Billy Kaye was my Dad’s friend first, but was really a friend of the family. My family has a habit of adopting people whose own family lives too far away to get together frequently. So I got to know Billy Kaye at Thanksgiving dinners, though I’d see him and his wife around town. That’s the benefit of a small town. Now Thanksgiving is going to be missing Billy and his guitar.
See, Billy Kaye was a cowboy. He was a classic country singer, playing Waylon Jennings as well as his own songs. He had one of those rough cowboy attitudes that is as amusing as it (can be) offensive. I say that last part with a smile, because Billy was always, only Billy. And I love that in people. You never had to question what he was thinking, because, well, he always “said what he meant and meant what he said, and if you didn’t like it, then you could lump it.” He was fond of talkin’ like a cowboy and it made sense. That’s what he was.
Billy was in a guitarist and a singer in his band, Billy Kaye and the Outlaw Country Band. He was a racecar driver and sponsored my brother in his dirt-track racing, always there for the races when ever possible. He loved life and he made you love it to. I didn’t know him that well, since he was more my Dad’s friend, but I’m going to miss him just the same.
Now I reckon I oughtta tell you’s a bit about Billy and my Dad, his cowboy compadre (in the cowboy slang, not the Spanish meaning). Billy taught my Dad to play guitar. This was something my Dad had always wanted to do; to play guitar around the campfire in the backyard, wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson (Stetsons are cool). And now he does. These are memories the whole family, but especially the grandchildren (my nieces and nephews), will now cherish. Billy had a huge part in that. He and my Dad enjoyed the same things, the same music, cowboy memorabilia, and Winchester rifles. And as Billy began to lose his struggle with cancer (after 12 years) he had a special request for my Dad.
See, my Dad is a custom woodworker (among other such skills). And being a fellow cowboy himself, he was honored by this request. Billy asked my Dad if he wouldn’t mind building a cowboy’s casket for him. My Dad agreed.
This may sound morbid and possibly a little cruel, but you wouldn’t think so if you knew Billy, or my Dad. To me it was a profound testament to the friendship between these two men. These cowboys. My Dad was honored, and said so in plain terms. ‘Cause cowboys, these weathered midwestern men had an understanding. So my Dad built Billy a cowboy’s pine box, a beautiful casket with a decorative cross on the cover. At the wake and the funeral he was complimented many times, but he only responded with, “Well, it’s just built to Billy’s specification.”
After the funeral ceremony we all followed the casket out while Roy Roger’s Happy Trails filled the church sanctuary. It was a perfectly gray, but beautiful autumn day at the cemetery where Billy’s personality still filled the crowd. It was in the cowboy hats amongst friends and family. The cowboy boots on his grandson. And that simple pine casket covered in the flowers set atop the cross by his eleven grandchildren, his wife, daughters, and sister.
I wanted to write this, to share this with whom ever may be interested, because for reasons I’m not sure I understand yet it really effected me. Billy was rough around the edges, but filled to the brim with love. You could hear it as he sang and as he played guitar. He had such a full, unique personality and he will be missed. I wish you all could have known him. And I wish I could have known him longer.