Swing this

Then I woke up, and it was all a dream. My back was aching from resting against the knobbly tree trunk, my tongue was sweating it was so damn hot--107 degrees on the bank's digital thermometer--and if it hadn't been for my Onion Fest baseball cap, the shifting sun would've fried my face to a crisp...I plunged back into the Lions Club hall to leap and twirl with the rest of the sun-crazed Chicanos.

This is what happens when a man from mossy Scotland plunges himself into the myth and pathos of Texas swing. He becomes a sort of shaman, an unanchored creature removed from his natural time and place who, instead of hiding his head in the dirt, adapts and thrives. In these parts, much had been made of Duncan McLean's travel memoirs Lone Star Swing, because there's nothing more fascinating than seeing ourselves through the reverent, good-humored eyes of an outsider. The perspective. The mystery. The inherent goofiness. McLean's obsession with a dying music tradition makes everything old to us brand-new again, and in his search for the colorful past of legends such as Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, he has to contend with modern-day Texas. What seems ordinary to us is extraordinary to him, and in turn makes us think twice about our own eccentric social landscape. From car-park motels to greasy diners, bar-fly bars to cavernous dancehalls, McLean's vision of Texas is as removed from his idyllic home on Orkney Island as purgatory from heaven.

On Wednesday, November 18, McLean strides back into the region for a public reading of Lone Star Swing, his fourth book, at the ArtCentre of Plano. Fittingly, the evening's soundtrack is provided in person, as well, by three swing greats: fiddler Buddy Ray, guitarist Sumter Burton, and bassist Ron Green.

What separates Lone Star Swing (released earlier this year) from standard cut-and-dry travelogues is McLean's delivery. He's as open to adventure as he is droll about it, and even as he digs deep into the details of a lap-steel past and the musicians who shaped it, his language is as light and approachable as a romp through the Sons of Hermann Hall. The weird stuff he encounters--a conference for the Narcotic Detector Dog Association, a jet fighter parked at an old gas station--are recounted with both an open heart and wry matter-of-factness, and instead of coming unhinged at the surrealness of the Wichita Falls Wal-Mart, McLean merely buys a cowboy hat and forges ahead with his search for a swing-filled Holy Grail. He's never sloppy about the history or the details, though, and that, too, makes the book a standout. Instead of a meandering collection of clever-clever observations, we're joining this unassuming pilgrim on a very specific journey--one that will both quench his thirst for real-deal Western culture and shed some light on our own Wild West character. And that's the best kind of reading there is--the truth injected with the color of tall tales. Doesn't hurt that's it's delivered in a Scottish burr.

--Christina Rees

Duncan McLean reads from Lone Star Swing at the ArtCentre of Plano, 1039 E. 15th St., on Wednesday, November 18. Tickets are $7. For info, call (972) 423-7809.

 
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