Willie Jones performing at Pullman City, 2003. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
The American banjo player and country singer Willie Jones will be at Pullman City in Bavaria, Germany's biggest wild west theme park, for the coming month, performing each weekend at the German-American Chrsitmas Market (Deutsch-Amerikanischer Weihnachtsmarkt).
A large man with a full beard, Willie was one of the first people I met in the European country and western music scene, and he has provided me with a lot of anecdote and insight. I actually met him at Pullman City, on my first visit there - I think it was in 2003. Willie had remained in Germany after getting out of the service and took up a career as a country singer, in various bands, most notably one called Shady Mix, which started out in America, moved to Germany and then moved back to the U.S.
When I met him, Willie had a job as the "singing cowboy" of Pullman City -- he gave set performances in the theme park's saloon, but he also roamed around the area, playing and singing.
We hit it off from the start. That weekend, Willie had some Slovak musician friends -- a bluegrass band -- playing at Pullman. I was working on a story for the New York Times about wild west theme parks in Europe, and I had intended to go directly from Pullman City to the Silkluv Mlyn theme park in the Czech Republic.
Willie convinced me, though, to go with him and the Slovak band (some of whose members now form the group Grasscountry) to a country road house somewhere in southern Bohemia for a country western party. Of course I said yes, and we drove there in a sort of convoy -- Willie in one car, the Slovak guys in their car, and me trailing in mine.
As I posted in this blog earlier:
The road house was in a village too small to appear on my map. From the outside it looked like an anonymous village restaurant, but inside it was decorated with Wild West paraphernalia including horseshoes, sepia photographs of Native Americans and Billy the Kid, and a framed arrangement of pistols and playing cards.
The occasion for the party was the 50th birthday of Franz Zetihammel, a figure well known on the Czech and German western show circuit for his portrayals “Fuzzy,” an “old coot” persona harking back to characters played by comic western actors such as Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Fuzzy has long straggly grey hair and beard and never appears in public without his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo tie and other jewelry.
A Czech country duo got the guests up and dancing with locally written Czech country songs and Czech covers of American hits such as John Denver’s “Country Roads” and even “I’m and Okie from Muskokee.”
One of the party guests, a man in his forties, was dressed head to toe in full cowboy attire, including sheriff’s star and a six-shooter – which Fuzzy at one point pulled from its holster, brandished at the dancers and then fired at the ceiling – fortunately, it was loaded with blanks....
(I haven't been back to that place -- I'm sure I could never find it again. But I ran into Fuzzy last year [that is, 2007]; he was working as the blacksmith at the Halter Valley private wild west town near Pilsen in CZ.)
"Fuzzy" at Halter Valley, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
I'm hoping to be able to get to Pullman City while Willie is there, as I haven't seen him for several years.
He moved to Texas in 2005, and the last time I saw him was in May of that year -- I visited him where he was living near Templin, north of Berlin, and he took me to explore an abandoned former Soviet army base nearby. Willie and his wife had moved there to work for a new Wild West theme park, Silver Lake City, which -- at that point -- had gone bust. So they picked up and moved to the real west. The park has since reopened as Eldorado. I have yet to see it in action... Willie took me on a tour of Silver Lake City out of season in the winter of 2005, but almost everything was shut.