I have to make a musical confession: Before I spent ten years in Texas, there were two genres where I had a deaf spot – or whatever you call the aural equivalent of a blind spot. One was jazz-rock fusion. The other was western swing.
And though the hybrids were poles apart, I resisted both for similar reasons: They seemed to dilute the strengths of music that I loved in a purer form. Jazz-rock fusion was showoff stuff, lacking the maturity and emotional depth of real jazz and the primal power of real rock, offering instead complexity for complexity’s sake.
As for western swing, I would have rather listened to real Texas country like Lefty Frizzell’s or real swing like Benny Goodman’s than the hokey hybrid purveyed by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. If I loved “Bob Wills Is Still The King”, which I did and do, it was because it sounded like a Waylon Jennings song rather than a Bob Wills song.
I guess I got acculturated, as Texans would never say. Old dancehalls filled with dancers who were almost as old softened me up. So did Don Walser, George Strait and Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. Asleep At The Wheel, still carrying the torch of western swing, began to sound like more than a novelty anachronism to me. And the great fiddler Johnny Gimble provided a living link to the Wills legacy.
The music of fiddler/bandleader Bob Wills remains so deeply imprinted within the lifeblood of Texas that resistance was futile. Wills’ western swing isn’t a diluted hybrid but a radical departure, distinctly different from both Frizzell and Goodman, as much a part of the state’s unique cultural dynamic as wide open spaces and homemade salsa. Denying the enduring appeal of Wills’ music is like denying oxygen or gravity.
But I’d like to think that even if I’d never moved to Texas or heard any western swing, I’d be blown away by the new ten-disc set The Tiffany Transcriptions. Throughout these mid-1940s recordings, earmarked for radio rather than retail, the band doesn’t simply swing, it smokes. This is music that revels in its iconoclasm. This is a jazz band with steel guitar, a blues band with two or three fiddles, a country band with wilder electric guitar than rockabilly would soon deliver. It’s a band that can draw from the repertoire of Benny Goodman and Woody Guthrie, Count Basie and Jimmie Rodgers. It’s equally at home with “Red River Valley” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”.
Such refusal to respect categorical boundaries is one of the main things I love about Texas music. While each of these ten discs is a delight – and the last, featuring the vocals of the McKinney Sisters, is a particular revelation – disc two in particular shows not only the band’s reach but the depth of its legacy. Framed by signature tunes – opening with the one-two punch of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Faded Love” and closing with a definitive “San Antonio Rose” – the disc encompasses “Stay A Little Longer”, later to be a Willie Nelson perennial; “Ida Red”, the inspiration for Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (and thus a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll); “Cotton Eyed Joe”, soon to be the national anthem of Texas dancehalls; and “Cherokee Maiden”, one of the band’s many dips into the classic Cindy Walker songbook.
Samples from disc two of The Tiffany Transcriptions
Because the recordings weren’t limited by the time restrictions of the dominant 78 rpm vinyl format of the day, the band has the leeway it needs to stretch out and let loose. Pianist Millard Kelso, guitarists Junior Barnard and Eldon Shamblin, and mandolinist Tiny Moore are among the many stalwarts who take full advantage. As steel guitarist Herb Remington writes on the sleeve to disc four, “I think music fans, not just Bob Wills fans, will truly enjoy these sounds of a time when music was melody, and instrumentalists were recognized for their individual styles.” Listening to these sessions is like being in the liveliest Texas dancehall with the hottest band in the land: Stay all night, stay a little longer.
If further testament to the enduring appeal of western swing were necessary, the release of Willie And The Wheel celebrates a kindred-spirit teaming of Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel that brings out the best in both. It’s also a revelation, as horns add a Dixieland feel to some of the arrangements, bringing the music closer to New Orleans than Texas, and Wheel alumnus Floyd Domino graces the sessions on piano.
Samples from Willie And The Wheel
Nelson sounds as much in his element as he does with his own band. While drawing from some of the same material as The Tiffany Transcriptions, this is more than another Wills tribute, widening the net to acknowledge the seminal influence of Wills’ former bandmate, Milton Brown. The project apparently was first mentioned more than 35 years ago, when the late Jerry Wexler helped re-launch Nelson’s career (and put Austin on the musical map). He’d subsequently suggested to the Wheel’s Ray Benson a bunch of western swing songs that he thought it would be perfect for Nelson to sing.
The duet by Nelson and Benson on “Right Or Wrong” highlights this disc in a manner that would have fit fine on Nelson’s classic Stardust. But the whole album sounds closer to classic Nelson than to the throwaway collaborations that have marked too much of his career. This is a labor of love, the love of Willie for the Wheel and vice versa, and the love of all for western swing.
As for jazz-rock fusion, I still think Charlie Watts is a far greater drummer than Billy Cobham.
Promo video for Willie And The Wheel