You're not from Texas

Deep in the heart of western swing with a Scot on a mission

Having said all that, the "true meaning" of Texas swing might well be not all that historical stuff, but rather an attitude. To an extent, I'd be welcome to call almost anything Texas swing as long as people can dance to it, drink to it, laugh to it, and as long as it has that openhearted welcoming of musical influences from the cultures that surround it.

DO: From your perspective as an outsider, what factors make Texas such a hotbed of music?

McLean: I think what made--and makes--Texas such a hotbed of musical creation is the movements of population. What a glorious hodgepodge of peoples, cultures, and musics from all sorts of places. Need I enumerate them? How about Scottish, Irish, German, Czech, Mexican, Spanish, African? I think there are "officially" 26 important ethnic and cultural inputs into modern Texas. What a wonderful mix! It explains so much about your state in all its aspects, including its restlessly creative music scene.

DO: Any feelings or conclusions about Texas that didn't make it into the book?

McLean: Texas is too big and too diverse to come to any snappy conclusions about. In a way, the whole book is my conclusion about Texas. I hope it comes across clearly that, despite moments of boredom, bafflement, and fear, I loved my time there, and many, many people I met.

DO: Do you think we'll ever see a full-blown western-swing revival? Most people, even here in Texas, don't have a clue who Bob Wills was, never mind Milton Brown. And what do you think of someone like George Strait, who, in his mainstream, tight-jeaned way, honors the music of Wills and Brown and at least keeps its spirit alive?

McLean: George Strait is OK. I have quite a few of his records, and enjoy them, though they do tend toward the bland a bit much for my tastes. I do wish that Strait would use some of his millions to pay for recording sessions by, or reissues of, or books about, or concerts featuring, or pensions for some of the great names from the heyday of western swing. That would represent a real contribution to the culture of his home state.

I'm fairly optimistic, in a small way, that the music is slowly getting more and more serious recognition. But I don't think there will ever be a full-blown revival, because the particular social and cultural forces that allowed and encouraged western swing to emerge in the '30s have all disappeared or changed. I just hope that we can remember and honor and occasionally revisit this great music of the recent past--as we do with, say, New Orleans jazz.

DO: Do you have a favorite western-swing track? If yes, why?
McLean: I could name a hundred, but off the top of my head, I'll go for the Texas Playboys' "You're from Texas" from the Tiffany Transcriptions. One, because it's got a tremendous, driving beat; two, because [vocalist] Tommy Duncan gets the words wrong at one point and Wills cracks him up with his wisecracks; three, 'cause I like the way it welcomes in the "stranger" and declares him/her a fellow Texan. Hey, it's almost as if I'm being declared an honorary Texan--for the duration of the song, at least.

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