Western Swing: March 2007 Archives

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.

Here's a nice short bio of guitarist Tommy Allsup, who played lead guitar with Buddy Holly, was an A&R man and producer for Liberty Records, and produced Bob Wills's final album. Allsup, recently inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, is carrying on the western swing tradition with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys.

Tommy's going to be touring Greece and the UK this June with Kevin Montgomery. You can find his MySpace page here.

Friday morning, Oklahoma Stomp, a new western swing band made up of nine boys, aged 12 to 16 years, played a few songs on KVOO 98.5. If you missed the live broadcast and didn't get out to Cain's Ballroom to hear them tonight, you can still listen to the KVOO podcast. Here are direct links to the songs:

San Antonio Rose"
Fat Boy Rag (the version released on Columbia, not the wild Tiffany Transcriptions version)
Roly Poly
Faded Love

These kids are good.

My wife and I had a great time tonight at the Bob Wills Birthday Celebration. We got out on the dance floor a few times. We successfully navigated the hills and valleys of Cain's curly maple floor, and we did OK with the two-step, but it took me halfway into "Goodnight, Little Sweetheart" to remember how to waltz.

The Round-Up Boys and Eddie McAlvain and the Mavericks each played a 45 minute set, then the Texas Playboys played from 9 to 11 with a 20 minute break. They said they'd be playing a longer set at the Saturday night performance.

Oklahoma Stomp, the new western swing band made up of 12 to 16 year olds, will debut at Saturday's performance. And Bob Fjeldsted, leader of the Round-Up Boys, mentioned that Bob Wills's daughter Rosetta would be there as well.

The Texas Playboys are led by vocalist Leon Rausch and guitarist Tommy Allsup (who also took vocals on several songs). Tonight's lineup: Bobby Koefer on steel guitar, Curly Hollingsworth on piano, Curly Lewis, Jimmy Young, and Bob Boatright on fiddle, Ronnie Ellis on bass, Tony Ramsey on drums, Steve "Hambone" Ham on trombone, and Mike Bennett on trumpet. Allsup, Lewis, Ham, and Bennett are all from the Tulsa area.

For the record, here is the Texas Playboys' set list from tonight:

Opening Theme
Corrine, Corrina
Lily Dale
In the Mood
Milkcow Blues
Tater Pie
Tuxedo Junction
Keeper of My Heart
Panhandle Rag
Blues for Dixie
Westphalia Waltz
Trouble in Mind
Take Me Back to Tulsa
Raining in My Heart

Faded Love
Hawaiian War Chant
I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do
Right or Wrong
Big Beaver
Goodnight, Little Sweetheart
Closing Theme

I didn't catch the title for one song, but it was a very lush, very pretty number featuring Bobby Koefer on steel guitar.

All the good things I had to say about last year's birthday celebration and performance at the Osage casino were just as true tonight. In addition to all that, I especially enjoyed hearing trombonist Steve Ham do the vocals on "Rosetta" and Curly Hollingsworth's piano choruses. Everyone on the bandstand turned in several swinging solos and wonderful ensemble work. Love those triple fiddles.

One big improvement over last year: No smoking in the building!

Most of the heads there were as gray as mine, or grayer, but there were a few younger folks there, too. One couple brought their daughter along -- she looked to be about six. A couple of thirty-something women volunteered to be Bobby Koefer's hula partners for "Hawaiian War Chant."

One young woman -- in her twenties, I'd guess -- spent most of the last set standing up at the edge of the stage, swiveling her hips to the music and taking pictures of the band with her cameraphone. With her Louise Brooks haircut, she bore an uncanny resemblance (as of a couple of hairstyles ago) to a certain rock historian turned chastity advocate, but instead of being dressed in mod-'60s clothes, her outfit was from a decade or so earlier, down to her bobby socks and saddle oxfords. A male companion was taking pictures of her from several feet away. After the last song, her boyfriend boosted her up on stage, and she went around talking to several of the musicians. (The uncanny resemblance extended to certain mannerisms. To my knowledge, however, she did not compliment the drummer on how cool it was that he held his drumsticks just like Smokey Dacus.) The couple were obviously avid fans, and I would have loved to ask how they had been introduced to the music of Bob Wills.

The dance floor stayed pretty full most of the night, particularly on the big band numbers. Just about everyone came out to dance on "Faded Love."

I hope there's an even bigger turnout tomorrow night. As I said in my column this week, if you've never experienced western swing music, you owe it to yourself to come out to Cain's this weekend. There is no better introduction than to hear it played by the best musicians in the business and to hear it in the historic dance hall where the music first took root.

In my column about Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, I mentioned that Bobby Koefer will be playing steel guitar for the Texas Playboys at the Bob Wills Birthday Celebration tonight and tomorrow night at Cain's Ballroom. I wrote that Koefer "is a joy to watch, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm and one-of-a-kind style."

Well, here's a sample of that energy, enthusiasm, and style, a video of Koefer performing the novelty song Hawaiian War Chant with Truitt Cunningham's San Antonio Rose band.

And if you'll click this link, you'll see Bobby take a chorus 56 years ago with Bob Wills, on "Sittin' on Top of the World."


This week's column in Urban Tulsa Weekly is a salute to the late great western swing band leader Bob Wills. This weekend is the annual Bob Wills birthday celebration at Cain's Ballroom, so it seemed like an opportune time to explain, to Tulsans unfamiliar with his legacy, his importance to American music and Tulsa history, what make western swing music so much fun, and why everyone needs to get out to Cain's Friday and Saturday night to listen and dance to Bob Wills's Texas Playboys, led by vocalist Leon Rausch and Tommy Allsup, both veterans of the Texas Playboys in the '50s and '60s.

The line-up this weekend includes many veterans of the Texas Playboys and Johnnie Lee Wills's band: steel guitarist Bobby Koefer, who blew us all away last year at the Playboys' performance at the Osage Casino, fiddlers Curly Lewis and Jimmy Young, and Curly Hollingsworth on piano -- not to slight the other great musicians who'll be on stage, including fiddler Bob Boatright, trumpeter Mike Bennett, and trombonist Steve Ham.

Something I didn't mention in the article: A new western swing band will be playing Saturday night's performance: Oklahoma Stomp, a collection of 12 to 16-year-old musicians organized by Tulsa fiddler Shelby Eicher, in connection with the National Fiddler Hall of Fame.


If you'd like to read something a bit more in-depth, but not book length, here's a good article about Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys from the Journal of Texas Music History.

Here's a BlogCritics review of the Legends of Country Music box set issued by Sony.

Here's a page about Leon Rausch with some of his solo recordings and recordings with Tommy Allsup and Bob Wills's Texas Playboys. And here's a page with the Texas Playboys upcoming tour dates. They're playing Lincoln Center in New York in June, part of the "Midsummer Night Swing" series of outdoor concerts and dances.

You'll find more links and some videos in BatesLine's Western Swing category.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Western Swing category from March 2007.

Western Swing: February 2007 is the previous archive.

Western Swing: April 2007 is the next archive.

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