Bob Wills is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and when there’s a tribute to his music and memory, it’s no surprise to see Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson or Marty Stuart taking part. But did his bands play much country music? He had the most renowned and influential big band in the Southwestern United States, but does anyone expect jazz fans — or big TV documentaries on jazz — to bring him up at all?
He is usually referred to as the “founding father of western swing,” sometimes as if his band were all there was to that key alt-country movement. But Wills didn’t call his music that. And such friendly competitors as Milton Brown and the various Cliff Bruner/Bob Dunn/Moon Mullican bands have perfectly good claims as co-founders and equal innovators of the music. Compared to those performers, some have even labeled Wills and company “overrated” in recent years — but does that take the big picture into consideration?
Wills’ music, right along with singing cowboy music, was what used to put the “western” in country & western — but is there much specifically western or cowboy at all about the Playboys output? The mystery of Bob Wills is complicated, and has been hanging out there for years.
We get a massive new set of clues with the release of this Bear Family box — extravagant even for them, with some 300 cleanly delivered cuts and some alternate takes on 11 CDs, covering his entire output through the key Columbia Records years (1929-47), most of it hard to find for years or unavailable. Then they add his feature film Take Me Back To Oklahoma on DVD, and a 185-page hardbound coffee table book with text by Rich Kienzle, movie posters, photos, a complete discography, and an almost day-to-day biography. (The book and movie should be made available as separate items, given that the lavish package will obviously not make it into everyone’s collection.)
There’s country here, all right. It’s in those few numbers that presage honky-tonk, in the way the steel from Leon McAuliffe and others takes us toward the way that instrument would eventually be used, in the set of Jimmie Rodgers covers the band plays through the years. But the country side is found overwhelmingly in Wills himself — especially in that beautifully bastard Texas-born fiddle playing, which takes off from Skillet Lickers fiddle music, touches on square dance and Border music, turns on Texas and Mississippi string band music, and visits the jazz blues of Bessie Smith. All of them.
But rural string band dance music remains a key element of the Playboys as they so dramatically evolve, to the point that in their broadcasting years, a separate radio show would be needed to handle it. The tension between the country string and jazz sounds even becomes the subject of a number such as “There’s Going To Be A Party For The Old Folks” — which welcomes the swing kids to old-timey music.
The numbers here largely feature that remarkable, classic Playboys lineup: Tommy Duncan on vocals (with an even wider range than the hit collections show — he challenges Milton Brown as a blues singer, for instance), Eldon Shamblin on guitar, McAuliffe on steel, Al Stricklin on piano, and an ever-evolving series of second fiddles, clarinets, trumpets, saxes, banjos and drums.
They were out there playing hot dance music for a decade before the Benny Goodman-era pop swing craze hit. The hundreds of recorded numbers here, still just a fraction of what was played live, feature the Playboys as a string dance band, an early-’30s New Orleans-influenced hot jazz band (which they’d still play later as Bing’s brother Bob Crosby revived interest in Dixieland), an “Oh You Kid” frat-boy lounge-lizard sweet band, and yes, by 1938 and a number such as “Big Beaver”, a full-tilt — and genuinely swingin’ — Swing Band.
And it doesn’t stop there. Lester “Junior” Barnard shows up postwar with his Brain Cloudy-era proto-rockabilly guitar leads, and the Playboys roll right along into the Jump era. There’s even the occasional western number, though the west lives mainly in the cowboy hats (not even worn until the movies) and the place references in the songs.
What this collection shows is that, through all these changes and permutations, the key factor — for the sound, for the audience response, and finally, for what does set this band apart from its competitors — is (surprise!) Bob Wills. If he famously had to fight to keep those “Ahhhhhs!” and “Take it away, Leons!” and running comments on the lyrics on record, “making the music hard to hear” as clueless producers first had it, it’s clear now that these sounds were crucial to reminding audiences what this band was.
Derived equally from minstrel comedy, Mexican “Ay-Ay-Ay” responses and square-dance caller patter, the “interruptions” are winning in themselves — but they’re there to keep Wills in the picture, as he always was. He dominated this band live, as the movie’s versions of “Take Me Back To Tulsa” and “Lone Star Rag/Playboy Special,” for instance, make rivetingly clear.
In performance, he dominated the stage no matter who was soloing — up close, keeping time with his bow, shimmying as those exclamations jumped out, practically moonwalking. Some will find the beaming, 1920s Cheshire grin a bit much now, but he seems to seize the stage with a style halfway between Jolson and — not Elvis, but Jagger. You don’t watch anyone else when he’s there.
This new revelation of the body of Wills’ work shows the pieces of the puzzle in their motley and scattered forms: from moments of sublime fiddle and steel propulsion that takes the listener to twang heaven (and sometimes to the steps of bluegrass), to the maudlin salutes to one too many curly-headed tots, to covers of Tin Pan Alley tunes, to Charleston numbers, to stomping electric blues.
It’s all here. But the numbers that flame are the ones where the synthesis of all of the elements is most complete, especially in that remarkable 1939-41 period, in which we get “Ida Red” and “Lone Star Rag” and “Corrine Corrina” and “Big Beaver” and the version of “San Antonio Rose” that sticks, and “My Window Faces The South”, and “Twin Guitar Special” — and “Drop Us Off At Bob’s Place”.
The irony is, in a very real way, this massive release demonstrates that the available packages focusing on the hits do this band and its leader a great deal of justice. Because the audience really got Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys in the first place, even if puzzled musicologists often don’t. The best stuff is the least pure.