[8 August 2014]
It surely is only a select band of musicians who can claim to have influenced artists as diverse as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait, and almost the entire Bakersfield sound, and, by extension, modern alternative country. But Bob Wills is exactly that type of musician. His music, a unique snapshot of which is revealed on this album, bridged styles, communities, and races. His signature Western Swing combined jazz, country and myriad other factors, and, arguably more important is his influence on the development of rock & roll, which can be heard and felt at many a turn both on this album, and throughout his work.
Wills, widely known as the King of Western Swing, was Texan by birth, and initially found fame in Texas and Oklahoma, but recorded much of his material in Los Angeles after 1943. It is into this era of Wills’ career that this current album fits.
Riding Your Way: The Lost Transcriptions For Tiffany Music contains rare recordings made for the Tiffany label in 1946 and 1947. Originally intended only for radio play, many of the songs have not been commercially released, indeed 20 of them have never been issued in any way at all. The tapes, interesting in a 16” format which allowed some takes to be longer than the at-the-time standard 3-minute 78s, were discovered in Warner vault, and the selection has been remastered from a total of more than 400 recordings.
Wills’ Texas Playboys of the time are considered the band’s classic line up. Tommy Duncan was the main vocalist, supported by a cast which included Junior Barnard, Herb Remington, Eldon Shamblin, Joe Holley, Millard Kelso, Tiny Moore, Ocie Stockard, Billy Jack Wills, and Bob Wills himself, who contributes fiddle, scat, holler, and wisecracking vocal interjections, and who acted as bandleader and audience-draw.
The music on the 50-track collection ranges from the band’s hits to Western Swing standards, sentimental songs, blues, and some jazz-style hot instrumentals. The quality of the recording and remastering allows the musicianship, and the ease, joy, and playing for the music’s sake for which the Playboys made their name, to shine. All of these facets of the sound comes down the ages to listeners who may not have experienced the heady days of the 1940s.
Duncan’s vocals slightly croon over the top of the music, which contains, in the main: guitar, steel, fiddle, horns, and piano. The songs are songs of love & romance, carousing and lonesomeness. Some arrangements (“I Can’t Begin To Tell You”) are both smooth and smoothed out; some mix elements of old time country with a rockabilly flavour. Hillbilly fiddle reigns rightly supreme, but the band are equally at home with Dixieland-style jazz and bluesy guitar songs.
The instrumentals, such as Brushy Fork, highlight another area of the Playboys’ work, that of experimentation and innovation, as they defined and refined their sound, the sound which would go on to inform and influence so many others.
“Dear Old Southern Home”, “Liberty”, and “We Might As Well Forget It” have a more familiar country sound and subject matter, whilst “Travelin’ Blues” collects together all of the different elements described above to become their most complete recording on Disc 1. “On The Alamo” is fascinating, managing to be smooth and weathered, but also revealing its influence on the rock & roll which was to come into its own a few short years later. To round off the first disc are a number of instrumental pieces which show the band at full strength through a variety of material and styles.
Disc 2 continues the feel, the types of songs, and the performances contained on the first. The band (as many would have done at the time) have takes on “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes” and “You Are My Sunshine”, before the sweeping fiddles and rock & roll feel of “River Stay ‘Way From My Door”. “Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle”, with its late night ballroom feel, complete with female backing vocals is as far from the Playboys’ cowboy standards as you could hope to get. The band even incorporate a Western swing lullaby in the shape of “My Little Bucakroo”.
Riding Your Way is a stunning retrospective, showing off the range and depth of Wills’ and the Playboys’ work. A mere snapshot of a much wider oeuvre, the collection captures a pivotal time in the career of one of the most important, but relatively unrecognised, bands in American roots music history. Crossing boundaries, styles, and genres, the record is a must for Wills fans, collectors and music historians.