Country western music gets a bad rap. Opponents of the genre site whining laments of hound dogs, pickup trucks, and luckless love. But defenders of the purely American music understand that country western is nothing if not varied; from the booming lyrics and twangy guitar of Johnny Cash to the catchy pop-rock of modern artists, country western spans genres and defies definition. In the ’30’s and ’40’s, when jazz and blues were vibrating in dance halls across the nation, country western collided with those soulful melodies to make Western Swing—a specific sound perfected and instigated by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys.
James Robert “Bob” Wills was born to a musical family in Texas with a father who insisted on sharing his love for traditional ditties with his son. But Wills’s real affinity for music came from his time spent in the cotton rows with field hands descended from slaves, who sang and hummed the tunes of their ancestors all the day long. When Wills left home, he could play the fiddle and the mandolin and had mastered a repertoire of traditional songs spanning races and classes.
As a young adult, Wills earned his keep barbering and performing his beloved ballads. He spent his early years traveling around Texas and collecting band memberships, all the while developing his own style of music and performance. Wills became known for his minstrelsy and wisecracking, as well as his mastery of the fiddle, mandolin, and violin, but disputes with band members and radio hosts left him without a permanent gig. In 1934 in Waco, Texas, that all changed when he put together The Playboys. Shortly thereafter, recognizing their imminent success, the band relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and became Bob Wills and His (or The) Texas Playboys.
The Texas Playboys starred in a regular radio show on KVOO, recorded in Tulsa’s famed Cain’s Ballroom and occupying the popular lunch hour from 12:30 to 1:15, Monday through Friday. The band also played regularly at dance halls in the evening, including Cain’s. They quickly garnered a passionate fan base in their adopted hometown of Tulsa as listeners gathered ’round radios and lined up outside to catch a glimpse—or sound—of Wills and his bandmates. With Wills starring on the fiddle, Tommy Duncan on piano and vocals, June Whalin strumming the rhythm guitar, his brother Johnnie Lee Wills on the tenor banjo, and Kermit Whalin on steel guitar and bass, the band began creating their own personal style.
When Wills hired Everett Stover as an announcer, he had no idea of the impact such a simple decision would have on the sound of the band. Though Wills intended for him to announce, Stover had other plans: he had played trumpet in the New Orleans Symphony, and when Stover whipped out his horn on stage, Wills didn’t contest the new sound. He did, however, add a saxophone shortly thereafter and then realized that in order to balance those new horn sounds, he also needed to add a drummer. And so, the essentials of swing—the groovy bellow of horns and the tip-tap of drums—made their way into country western music. Now Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys weren’t just creating a unique sound, they were hallmarking an entirely new genre of music.
In 1935 their enormous cast of talented musicians at the ready, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys sat down in Tulsa to record their first album. What they produced was unlike anything ever done before. The roots of the sound stretched deeply into the verdant earth of country western, but Wills’s trademark scat and jesting, the bluesy soul of the new instruments, and the catchy pop leanings all set the band apart. The band welcomed the era and genre of Western Swing.
Wills and his bandmates didn’t just instigate a new sound but a new aesthetic. Dressed in custom-made cowboy boots and double-breasted suits, Wills led the musicians, who were all decked in crisp white shirts, neckties, and western-style pants. Topped with polished cowboy hats, the large group made a perfect set. Even as they forged a new musical sound, Bob Wills and His Texas Cowboys also ushered in Western chic style.
The band remained a Tulsa institution through the ’30’s even as they gained nationwide popularity. The early ’40’s found them on the sets of movies, but the band soon shattered with the onset of war—even Wills himself left the band to serve. In 1943, after leaving the Army, Wills relocated to Los Angeles and began reorganizing The Texas Playboys. The band quickly regained popularity and was soon overselling acclaimed acts like Benny Goodman up and down the West Coast. Despite their popularity outside the South, Bob Wills and his bandmates remained loyal to their home, penning such titles as “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
By mid-century the demand for Western Swing and Bob Wills and His Texas Cowboys had declined, but the band and her leader remain icons of music across genres and decades. Waylon Jennings’s “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” a pointed confirmation of Wills’s sobriquet as the King of Western Swing, is still performed regularly and covered by country artists. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and in 2011 their trademark sound, Western Swing, became the official state music of Texas. The true heart of the genre and the band, however, lay in their ability to span musical tastes and sounds. As sung in their tune “Time Changes Everything”: You can change the name of an old song, rearrange it and make it a swing. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys took country western, rearranged it, and made it Western Swing.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys Sing “Stay a Little Longer”
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