Swingin' west

Scottish author waltzes across Texas in pursuit of the music he loves

Sometimes we don't really see ourselves until we glimpse our reflection in someone else's eyes. Or in their mirrored sunglasses: Noted Scottish author and western swing fan Duncan McLean--in town soon for a series of readings and to host a show featuring some of the surviving greats of western swing--traveled across Texas last year tracking down the places that had hummed so eloquently in his memory since he discovered the music of Milton Brown and Bob Wills. In the book McLean has written about the trek, one of the moments when he seems most in danger of losing his shit entirely is during a confrontation with a border patrolman wearing the aforementioned reflective eyewear and unbuckling his holster as he walks up on the hapless Highlander.

"All over Scotland, especially in the rural areas where I grew up, there's lots of Nashville country," McLean reports transatlantically in a thick accent (In fact, one of the book's recurring themes is Americans' simultaneous infatuation with his voice and their inability to correctly place it. "Did you have a good St. Patrick's Day?" one Harley-riding boob asks him while they're looking for Marfa's famed lights) from his home in Orkney. "Music pretty much alternated between Scottish folk and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. As a teenager I hated it, but a wee bit later I began to appreciate it."

"Oh, he said 'wee,' just like Scotty on Star Trek!" we all enthuse like idiots, forgetting for the nonce how annoying it is to travel someplace where folks are continually asking you to say `y'all' "just one more time" and then giggling like schoolchildren. McLean, however--the author of several critically acclaimed works of literature in Scotland including Bucket of Tongues, a collection of short stories--seems to bear his burden with good humor and continues with his tale.

"I have a mind that likes to get to the root of things, and I guess I first heard Dwight Yoakam, who led me to Buck Owens, who pointed me towards artists like Lefty Frizzell...one day I was in a record store and I saw an album by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and I thought to myself 'that has got to be the stupidest name for a band that I've ever heard,' but I bought it and took it home anyway, and the moment I played it I thought 'this is what I've been looking for! This is incredible!'"

"The bug got me at that point," McLean confesses. "It wasn't just country--it was big band, Dixieland, jazz." Just like a Texan, the Scotsman's unable to keep from playing to myth: "Now that's value for your money!" he enthuses, Scrooge McDuck style. "One record, at least five kinds of music!" Things rapidly moved from "interest to obsession," and when sales of his other books were sufficient to warrant a publisher's indulgence, McLean was encouraged to pursue his dream of journeying to where the great men of western swing walked and played. He then turned the whole experience into a book.

"From here [Orkney] it's like looking at a distant mountain range," he says of western swing, "but it wasn't until I got to Texas and talked to fans that I realized there weren't dozens of great bands playing then, but hundreds." His book, to be published in the U.K. in August of 1997, is tentatively titled Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and starts off a bit sluggishly, laden with the usual stranger-in-a-strange-land stuff that we (if no one else) have gotten kind of used to. He spends a hellish night in a Wichita Falls hotel which no one he encountered wanted to recommend in the first place, up to his eye teeth in aggressively rambunctious white trash, and the border patrol incident thoroughly unnerved him. If, however, you can put aside native prejudice and defensiveness (ours, that is), there's much truth in McLean's observations. He's not sure he trusts us that much, however.

"I'm nervously awaiting native reaction," he confesses. "I tried to be honest in relaying my experiences and not rely on knee-jerk reaction, but I also wanted to honestly report on what I was experiencing. I'm not a journalist, I'm a fiction writer, and I soon realized that I couldn't do an academic work--I'd have to rely on my impressions." The first part of the book is spry when he talks of his love but slows when it comes to real-time travelogue. Gradually things pick up as he limps through a series of thoroughly snafued meetings--some quite funny--with folks who are too old, too deaf, or just plain too preoccupied to return his interest.

"I'm a desultory pilgrim," he admits. "I kept getting distracted by other things." As he follows his bliss, however, the story thickens like a well-made roux. He ends up in Presidio, where he experiences the local onion festival and winds up leaning against a tree, listening to a local conjunto doing native versions of some of the same tunes that Wills would later make famous, apprehending for a moment the miles of overlapping influences that make Texas the cultural petri dish that it is. On his way to the book's denouement at the Bob Wills Day festival in Turkey, he chats with a pierced and self-absorbed butthead who couldn't give a fig about his own heritage and only wants to know about Scottish folk-rockers the Proclaimers and correctly discerns the great artistic void at the heart of Austin's repulsive Sixth Street. McLean endures right-wing radio zealotry, ignorance, and just plain weirdness as he visits sites of near-religious significance to him whose historical place is often ignored by those who live close by.

By the time he pulls up in Turkey, things are looking grim. But then he's put up by Arch and June Montgomery, archetypical Texans who open their hearts and their home to him as he records the bacchanalia of the annual Wills memorial. He finally gets to hear the remaining Playboys perform, and they're better than he ever expected; he even gets to talk to them and then--a bomb!--it's revealed that Arch used to play with Wills back in boyhood days. He even flunked an audition with the Light Crust Doughboys when Wills was still leading them ("Because you could play better than them" June tells her husband). Until this point no reader could possibly be as concerned about the direction of the book as McLean, but suddenly it all makes sense, resolved with a bit of poetic justice, all the bullshit endured paid off with an elegiac closing. Lone Star Swing leaves the reader with a sense of the author's adventure lived vicariously and--more importantly--of reward.

More rewarding still for McLean was an unexpected chance to return to Texas for a series of readings arranged through WordSpace. Although the visit was originally intended to focus on Scottish literature, McLean's itch for western swing will again get a good scratching: in addition to reading at bookstores and universities, he'll be reading excerpts from Lone Star Swing between sets at the "Texas Swing Living Legends in Concert" December 8 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

"The concept behind the trip quickly outgrew the readings," McLean admits. He worked out the details of the gig with Fort Worth swing aficionado Kevin Coffey. "Meeting Kevin was like finding my Texan alter ego," McLean reports. "He gets to do year-round what I can only do for a few weeks, and he knew who was available and who could work with who." The musicians playing include several of Milton Brown's Musical Brownies--Cliff Bruner (fiddle) and Roy Lee Brown, Milton's younger brother (vocals)--as well as veterans of the Texas Wanderers, the Texas Top Hands, the Red River Boys, and Leon McAuliffe's band.

All in all an excellent chance to check out some of Texas' musical heritage, and one that's not to be taken for granted: "Since I was in Texas last," McLean says, confessing to a certain feeling of urgency, "three of the people I have talked to have died."

The "Texas Swing Living Legends in Concert" happens at 8 p.m. December 8 at the Sons of Hermann Hall; Kevin Coffey's collection of photographs of western swing musicians and bands will be on display all through December at Paperbacks Plus (6115 La Vista).

Up, up, fair Ho-Dad: Street Beat predicts the advent of Shakespearean surf, 14 years hence, at Matt_Weitz@dallas-observer.com.

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