IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
Apr 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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.