There is a really good chance that if you polled Dallas’ community of rock, jazz, noise and noir musicians regarding who the best local guitarist is, Longhorse would be at or near the top of the list. If they have played with him, they’ll tell you that, when he is on, he's tough to match. “He’s a phenomenal musician that plays totally in the moment, and without the pretension of most gifted guitarists,” says bass legend Kinley Wolfe.
A true journeyman musician, Longhorse picked up the guitar at age 14 and, as he puts it, “got really good, really quick.” He was playing in bands around his hometowns of Washington, D.C. and New York by his late teens. He married at 19. “Prettiest girl in school,” Longhouse recalls. “And she was a great guitarist that taught me to fingerpick.”
The marriage dissolved quickly. He fell into playing in various soul reviews around the D.C. area, where “having a white guitarist playing in a black band was totally cool.” He bounced around various other bands, frequently touring the East Coast and South, and eventually found himself in Dallas. A friendship with a woman tending the bar at Club Clearview led to calling Dallas home. It didn’t take long to get wired into the Dallas music scene
If you have seen local music at all around town over the past 25-plus years, you’ve probably seen Longhorse ply his trade. He has been the nexus of countless bands, remembered and forgotten. Bands like Radio Love Gods (described by Longhorse as “leather pants rock”), Rumble (“rockabilly pop”), 66 (“many iterations, too hard to label”), Mr. Pink (“rockabilly Sinatra”), Jack Ingram (“country”), Shanghai 5 (“cabaret jazz”) and the Immaculates. And that's the short list.
Longhorse can play in almost any musical context; these days you'll see him playing solo gigs and handling guitar duties for the Freeloaders. But beyond his guitar skills, Longhorse has been a restless explorer of ideas. The Immaculates, for instance, has loosely been around for 15 or so years in various incarnations and musical styles. With drummer Bryan Wakefield and Gregg Prickett on bass, the Immaculates used deliberately low-fi samples to create music that Prickett describes as “certainly not categorizable back then, and probably not categorizable today, but a weird, circus-y thing.”
“Most musicians around Dallas have three day jobs to support their music habit,” says Wolfe. But not so with Longhorse; he's never had a day job that didn’t involve music. Giving private lessons, gigging practically nightly a variety of bands, frequently touring, he lived hard and partied harder. When he partied too hard, the music and band relationships suffered.
“There were always weird personality conflicts, he was not always the most diplomatic person, and his using drugs to deal with the problems didn’t help,” Prickett recalls. On top of that, he could not effectively explain to his bandmates the music he was trying to create. “He had ideas that were ahead of their time, and we weren’t always able to see the vision,” says Prickett.
Longhorse and his wife decamped from the Lower Greenville neighborhood and moved to Lancaster a few years ago. The isolation did not serve him well, professionally or personally. He eventually separated from his wife, relocated to Oak Cliff and took a much-needed break from drinking. The result has been a revitalization, physically and psychically, culminating in the completion of a new album.
The songs on the album, The Immaculates, were written and partially recorded over a number of years by Longhorse. The album is resolutely low-fi: According to Longhorse, a lot of the guitar and vocal tracks were recorded in his kitchen. With his renewed focus, he pulled Prickett and Wakefield in to complete the recordings. The album fully captures the diversity of musical styles and ideas that have held his attention over his fifty years of playing. Bottleneck blues, circus polkas, Waits-style ballads, it’s all there — the ideas finally given the life immortal of a release.
Bill Longhorse and The Immaculates, featuring Gregg Prickett, Dave Prez, and Earl Darling, play Saturday, Sept. 3, at Twilight Lounge.