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Keith Huang
Bill Neely performs with Jesse Ashlock.
Bill Neely (far left) performs with fiddler Jesse Ashlock (far right) at the Split Rail in Austin. Photograph by Jerry Kleiner.

NEELY, BILL (1916–1990). Bill Neely, composer and singer of country blues music, was born in Collin County, Texas, on September 19, 1916. He was the son of sharecroppers. He grew up in McKinney. At thirteen he met his greatest musical influence, country singer Jimmie (James Charles) Rodgers, who gave him his first guitar lesson. Because of the depression, Neely dropped out of the eighth grade to look for work at the age of fifteen. He began working at Civilian Conservation Corps camps and traveling about the country on freight trains. Although he had begun composing his own music, his musical career was arrested for four years (1939–43) by service in the United States Army. In 1943 he moved to Arizona.

In 1949 he moved to Austin, where he met musician Kenneth Threadgill. Before long, Neely was a regularly-scheduled Wednesday-night act at Threadgill's restaurant, where he played for most of the 1950s. In 1968 he befriended another Austin musician, Larry Kirbo. The two played together for nearly twelve years, including special performances in programs hosted by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Neely also played with such notable musicians as Janis Joplin, Mance Lipscomb, and Pete Seeger. In 1974 he released his only album, Blackland Farm Boy. In December 1989 he traveled to Paris, France, with three other Texas musicians to perform for two weeks at the House of World Cultures.

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Besides performing onstage, Neely owned restaurants, worked as a hotel chef, and drove a truck for the state of Texas. He married Bobbie Hamilton in 1948. The couple had three daughters, a son, and a stepdaughter. On March 22, 1990, Neely died of leukemia at home. He was buried at Capital Memorial Park. Such artists as Dan Del Santo, Alejandro Escovedo, and Nanci Griffith were influenced by his music. Neely was an inductee into the Austin Music Memorial in 2009.


Robyn Turner, Austin Originals: Chats with Colorful Characters (Amarillo: Paramount, 1982). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Keith Huang, "NEELY, BILL," accessed April 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fnewx.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on July 21, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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