The Magazine


Apr 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 31 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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."