They don’t play Bob Wills on the radio anymore. I can understand why, I guess—his music is pretty confusing to our modern ears, with its mix of western swing and big band jazz. Hell, it was all pretty confusing to people back in the day, too, until they realized they were hearing the sound of revolution. He used drums when no one in country music was allowed to have a drummer; he hollered on record when someone in his hot band nailed a hot solo, which was often; he brought the violin back to jazz and turned country music back to its roots in African-American blues music. His vision didn’t fit in with any marketing plan or business trend, so he just kind of shoved everyone else over until he had a place on the mountain. Hell, in his rowdy Texas way, Bob Wills was just as avant-garde as any other musician America has ever had.
But you know what happens to legends: they get enshrined somewhere and then forgotten. Listen to country radio for an hour sometime; you’ll hear some great singing on some well-written songs, probably, crisp instrumentation, the rough and the smooth brought together by the faceless wizards of Nashville. But you won’t hear anything like Bob Wills. It won’t even sound like western swing, the genre that Wills basically hijacked and made his own back in the early 1930s. Country is beefy and sleek now, with six-pack abs and porn-star lip-licking smiles; its poor country cousin, western music, is considered quaint, useless, as corny and old-fashioned as the tag on Minnie Pearl’s hat.
So then why does the music on this 105-song four-disc box set leap out of my speakers the way it does, all lean and snarling and lovely? Why is “Maiden’s Prayer”, with its smooth waves of confident beauty and stunning disregard for musical rules and regulations, about a million times more vital and hungry than supposed country/hip-hop hybrid “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk?” Why does the semi-instrumental “Texas Playboy Rag” say more in its two minutes and 38 seconds than anything Sara Evans has ever sung?
The answer is simple, but the journey certainly wasn’t. James Robert Wills grew up poor in rural Texas, playing with the children of other tenant farmers—white and black alike—and listening to their music. His father played fiddle and drilled young “Jim Rob” in the right and wrong ways to use the violin. He grew up and bummed around a little, absorbing blues songs like a sponge and learning how to pull off a convincing blackface act. (Yes, the minstrel thing was a big part of his legacy. Yes, this is as troubling as it is interesting.) By the time he assembled his own band in the late 1920s, Bob Wills had been around as much as anyone else, and was ready to make his mark, as well as some money, in the dancehalls of Texas.
In 1932, Wills’ group was called the Light Crust Doughboys. They were comfortably centered in Fort Worth, Texas, with a regular gig on KFJZ and the uncoincidental sponsorship of Light Crust Flour. That’s where we meet them on Disc 1, cranking out the adorable but unremarkable “Sunbonnet Sue” in typical early swing style: two guitars, Wills’ slippery fiddle, and Milton Brown on vocals, all played very straight. But the plan starts coming together on the flipside; “Nancy Jane”, a slighly naughty song by the Hokum Boys (described in the generous liner notes as a “black jug band”), gets a wilder reading, with blues-sounding interjections by Wills: his trademark “aaaah-HAAAAA”, a little “awww killin’ me!” in the background. Oh, and it’s probably the first ostensibly “country” song to use the phrase “asbestos pants”.
By track three, everything has changed. By this time, Wills had had to flee Fort Worth after getting fired by Light Crust honcho W. Lee O’Daniel (a future governor of Texas and U.S. senator) for drunkenness. He settled himself in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and bulked up his band with strings, steel guitar, a horn section, and— gasp!—a real live drummer, who often had to be camouflaged or hidden because drums WERE NOT DONE in country back then. But nothing else Wills is doing here was done, either. Certainly not Leon McAuliffe’s rockish guitar solos (his work on “Oklahoma Rag” can almost be called jagged); certainly not the heavy emphasis on jazz riffing and chords in music that was not pitched to jazz audiences; and certainly not his constant introductions of musicians’ solos during the songs and expressions of joy.
Some might say that this is Wills co-opting African-American tropes for country music. Others might say that it is his wide vision and big musical heart taking the best of all musical genres to feed his personal vision. Me, I guess I’d just say it sounds like what Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman were doing around the same time, because that’s who Bob Wills saw himself competing with for the hearts and souls of record-buyers everywhere. It also sounds like hybrid heaven. On their 1935 version of “Basin Street Blues”, vocalist Tommy Duncan seems to emphasize the line “That’s where the black and the white folks meet”, which cannot have been anyone’s best idea of how to pander to a predominantly white and rural audience. (Although the song, which of course Wills did not write, does unfortunately contain the word “darkies”, so maybe he just covered all the bases. I’ll leave that to the sociologists.)
Wills’ vision simply seems to grow stronger and more confident. Disc 2 takes us from 1937 to 1940, and hits it strong, covering all sorts of music from everywhere and making it swing. Wills’ version of “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” is unhinged and aggressive (and contains drug references galore!), and his nasal crooning on Bessie Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues” shows his deep affection for the song and for Smith herself, one of his favorite singers. We also see Wills letting his band really find themselves; he turns the microphone over to guitarist McAuliffe for a jump-blues number called “Whoa Babe”, he lets them go frantic on “You’re Okay”, and “Liza Pull Down the Shades” was apparently 100% improvised live in the studio at the end of a recording session, although one would never necessarily know it without being told. We also get some new innovations, like the pairing of guitar and steel guitar playing harmony together on “Bob Wills Special”.
But Disc 3 is where it all really hits the fan. We have already heard his huge hit “San Antonio Rose”, a pleasant ramble and monster hit. But here we get to hear Wills’ striking big-band upgrade, “New San Antonio Rose”, which sold 1 million copies for Wills in 1941 and a bunch more for Bing Crosby the same year. It doesn’t sound anything like country music, but it doesn’t not sound country either—it’s just sublimity. We also get, at the end of the disc, “New Spanish Two Step”, number one on the Folk charts for four and a half months in 1946. In between is a whole lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ and innovation. “Twin Guitar Special” is a jazzy instrumental with two guitars playing together and apart, and Wills doing his mad vocal hep-cat thing over the top: “No, not six guitars, just two!” Wills’ stylings help “Cherokee Maiden” out of the silly novelty pile into the world of hilarious selfreferential no-fourth-wall awesomeness. (This is also reflected in the number of songs with titles like “Let’s Ride With Bob”, “Drop Us Off at Bob’s Place”, and “That Hot Lick Fiddlin’ Man”.
And although Disc 4 covers the end of Wills’ career, which effectively ran out of steam in the 1950s even though he continued to tour profitably well into the following decade, it is hardly a throwaway. “Bob Wills Boogie”, from 1946, is just as wild as anything recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis ten years later, and “Bubbles in My Beer” is a credible stab at straight honky-tonk, except with extra Wills craziness. And “Faded Love” is here, the great “Faded Love”, one of his hugest hits even though its raw bluegrass style makes it sound nothing like any of his other songs. But the 1960s are, as you might imagine, less well-represented; the last three tracks are taken from Wills’ final session in 1973, but he sounds great in his spoken-word break on “What Makes Bob Holler”. (Answer: babes.)
The packaging here is amazing, with tons of rare photos and documents like a telegram from Irving Berlin congratulating Wills on the success of the first “San Antonio Rose”. Rich Kienzele contributes a laudatory overview essay which doesn’t gloss over Wills’ faults—alcoholism, poor business sense, an astounding ability to piss off people in power—but seems to forgive them all anyway. There are also extensive notes for each track, giving anecdotes as well as facts about the tracks. The design is perfect and fun and respectful, and the CDs won’t even fall out.
No one did more for country music than Bob Wills, and no one is more in need of a revival. Here’s hoping that enough music pros get hold of this set and decide that the true strength of country music is its ability to absorb other styles without merely aping them. Or maybe it’ll just get someone to come up with a “New New San Antonio Rose”. Or maybe it’ll just help a lot of people dance while drunk. Either way, this is a much-needed document of some of the best music ever made in the U.S.A…. and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.