Bill was insistent, contending that everyone had a story to tell. As he had done with dozens of subjects before and since, Bill held a cassette recorder during the interview, and afterwards took a photograph to go with the story. A few years later, when I had gotten married, I once again sat inside the Airstream trailer as Bill interviewed Henry for the Breakdown. Just as Bill loved to tell his own life stories, he had a true talent for bringing out the stories in others.
At the age of 85, Bill published “Code Two ‘n’ A Half”, a collection of memoirs recalling twenty years’ worth of experiences as a motorcycle officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Thanks to Bill’s crystal clear memory and keen eye for detail, the reader could feel as if he or she were riding along with Officer Wilhelm. As might be expected, the experiences of a police officer in the big city ranged from humorous to heartbreaking, with a good deal of excitement thrown in the mix. Bill’s book is a veritable history lesson of a bygone era, a time before high-tech equipment, when patrol officers relied primarily on their wits and a lot of heart in order to get the job done. Wits and heart. That was Bill.
I last saw Bill at the 2010 Fathers Day Festival. Bill was a walking encyclopedia of country music, and he was perturbed that he had been unable to find a recording of an obscure song entitled “That Horse Named Pete”. I had never heard of the tune, but I took advantage of the fairgrounds’ wi-fi connection to search for a recording of it online. Sure enough, I soon found the circa 1950 recording by Carson Robison and his Pleasant Valley Boys, and I carried my laptop computer over to the Airstream so Bill could listen to the song that he hadn’t heard in years. At age 88, Bill seemed both amused and enthralled with the notion that he could sit outside his trailer at a bluegrass festival and hear an old song courtesy of modern technology.
Your friend and mine William W. Wilhelm passed away peacefully in Grass Valley last Monday, January 31st, with his loving wife Ruby June by his side. Over his long life, Bill saw a lot of changes in the world around him. Through it all, he maintained his humor, grace, and curiosity, along with his love of people. We’ll miss Bill, his stories and old country tunes. The fairgrounds will somehow seem emptier next June when we don’t see that shiny Airstream trailer. But I’d like to think that somewhere, Bill will be enjoying a sip of white lightning with his old friend Moonshine Vic, picking some tunes with Ernest, Hank, and the rest of the boys, and smiling down at the pickers who gather at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.