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The Smilin' Cowboy, Bill Newcomb, chose Johnson County as his last home

By Lacy Hilliard
Freelance

Bill Newcomb was known by those that loved him as the “Smilin’ Cowboy.” As the nickname suggests, Cowboy Bill Newcomb is described as one of the most happy-go-lucky people anyone would ever have the pleasure to meet. In his 95 years he lived a colorful life full of love, lessons, and adventure.
William E. Newcomb was born on September 29, 1912 and was a native of Potosí, Missouri. Though he spent much of his life as a resident of the Midwest, he spent his later life up until his death on July 4, 2008 as a resident of Mountain City, Tennessee where he was a member of First Baptist Church.
Newcomb is perhaps best known for his time spent on Chicago’s WLS radio where he was the star of the National Barn Dance program in the late 1930’s. He was announced on WLS as “six feet one of smilin’ cowboy” and his fans treasured him for his guitar work, vocals, and his beaming personality.
The Smilin’ Cowboy came from modest means. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Ozark County, Missouri. His father, William Newcomb Sr., worked as a blacksmith- a trade that had been passed down through several generations and that Bill himself would learn as soon as he was old enough to utilize the necessary tools. Even in his early years, Newcomb was remembered as an entertainer. He was often called upon in school to showcase his poetry or singing skills in front of the class and a 1938 article published in Stand By magazine said that these early performances helped formulate the desire for a career in entertainment.
Newcomb’s “cowboy” title is not unsubstantiated. He was a gifted horseman and he occasionally took trips to the Southwest with his father to help him break troublesome horses for other farms – a trade he learned on his grandfather’s ranch. He also continued his work as a blacksmith. At the time, he assumed that horse breaking and blacksmithing would be his life’s career and his love for horses was enduring – but he never quite lost the desire to follow his dreams like his idols, the legendary Blue Yodeler and Jimmie Rodgers. Newcomb’s father saw how hard his son worked to purchase the latest albums from his musical role models and how inspired he was by their music and he decided to support his son’s love of music by purchasing him his first guitar. Sadly this guitar was consumed by the flames of a house fire that completely destroyed the Newcomb family home. It was said that at the time of the fire, the Smilin’ Cowboy could be seen racing one of his horses at top speed, riding bareback toward the flames in an effort to save his prized possession – but the effort was in vain.
William Sr. worried that his son’s spirit would be crushed by the devastating loss of his guitar; but the outcome was just the opposite. Because of the fire, Bill Jr. had a newfound determination to do whatever was necessary to further his musical career. It was this desire that led him to form the group “Mystical Billy and his Musical Billy’s.” The group was known for their mountain/old time western style and they gained popularity by traveling around many small Missouri towns. As they gained notoriety, a radio station in Joplin, Missouri called WMBH took note and Bill and his band were offered their own radio show. After their premiere, they only grew in popularity and the group was eventually offered appearances at several radio stations across St. Louis. Newcomb’s time at WMBH and his St. Louis appearances would pave the road for the journey to his most famous home, WLS radio in Chicago.
Frances Allen was in charge of the “Home Talent Show” which was to be held in Mishawaka, Indiana. After hearing of Cowboy Bill, Allen suggested that he be entered as one of the 30 contestants in the talent show. The prize was a four-week engagement on WLS’s “National Barn Dance.” Newcomb won the talent show and so began his career on WLS radio. Though he was only slated for a four-week appearance as promised by his talent show winnings, the audience responded so well to the Smilin’ Cowboy that he was asked to become a permanent fixture at the famed eighth street theater that was home to the National Barn Dance.

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