By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Let it be
Western swing has largely been spared revivalist taxidermy, probably because its teeth are a bit too buck for big-city nostalgists, save Cowboys and Indians. Having developed basically by accident when a few Texas yahoos tried to play big-band swing with a violin and guitar, the style requires a certain rural sensibility that's entirely absent from the recent Cherry Setzer Zippers problem. (Plus, it's easier to find a suit and an adequate horn section than a fiddle player who can actually carry a band.) The result: Western swing can be enjoyed (or not) without the kind of baggage that comes when people you hate play music you like. And there's another reason why it's best left alone: For all its charms, the style is entirely of an era. The vinyl pops and bad production seem no less essential than the fiddle itself.
Fiddler-bandleader Spade Cooley was L.A.'s best Western swinger. The Cliffs Notes version: Born in Oklahoma, moved to California, sideman and bit actor in the '30s, bandleader in the early '40s, L.A. dancehall star and hitmaker in the mid-'40s, TV star (Hoffman Hayride) in the late '40s, falling star in the '50s, alcohol problems culminate in early-'60s beating murder of estranged wife, given life in prison, let out for benefit performance in '69, plays benefit, goes backstage, has heart attack, dies. Roll credits.
Despite a troubled bio and huge success--in his mid-'40s heyday, he rivaled Bob Wills in popularity--Cooley remains known by a relatively scant few; only one Cooley collection ('94's Spadella!) was widely available before Shame on You. The new disc collects radio performances from '45-'46, when Cooley's big band still featured star Tex Williams on vocals; the sound quality is impeccable, and it shares only six of its 23 cuts with Spadella!. Shame is more a snapshot than an overview, but it catches Cooley in his prime: The great Williams-sung title track was his orchestra's first single and first hit, and such instrumentals as "Cowbell Polka," "Rochester Schotische," and "Copenhagen" display the band's range and skill.
Though he had the biggest of Western swing bands, Cooley never strayed too far from the hillbilly roots that define such music. Even such epochal ballads as "Then You'll Know What it Means to Be Blue" are grounded by loping rhythms, steel-guitar leads, and (of course) violin. Cooley's success in Hollywood could not entirely erase memories of Oklahoma. In the end, though, the primary standards that such an archival collection must uphold are those of sound and performance quality; Shame on You has both to spare. The material itself remains vibrantly dated, recommended to all with an interest in danceable history. Except, of course, those who might imitate it.