Belfast writer wishes Bob wouldn't holler

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Belfast hosted a songwriters' festival recently, which featured musicians from Belfast's American sister city, Nashville.

(That's an apt pairing. Belfast is the buckle of the Bible Belt of Europe, the most religious region in the UK. Nashville is HQ for the Southern Baptist Convention. And Tennessee was settled by Ulster Scots, sometimes known as Scots-Irish, who are ethnically connected to the Presbyterians of Northern Ireland.)

FAMEmagazine's Billy McCoy reviewed one of the festival's concerts:

Lee Roy Parnell and Paul Overstreet were brilliant, not only for their singing, but for their repartee, they worked well together, were very friendly and appreciative of their reception. Lee Roy was particularly good at the Bob Wills number 'Moo Cow Blues' and it was even more pleasing to hear it without the interventions which, in my opinion, takes away from the original. This feature, in my opinion, spoils most of Bob Wills, otherwise good music.

First of all, Billy, it's "Milk Cow Blues," by Kokomo Arnold, and it's one of many old-time blues numbers that Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys performed. And Bob's brother Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys had a hit with it, too.

As for those "interventions," Art Satherley, the Englishman and traditional folk music enthusiast who was Bob Wills's producer from 1935 to 1947, didn't like them either, at first, complaining at the Texas Playboys' first recording session that Bob's hollering was covering up the musicians. He also complained about the band's use of horns and drums, unheard of in hillbilly music. Bob's response was to threaten to pack up and walk out. You hire Bob Wills, you get Bob Wills, playing his music his way.

I can't provide a direct quote, but musicians who played for Bob Wills have said that when he called out the name of one of his sidemen it was like he turned the spotlight on him. It gave the musician a boost and inspired him to play his best. Musicians and audience members alike would tell you that you could tell the difference in quality and intensity of the music when Bob was on the bandstand and when he wasn't. Such was his presence, and his hollering and smart-aleck remarks were a big part of his presence.

On recordings, Bob's hollers meant that the listener knew who was responsible for that hot solo he was about to enjoy. (And 30 to 70 years later, we know it too.) It wasn't an anonymous studio musician, it was Eldon (Shamblin) or Leon (McAuliffe), Herbie (Remington) or Noel (Boggs), Junior Barnard (aka Fat Boy, aka Boogerman, aka the Floor Show) or Jimmy Wyble, Jody (Joe Holley) or Jesse (Ashlock), or Tiny Moore on the "biggest little instrument in the world." And even when Bob recorded with Nashville studio musicians, in his '60s sessions with Kapp Records, he gave them the same courtesy, for instance calling out "Brother Pig!" when Hargus "Pig" Robbins took a chorus on the piano and "Ah, Tay!" for a Gene "Tagg" Lambert guitar solo.

The audience responded, too, to Bob's hollers. They were an essential part of the Texas Playboys dance experience, so much so that Cindy Walker wrote a song to answer the musical question "What Makes Bob Holler?"

Well, when a little sweetie-pie
In a mini-skirt twirls by
And rolls those big blue eyes
Ahhh! I holler!
And when some pretty chick
Says she likes my fiddle lick,
Well, that can do the trick.
Ahhh! I holler!

To say that Bob Wills's music would have been better without the hollers is to miss the point. Bob's hollers were as much a part of his music as his fiddle, so essential that when Bob suffered a stroke after the first day of recording for For the Last Time and was unable to return, his old friend Hoyle Nix filled in with his best impression.

The songs are certainly strong enough to stand on their own, and plenty of other bands have recorded great versions of his music, but a Bob Wills song is missing something without a Bob Wills holler.

MORE: A couple of Bob Wills links of interest which I don't think I've posted yet:

Last September 18, jazz and pop music writer Will Friedwald wrote a very insightful review in the New York Sun of the Legends of Country Music box set. He starts with the first track, "Sunbonnet Sue," recorded in 1932 when Bob Wills and Milton Brown were with the Light Crust Doughboys, and explains how the structure is closer to popular music of the day rather than traditional folk music:

Yet the moral of "Sunbonnet Sue"is that even by 1932, there was no longer such a thing as pure roots music. The phonograph had already entertained several generations, and particularly after about 1920 — when commercial broadcasting began and when jazz, blues, and country began to be heard regularly on record — everyone in every part of the nation began listening to everybody else....

At the time, the mainstream music press labeled all sounds produced by black people as "race music" and all music produced by white people anyplace other than the two coasts or the Great Lakes as Hillbilly. Wills hated this term, much the same way New Orleans jazzmen hated being called "Dixieland." He brought both new energy and sophistication to records by importing ideas wholesale from the swing bands that were starting to dominate the music business in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Friedwald goes on to cite examples of the variety of music the Texas Playboys performed over the years, as sampled in the box set.

Next, here's the entry on Bob Wills from the MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music. It includes a number of details that you won't find in other biographies on the web, and includes parenthetical mini-bios of Leon McAuliffe, Tommy Duncan, and other Wills sidemen.

Also on the MusicWeb site is an e-book, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music. Chapter 7, The Jazz Age, the Great Depression and New Markets: Race and Hillbilly Music includes a section on the Texas Playboys, putting them in the context of other popular musicians of the era, like Paul Whiteman, Bennie Moten, the Blue Devils (from Oklahoma City), Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Bessie Smith. (Did you know that Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong? And with a Hawaiian band? Me, neither.) You'll learn something about the origins of the steel guitar and the dobro and about the importance of flour to popular music of the period.

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3 Comments

W. Author Profile Page said:

Not liking Bob Wills' hollers?

That's just so WRONG!

That's like saying, "I like Louis Armstrong, except when he plays his trumpet."

John England said:

Hey Michael,

I couldn't agree more with your comments about Bob's holler.

He learned it from the medicine shows, and it's one of the things that separated him from the pack. His comments allowed his band to play hot jazz while still holding the attention of the casual listener, who might not be interested in 2 choruses of steel guitar improvisation.

One feels Bob's personal charisma when listening to his records. As a kid, I listened to Chuck Berry's "London Sessions" over and over. His live performance is similar to Bob's, in that you feel his mind working, and trying out new things. He's "in the moment".

Since the rock era began, live performances of popular music have mostly been rote repetitions of popular recordings. It's a passive experience for the listener.

It wasn't always thus, and Bob's hollering reminds me of a time when a performer was deeply involved with his audience, and they with him.

Whew! Sorry for the long blast; what I meant to say was "I'm right with you, way to go!"

John E

John England said:

I also thought the Will Friedwald piece was great.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 31, 2007 10:59 AM.

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