Country Music Sweethearts Find New Purpose in Orange
by Ginger Broomes
If you know Bob and Kimberly Manning of Orange – Bob’s trademark handlebar mustache and denim overalls, and Kimberly’s bubbly personality and long mane of red hair - then you know they look like a couple that would have stories to tell. And they are.
Bob is Security Chief at a plant, but restores antique furniture in his spare time. Kimberly is on the board of directors at the Heritage House in Orange and is a photographer. They live in the historic district of Orange, in a beautiful two-story home full of antiques.
But the story is how the two of them got here.
Bob was raised all over the US but from high school until college, he was a rodeo cowboy in Oregon, whose cowboying days were cut short due to an injured back. Bob joked that he went to paramedic school after rodeoing due to his experience with so many of them.
From rodeo cowboy to paramedic one thing stayed with him – music.
“All of my life I played music,” Bob said. “ I used to have a band at 14. Dad was a preacher, mom Sunday school teacher.” But he played bass in his band secretly, often telling his parents he was staying at a friend’s. To this day his mother still doesn’t know. His biological dad was a musician – and the stereotype of ‘sex drugs and country’.
“I understood that, but I loved country music,” he said. Bob played local clubs, including gigs where he filled in for a guy in a band that would later become “Confederate Railroad” – David Allan Coe’s road band.
His band, “Bob Manning and the Honky Tonk Road Show”, went to Nashville to record some albums, trying to sell the music. They even appeared on a TV show with Charlie Daniels – “Charlie Daniels’ Talent Roundup”.
“I recorded some demos, played some festivals, trying to get into the music scene,” Bob recalled. But the publishers in Nashville advised him, “If you want to make it in Nashville, you’ve got to leave Nashville.”
“Everybody pointed out that every waiter, bartender there (in Nashville) was an aspiring musician. The ones that had made it, the ones that were recording music, would go home – back to Oklahoma or Texas - and sell their trade. So that’s what I did. Went back to Oregon, remained a paramedic, but got the band back together.”
While in Nashville, Bob did receive an offer from Heartland Records to play “Christian Country”.
“Prior to the 80’s, country music was all about drinking and living wild, and “Christian country” would consist of only positive themes,” Bob said. “Born out of that were guys like Vince Gill. The idea was that it was country music that Christian folks could listen to and not be repulsed by the cheating, drinking and crying and losing that was in country music. Love and positive stuff. “
Heartland offered front money and said they would make him a star. For that, he would have to put out three albums.
“I chickened out. The music I was writing at the time was losing, crying, rip your guts out . I was having trouble thinking how the hell I’m going to write country music with unicorns and rainbows, and if I couldn’t deliver, I would owe back all the front money. I just couldn’t do it.”
Back in Oregon, he embarked on a successful career as a regional artist up and down the West Coast. “Bob Manning and The Honky Tonk Road Show” had the same core guys through 20 years.
“I didn’t realize how spoiled we were until I moved here (to Texas). Everyone knew the music and how we played, and regionally we were THE named act for country music.”
The band cut seven albums, all with the ‘Bakersfield Sound’ – made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. It was “West Coast Country”, and different from Nashville, different from Texas. When Kimberly came on board, they called it the “Tex-rated Bakersfield Sound”. The trajectory of the band was patterned after Buck Owens.
“He (Owens) never ventured off the West Coast that was his bread and butter – early on. From Oregon to California,” Bob said.
Bob met Kimberly, in 2009 when she came along on the ‘Honky Tonk Road Show’. Kimberly (then Kimberly Murray) had been on her own musical trajectory in her home state of Texas.
“I was playing clubs for the label “Heart of Texas” records,” Kimberly said. “There was another girl on the label, who’d been on the Grand Ole Opry. Bob became aware of her, and thus, me.”
Kimberly had already cut a few solo albums by that time, and one weekend her record label was taking a busload of people to see Loretta Lynn in concert. After the show, she got to hang out on Loretta Lynn’s tour bus, followed by a stop at Pearl’s Dance Hall in the Fort Worth Stockyards. There, she first met Bob.
“I was too preoccupied with having been on Loretta Lynn’s bus to pay him much attention,” Kimberly remembered.
Bob said he fell ‘in adore’ with Kimberly the moment he saw her.
“ I didn’t want anything to do with him,” Kimberly recalled. “He booked some shows for me, which was just a way to get me out there.”
Kimberly began touring with the Honky Tonk Road Show on more and more shows. While Bob remained a paramedic AND a musician, Kimberly had been in law enforcement for 17 years in Stephenville, Texas, working up to Sergeant, all while being a solo act and singing in Bob’s band. She performed on weekends in Odessa or Ft Worth.
One performance stands out to her. While performing at Pearl’s, she recognized a man in the audience. A man she had once booked into jail - who had pulled a knife on her - was in the front row.
“Luckily I’d called the sheriff to keep an eye out and there were all the guys on stage. He was just a fan of the music. They tend to be different out in the world versus in jail.”
Despite Bob falling ‘in adore’ with Kimberly, the feeling at first was not mutual.
Bob recalled, “She told me one time she called me stinky boy. She told me all boys would hurt you. So for the entire month of September 2009, every day for a month he mailed her an index card with a reason why he would never hurt her.” Some were deep, some were silly, but gradually they wore her down.
Kimberly was on stage with her record label at Pearl’s Dance Hall, performing for their big anniversary show with eight hundred people in attendance, including the likes of Gene Watson and Moe Bandy, when Bob dropped to one knee on stage and proposed. He gave her a ring with a pearl in it – signifying the club they had first performed at together.
“I figured if I did it in front of 800 people, she wouldn’t hurt me too bad,” said Bob.
They were married in 2011.
They didn’t have a plan for after the wedding. She went back to Texas to continue in both law enforcement and music while he continued being a paramedic and playing music in Oregon. After a few weeks, realizing long-distance wasn’t going to work, she quit her job as sergeant, and Bob put in for a transfer to Port Arthur for his “day job”. By then, even the night job of the band had become more of a business than a joy. He was promoter, accountant and more for the band.
“I had these guys who were family and my best friends. How do you tell them you’re busting up the band? But I couldn’t rely on someone else to not book us into a bowling alley or something. So, the job change to Port Arthur was the catalyst to something about it.“
“My thought was a little Pollyannaish. I could come here and put together a new band. But that’s when I realized the whole thing was ruined. When you’re with the same guys 20+ years, they know your rhythm, they know the songs. We hired some great players here, but it was just like going through the motions.”
Both Bob and Kimberly had always written their own music, and what they were writing was in the style of 1960s & 70s country music, and that era was where their heart was.
“But locally, you’ve got a guy that spent 20 years playing for Ray Price and you call out one of your tunes, he doesn’t know it, he doesn’t feel it’s his place to have to learn it. It cut us out of doing any of our original stuff,” Bob said.
They were relegated to playing covers that the new bandmates knew. The Road Show was gone and so was the unique sound. It went from West Coast Country to Texas Country. Bob quit the band in 2017, selling everything but a couple of guitars.
Settling in Orange, Bob and Kimberly had to find something else for their creativity, but it was hard to replace a career in music.
“There’s nothing like standing on stage with a couple thousand people singing your songs,” Bob said. He remembered one of the last things “The Honky Tonk Road Show” had done as a band, which was a tour in Scotland and Ireland, with Connie Smith from the Grand Old Opry.
“That was the peak of our career. We’re standing on this big stage in Northern Scotland, looking out at 2500 people on the dance floor, dancing to your original music and every one of them knew the words and were singing them back to us.”
“We were somebody in Scotland and Ireland and didn’t know it,” Bob said. “Here we are touring with Connie Smith, Bobby Flores. We had all these Texas and Nashville artists, and we realize this is why we do what we do. And on the heels of that, we come back here and we’re doing covers, no one wants to pay us. We have to pay our dues. I’ve already done this. And I was to the point burnt out enough on the business that I’ll be damned if I’m going to start over.”
Kimberly had always loved photography, so Bob bought her a camera. She studied and learned more about photography, even mentoring under Colin Park, a renowned photographer, who had also done a couple of their album covers. She gravitated toward photography that told a story and was more art – creating scenes and Norman Rockwell-style visions.
Then Hurricane Harvey happened. Bob, who had always been into antiques and “fix-it” projects, saw heirloom furniture on curbs, and was heartbroken at the sight. He advertised on Facebook and took in about 425 pieces of storm-damaged furniture.
“There were a lot of times we were standing in people’s driveway crying with them,” Bob said. “You’d have this 80-year-old lady looking at her curio that her grandfather built, and it was now just pieces of wood and glass. That drove us to form ‘Old Orange Restoration’."
In between his job at the plant, Bob worked restoring furniture, and the business has made Bob and Kimberly new but lifelong friends.
Kimberly has now done three album covers for musicians, and every other she does archive photos for the Heart of Country Music Museum in Brady. Recently, she was been commissioned by the label to do portraits of all the artists – Norma Jean, Tony Booth, Dottsy, Darrell McCall –legendary artists from the golden era of country music.
“That’s where we live,” Bob said. “We live in that creative zone.“
The Manning’s have found their creative outlets – and their home - in Orange, Texas.