Western Swing: May 2007 Archives

A guest appearance by Bob Wills and his fiddle on the country & western showcase "Star Route." Glen Campbell handles the vocals and plays the banjo on the song "Take Me Back to Tulsa."

Listen closely during the first chorus, and you'll hear Bob call, "Circle eight, spread out wide, grab your partner, go hog wild! Sooey!"

The date on the YouTube summary says 1956, but something tells me this is closer to '64 or '65.

This one's even better: Glen and Bob on "San Antonio Rose." There's an extended closeup of Bob playing fiddle. The director doesn't seem quite sure what to do with Bob's hollers. Most of them occur off camera, but he gets one in while they're still in a two-shot and is rearing back for another when the director cuts back to Glen. There's a hilarious look on Bob's face when they catch him hollering on camera, a sort of "maybe I hadn't of oughta done that" expression. And on the next verse, Glen goes up on the lyrics.

The intro says that "San Antonio Rose" "comes as close as any to being the theme song of history's greatest war" and says that over 14 million copies had been sold.

These videos illustrate the shift in focus from the band to the singer. In the Big Band era the singer was a part of the band. (Sinatra started to change that equation.) By the time this TV show was taped, the band was mere backup, and there's certainly no place on screen for a band leader who might distract from the singer with the pretty teeth and hair.

Here's a video I've posted before which highlights the band members as well as the singer: It's Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys from 1946 performing "Goodbye Liza Jane," with Tommy Duncan and the McKinney Sisters singing, and solos by Joe Holley and Louis Tierney on fiddle, Millard Kelso on piano, and the great Junior Barnard on guitar.

UPDATE 2010/03/06: In the comments, some information from an Australian reader regarding this episode of "Star Route":

The clips are from the 1964 Star Route episode "A Salute To Bob Wills" .. the guitarist is Bobby Durham from the Gene Davis Band, who were the Hollywood house band. I say Hollywood as the series was partially filmed in Toronto with a Canadian band.

The regulars, no matter which city it was filmed, were bandleader Gene Davis, featured regulars, Glen Campbell, the Collins Kids, and host Rod Cameron. It was either the Jack Halloran Singers or the Star Route Singers who sang backgrounds on various episodes.

Alas, the videos I posted have been pulled down from YouTube by the user. (Hate it when that happens.)

UPDATE 2013/08/12: The San Antonio Rose video has been reposted! (Still looking for Glen and Bob on "Take Me Back to Tulsa.")

I'm not sure what to think of this review of Legends of Country Music: Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. I think the reviewer likes the music, but I'm not sure:

Of all the subgenres of country music, perhaps none has dated as poorly as Western swing, the New Deal amalgam of jazz and the string band.

Does he mean that the music has aged well? That it doesn't seem out-of-date? That it has a certain timelessness? Or does he mean that it has nothing to offer modern listeners?

Then there's this line. See what sense you can extract from it:

It's saddening to the extent that Wills' bucolic big banditry sounds positively atavistic in the countrypolitan-on-steroids present, even to a listener who loathes latter-day Billy Sherrilloid abominations like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.

And this parenthetical comment, about Wills's use of horns and drums

(Such orchestral eclecticism might otherwise position Western swing as the country subgenre most likely to interest country haters, but for the fact that such haters hilariously seem to regard the Stratocaster as the sonic alpha and omega of Western Civilization.)

might make sense, except that Wills's guitarist and arranger Eldon Shamblin played a Stratocaster, one that was given to him by Leo Fender himself, who was a fan of western swing.

I think the reviewer, Mr. Hollerbach, managed to violate every rule in Strunk and White, and he seems more interested in impressing us with his vocabulary and his ability to string words together than communicating any actual information.

A few links, recently discovered, that illustrate the diversity of western swing and its influences:

First is an Amazon "Listmania" list by Tony Thomas, one of Amazon's top 500 reviewers. The list is entitled "Western Swing: what it is and what it ain't" and includes Thomas's recommendations and comments on 22 CDs and box sets and 3 books. His introduction:

Too many people think of Western Swing as a varient of "Country" music. In fact, the classic Western Swing of the 1930s and 1940s was closer to Jazz and Blues music and was a completely different animal than country music of its time. Indeed, the one time Bob Wills, the greatest Western Swing star, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, he was almost physically removed for using a full drum kit and smoking a cigar on stage. Go to the net page for each item to read my online reviews that go deeper into the history of Western swing. Besides all this, every one of these recordings is a load of fun to listen to.

Thomas covers albums from different eras of Bob Wills's career (the prewar recordings on OKeh and Brunswick), the Tiffany Transcriptions of the '40s, the MGM recordings from the late '40s and early '50s, For the Last Time from 1973), includes several other key western swing band leaders (Billy Jack Wills, Milton Brown, Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, Leon McAuliffe, Adolph Hofner, Moon Mullican), the western swing revival (Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard, Hot Club of Cowtown), and early influences on western swing (Mississippi Sheiks, Emmett Miller).

This article by Norman Weinstein, called Secret Jazz: The Swinging Side of Western Swing, explains how the sound of a famed jazz trombonist influenced the emerging sound of the steel guitar and how elements of the Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, big band swing, bebop, and progressive jazz found their way into the western swing repertoire. He opens the piece with this: "Western Swing is a musical genre wonderfully described by its leading historian Cary Ginell as 'a bastard child that neither country nor jazz is willing to accept into their own house.'" And here's how Weinstein tries to define western swing: "The simplest way to define the genre is to identify it as a style evolving from a hybridization of black and white Southwestern string band styles encompassing a broad variety of jazz, blues, and country music characteristics."

It should be pointed out that western swing isn't by any means disconnected from country music, but it may be more accurate to call it an influence on country rather than a branch of country music. Country stars from Oklahoma, Texas, and the Central Valley of California grew up listening to western swing and it shaped their sound -- older generation artists like Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens (who in turn influenced Dwight Yoakum), and more recent stars like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, and George Strait. And while Hank Williams isn't considered western swing, you can hear the genre's influence in his band's use of steel guitar and rhythm guitar.

If you listen to Hank Williams, it was at the peak of Bob Wills' influence, and a lot of Hank's stuff has got Western swing kind of stuff in it, especially the guitar playing, which for me was the whole thing. Like the Texas Troubadours; [Ernest Tubb] is a direct outgrowth of Bob Wills, but it was real country. That's where we came from. On a break, the Texas Troubadours would play hot jazz Western swing, and then Ernest Tubb would come up and go, "I'm walking ..." boom-chucka, boom-chucka. Which is where Junior Brown gets his sound.

That was from Ray Benson, whose band Asleep at the Wheel has led the western swing revival. Plenty of country artists are fans of western swing, and Benson had no problem recruiting country stars to perform on his two albums of Bob Wills music. Here's an Austin Chronicle interview with Benson on the 1999 launch of the second tribute album, Ride with Bob:

Six years ago, in 1993, the Wheel put out an album that was considered a landmark in the band's already storied history: Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills. It was a star-studded collection that not only won the band a Grammy, it also brought together the old masters -- former Texas Playboys like Eldon Shamblin, Leon Rausch, and Johnny Gimble -- with modern-day Nashville staples like Garth Brooks and Suzy Bogguss, and even an oddball or two, such as Benson's old pal Huey Lewis. And they made it sound great; even the bland, middle-of-the-road types who get blamed for country's current sad state came off sounding like diamonds, and the Wheel reached new audiences that had likely never heard of either them or Wills....

Later, Benson explains how his own eclectic musical tastes led him to western swing in the early '70s:

But as a kid, that was my first group there -- see those four kids? [Points at a black-and-white photo on the wall.] That's me at the top in 1960, and we sang folk music, 'cause folk music was big: Kingston Trio, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, the Lamplighters. All these musical influences were kind of going around, and then in 1969, we decided to form a band and get back to the land, which is where all the hippies were going anyway; get out and play country music, half because of Bob Dylan and half because of Hank Williams. But I had all these other musical influences. And I loved the blues. I knew everything. I didn't realize that there was compartments to music, 'cause we listened to all this music and we played it all.

So when we got to do this country band, we said we've gotta narrow our focus down. So we just played hillbilly music. And we said, "Wow! We really want to play roots music." That was our rallying cry: "We're going to play roots music!" I hate Led Zeppelin. Really. I hate white guys sounding like wimpy blues singers. But we loved blues. I love Jimi Hendrix. So we formed the band. We started doing this thing, and then the creative urge to play, to jam, to improvise especially, was there, and I couldn't do it in country music. You did a turnaround or half a chord, you know what I'm saying?

All of the sudden, Western swing entered, and I went, "Wow, I can sing hard songs with country themes and play fiddle breakdowns like I've always played in square dance bands. I mean, you could do it all. I could play swing music, improvise jazz however complex you want within the structure they give you, and wear a cowboy hat. That was the deal. That's how it all happened.

Finally, here's an article from the March 13, 1950, issue of Time magazine (bless you, Time, for putting your complete archives online) about the origin of the song "Rag Mop," a top pop hit for Johnnie Lee Wills and His Boys. It all started when steel guitarist Deacon Anderson was in the Army:

"Deacon" Anderson, 26, had worked out a kind of K.P. chantey as he swung his mop. As he explains now: "It's hard to think up words with any sense when you're tired, and I got to spelling out r-a-g m-o-p."

To Anderson, who now plays in a Western band in Beaumont, Texas, the result added up to a song; he gave it a hillbilly beat and tried it on his steel guitar. After the war, he tried to sell the song, but everyone around Beaumont thought the whole idea was just plain silly. Last year he made a recording—he didn't know how to write the notes down—and sent it to a friend with the Johnnie Lee Wills band. Says Tulsa's Johnnie Lee, the idol of the Southwest's square-toe boot and blue-jean set: "At first I thought it was crazy. Then it kinda irritated me." He rearranged it, added some notes and a little pep & polish.

At least some folks think that "little pep and polish" turned "Rag Mop" into one of the first rock and roll records.

Sometime ago, I got an e-mail from someone who stumbled across the long list of things I've written here about western swing music. The e-mail came from John England, who fronts a Nashville-based band called the Western Swingers. John asked me if I'd like a free CD, and I said, "Of course!"

John sent me a copy of Swinging Broadway, released in 2003. The whole family has been enjoying it for a couple of weeks now, and by whole family I mean everyone from the 16 month old toddler to Mom and Dad. The CD passes a couple of key quality tests:

(1) The baby bounce test: If the music makes the baby bounce up and down in his high chair, it's good stuff. In particular, "Your Turn to Cry," "Stumbling," and "Little Red Wagon" got the little one grinning and bobbing.

(Not just any music will make our kids bounce. When the oldest one was about eight months old, we went to a barbecue place we'd never tried before. The food was good, but it happened to be karaoke night. The baby bounced to the radio music that was being played before karaoke began, but he stopped when the first amateur balladeer started singing.)

(2) The humming/whistling/singing test: I've caught Mom and the two big kids humming or singing "Won't you ride in my little red wagon?"

My favorite cut on the disc is the instrumental "Stumbling," with its tight guitar ensemble work and rare bass and drum solos. For just six guys, they make a big, full sound.

The Western Swingers play most of their dates in and around Nashville, including a weekly gig at Robert's Western World on Broadway. The next time they'll be anywhere near Tulsa will be June 14 at the Legends of Western Swing Festival in Wichita Falls, Texas. (It's only 240 miles away!)

You can hear a few of their songs and find a list of upcoming dates on their MySpace profile. If you love western swing, you'll love the Western Swingers.

About this Archive

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

Western Swing: April 2007 is the previous archive.

Western Swing: June 2007 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Subscribe to feed Subscribe to this blog's feed:
[What is this?]