“You can change the name of an old song
Rearrange it and make it swing … ”
— Bob Wills, “Time Changes Everything”
What goes around comes around: one of the most critically acclaimed albums of recent years was The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, featuring a bunch of postmodern pickers from Chicago (some via England); this year, Asleep at the Wheel’s Bob Wills tribute, Ride With Bob, with an all-star country cast sitting in as guest artists, won two Grammy awards; and the swing influence leaps from the music of all manner of Texas country circuit riders, from Ed Burleson to Clay Blaker to Don Walser to Johnny Bush. Sixty-five years after his first recording sessions with the Texas Playboys, 25 years after his death, Bob Wills is still the king.
It’s tempting to chalk up this indisputable fact to the swing-dance revival of the past few years, but that’s only one factor. Remember that Wills enjoyed a comeback of sorts once before, in the early seventies, spurred by Merle Haggard’s heartfelt A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. Out of this resurgence came the Haggard-organized Playboys reunion album For the Last Time (Wills was so ill at the time that he could only watch the sessions), the birth of the “new” Willie Nelson and the outlaw country movement, Asleep at the Wheel, Alvin Crow, George Strait, and the like. In the mid-eighties the boom manifested itself primarily in the number of western swing festivals and associations in the Southwest. Today Wills is being resurrected by mainstream country stars like Beaumont’s Tracy Byrd, alternative-country stalwarts like Englishman Jon Langford, and swing diehards like Fort Worth steel player Tom Morrell and Big Spring bandleader Jody Nix.
In a sense, the history of “San Antonio Rose,” perhaps Wills’s most enduring song, serves as a metaphor for his career and illuminates all the conflicts at play — urban versus rural, pop versus traditional — in his life and times. In 1927, while living in New Mexico, Wills wrote a mariachi-flavored fiddle instrumental called “Spanish Two-Step” after realizing that the local Chicanos weren’t dancing to his more traditional fiddle breakdowns because the beat was wrong. He recorded the song in 1935 at the first Playboys session. Caught unprepared when asked three years later to come up with a similar tune, he rearranged “Spanish Two-Step”; since he didn’t have a title for the new instrumental, he accepted the suggestion that it be called “San Antonio Rose.” By the spring of 1940 the song was so popular that the publishing company owned by Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Irving Berlin offered Wills a $300 advance to provide lyrics (which he wrote with his trumpet player, Everett Stover). The Playboys quickly recorded this updated version as “New San Antonio Rose,” while the publishers, thinking the song wasn’t mainstream enough, rewrote the music and the lyrics. Wills had to sic his attorneys on Berlin, Inc., to get the song published the way he’d written it; Bing Crosby then made it a million-selling pop hit in 1941. Thus did a commercial fiddle tune based on another commercial fiddle tune based on a traditional fiddle tune, only with more of a Mexican flair, turn into a country-pop lyric that had to be changed back from a straight pop lyric before becoming one of the era’s biggest pop hits.
The explanation for Wills’ staying power has to begin with his boundless music and dominating presence. With the exception of zydeco (think Clifton Chenier), no genre has been so fully identified with a single person. This remains true even though Wills, contrary to popular opinion, is not the father of western swing. That title belongs to singer Milton Brown of Stephenville. The two men met in 1930, soon after Wills, already a pretty fair breakdown fiddler, arrived in Fort Worth from the Panhandle town of Turkey. They began playing together (with guitarist Herman Arnspiger) in a group that would become known as the Light Crust Doughboys. Brown left to form his own band in 1932 because Doughboys boss W. Lee O’Daniel — the president and general manager of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, which sponsored the band, and a future Texas governor and U.S. senator — wouldn’t let the musicians play dances.
It was the Depression; it was the Jazz Age. O’Daniel aside, Texans wanted to dance. At the Crystal Springs Dancing Pavilion, just outside Fort Worth, the five-piece Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies quickly evolved into a “hot” string band, playing jazz, blues, and pop standards on what were considered country instruments. Brown sang in a warm, intimate style that drew anyone not dancing to the lip of the bandstand to watch. By the time the Brownies entered a recording studio in April 1934, they’d added a piano, and soon there was also a second fiddle and Bob Dunn’s maniacal steel guitar. Wills was watching. In 1933 he left the autocratic O’Daniel’s Doughboys, taking with him Tommy Duncan, the smooth singer who’d replaced Brown. To escape the shadows of both O’Daniel and Brown, Wills went first to Waco, then to Oklahoma City and on to Tulsa, where he added horns, drums (unheard of in a string band), a piano, and a steel guitar; the original Texas Playboys took shape. But by the time the Playboys first entered a studio, in September 1935, Brown’s band had already cut more than fifty sides in the style now recognized as western swing. Had he not died following an April 1936 car wreck — his funeral drew more than three thousand fans — Milton Brown, not Wills, might still be king.
Then again, who can say if Brown would have been able to match Wills’s resourcefulness? With sophisticated guitarist Eldon Shamblin serving as their musical director, Wills and the Texas Playboys quickly moved further and further away from the string band sound, taking a staggering variety of music, rearranging it, and making it swing. Their repertoire —