IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
Apr 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
In the late 1960s, the fiddle-playing bandleader Bob Wills became one of the first performers elected to the country music hall of fame. Ailing and near the close of his long career, Wills was by all appearances delighted to accept the honor that gave him a place beside such legendary figures as Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, and Ernest Tubb.
But in fact Wills had always been uneasy with the "country" label, and was never an active part of the Nashville scene. To be sure, over the decades, his celebrated orchestra, the Texas Playboys, had covered their share of standard country tunes, and during their 1940s heyday, the Playboys performed unforgettably at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
For Wills, however, "country music" connoted all the wrong things. It was too rural for his uptown ambitions, too limited for his more elaborate musical tastes. "Please," he asked Time magazine in 1945, "don't anybody confuse us with none of them Hillbilly outfits" -- and Time, fumbling for a tag, dubbed him "a backwoods Guy Lombardo."
Eventually country caught up with Wills, opening itself to the influence of other popular musical styles. During the 1960s, for example, Wills worked and recorded with Merle Haggard and other rising country stars. But in the 1930s and '40s, Wills was a singular musical presence, polishing a sound that borrowed from the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Cab Calloway, Jimmie Rogers and Bessie Smith. His widely imitated formula for musical success -- western swing -- called for a compulsively danceable mix of blues, folk, Dixieland, and big-band jazz. Under Wills, the Texas Playboys mixed trumpets and saxophones with steel and amplified guitars and -- even more radically for a country band of the time -- drums.
Wills was born in east-central Texas and maintained a long association with the Lone Star state. But for years Wills based the Texas Playboys in Oklahoma. Their long-lasting radio show, originating in Tulsa, was hugely popular throughout the Southwest. Listeners elsewhere heard the band's program via recorded transcriptions sold to stations nationwide. Radio helped Wills collect the string of hits -- "Faded Love," "New San Antonio Rose," and "Deep in the Heart of Texas" -- that remain closely linked with his name. During the 1940s, Wills and some of his sidemen went to Hollywood, appearing in a series of low budget westerns, wearing snazzy Stetsons and crooning and yodeling in spotless saloons. These "horse operas" further boosted his fame, and as stars of both radio and film, the Texas Playboys filled ballrooms and dance halls from Chicago to California.
On stage, Wills was buoyant and suave, a born showman. But off the bandstand he was a binge drinker and depressive, making life tough for his musicians and his mates. Between 1920 and 1950, he was divorced four times. His fifth wife, Betty Anderson, proved unusually resilient, sticking with the cigar-chomping King of Western Swing from 1942 until his death, at seventy, in 1975.
All of this -- the Texas Playboys' strange place in the history of country music, the dusty dance halls of Oklahoma, the emergence of the music recording industry thanks to radio, and the tumultuous life and times of Bob Wills -- is chronicled in the new Lone Star Swing, a tale of a 1995 pilgrimage in search of the roots of the music by Duncan McLean, a Scottish novelist with what even he acknowledges as a somewhat absurd passion for Bob Wills's music. Of course, by the time McLean made his first trip to Texas, Wills had been dead for twenty years. But McLean wanted to encounter firsthand the remarkable culture from which the music came, and so, in a rented car, the pale Scotsman traveled "the wide, sun-struck wilds of Texas," hoping to "track down the spirit of Bob Wills."
McLean had never visited the States before; he'd only left Scotland "a handful of times," never alone, and never going very far. Born in Aberdeenshire, McLean now lives in Orkney, off the Scottish coast, where "I couldn't drive for twenty minutes in any direction without meeting the edge of the island, the sea, and having to stop." In Texas it's possible to cruise along for what seems like forever beneath the boundless clear skies. "Driving West Texas roads," McLean writes, "is a form of meditation. They're so flat and straight and wide that you don't have to concentrate to stay on them. In fact, you barely need to be conscious. You can eat, drink, read a book, write a book, all with one finger on the wheel."
McLean gets lost in El Paso, where every road, he decides, "ends at a Tony Llama discount boot store." But for the most part McLean avoids the big Texas cities, looking for color and inspiration in more remote and even forsaken locales. He stops in the "quiet and empty" town of Whitney, for example, the " very laid back" birthplace of Tommy Duncan, the Playboys' storied lead singer, whose distinctive voice was itself "the epitome of mellowness." Elsewhere McLean calls on veteran musicians who knew or worked with Wills and remain awed by his musical skills. Wills was, one observes, "born to be a band leader": He "made you play better than you could play."
McLean is a polished writer of fiction, the author of two novels and a book of stories, vividly entitled Bucket of Tongues, which won Britain's prestigious Somerset Maugham award in 1993. But in style and tone, Lone Star Wing closely resembles The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's popular 1989 account of touring the Midwest in a borrowed Chevrolet. Like Bryson, McLean is fluid and funny, with a sharp eye for a region's curiosities and quirks. But also like Bryson, McLean can't wholly resist portraying himself as a cool dude whose progress through the provinces is too frequently hindered by difficult dealings with hopeless rubes.
Lone Star Swing, however, mostly avoids being too snide, and McLean knows how to make himself look hapless -- as when he befuddles the locals with his exotic brogue. And he is genuinely, sympathetically interested in exploring a subject about which he already knows a good deal. As a critical commentary on Wills's music, Lone Star Swing nicely complements the last study in the field, Charles Townsend's exhaustive 1986 San Antonio Rose, a more sober and scholarly account of Wills's life and career.
Like Townsend, McLean concludes that, if Wills's music must be categorized, it's probably best called jazz. There are, he notes, the inspired improvisations and "hot solos" that mark the Playboys' best recordings of the late 1930s and early '40s, when they were "as smooth and swinging as the best of Benny Goodman and Count Basie." Wills, Lone Star Swing declares, " should be filed next to Cootie Williams, not Hank Williams."
But McLean also finds several intriguing musical connections that Townsend tends to underplay. McLean sees very strong links between western swing and the music called conjunto or norteno -- the "accordion-led dance music of the Tex-Mex borderlands" that Wills knew well as a boy.
Wills, McLean notes, frequently lifted melodies from "the Mexican tradition, " just as he lifted the "coarse swaggering tone" that marks some of his most memorable recordings, including "Spanish Fandango," "La Paloma," and "Mama Inez." Long before the Texas Playboys, the Tex-Mex dance-hall bands were adding "jazz-linked instruments to a string-based core."
McLean's best discovery comes when, finally, he finds the remaining Texas Playboys performing at a Friday night dance in an old high-school gym. These are not youthful impostors, but men who, in several cases, cut their musical teeth with Wills many years before. Now well into their sixties -- and beyond -- the Texas Playboys, McLean learns, still play with gusto and verve. They " were loud, they were loose, they were really swinging hard; the rhythm section pounded out the 2/4 Wills beat -- lifting the dancers' feet and setting them down again -- while the fiddles, sax, steel, and piano tore into wild exuberant solos left right and center. They were getting like a coal miner, as Tommy Duncan used to tell them to: low down and dirty." The Playboys keep the Stetson- and denim- and gingham-wearing crowd hopping for hours before finally wrapping it up with "a magnificent rollicking 'St. Louis Blues.'"
McLean, so far from Orkney, finds himself transported and moved by this display of western swing "in its native habitat." Suddenly too shy to speak to his musical heroes, McLean leaves the hall, "and took an hour to walk the half-mile home. I dawdled, I took detours, I danced with my shadow, and I stood motionless for minutes on end replaying that wonderful music in my head one more time before it started to fade."
Brian Murray teaches in the department of writing and media at Loyola college, Baltimore.