Happy country music? For Bob Wills and his boys, that wasn't an oxymoron.
Happy country music? For Bob Wills and his boys, that wasn't an oxymoron.

A Hoot of a Holler

In a spoken break early in the song "What Makes Bob Holler," Bob Wills answers the question in the title in inimitable style. "Well, when some pretty chick says she loves my fiddle lick, well now then, that can do the trick--ahhhh, I holler," he says, managing to sound lustful even while confined to a wheelchair.

Cindy Walker wrote the song for Wills in 1973 after he'd suffered a series of strokes and heart attacks. It's a cheery, upbeat dance tune celebrating the bandleader's distinctive style, including his trait of adding off-hand comments and hollers (usually a puckish "ah-haaa") while the band played on.

"Holler" is one of the less consequential tracks of the 104 crammed onto Sony Legacy's new four-CD set, Legends of Country Music: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, but even it serves a purpose. Walker, who also composed "Bubbles in My Beer," "Cherokee Maiden" and other tunes for Wills, knew a somber tribute would have been out of character for her friend, who was near death.


Bob Wills

Wills spent a lifetime battling hard times by providing swinging, often raucous tunes that offered top-flight escapism through the Depression era and World War II. Though now considered a cornerstone figure in country music history, he was never a cry-in-your-beer type. He wouldn't have accepted anything other than a tribute that celebrated good times.

The updated and remastered Texas Playboys compilation, released August 29, ostensibly honors Wills' 100th birthday. It actually passed last year--he was born March 5, 1905--but that's just fine. The hard-drinking Wills was known to miss a date or two too. The collection also serves as a five-decade testimonial to Wills' indomitable determination to create music that lifted people up. His music endures because he brought together master musicians and guided them through artful arrangements that gave the players plenty of room to show their stuff and to have fun doing so. Rarely do you hear such outstanding players having such a good time in such an engaging fashion.

Historians will point to how the Playboys merged country and jazz instrumentation to create a forward-looking sound that proved hugely influential on much of the music that followed. Country music giants such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Asleep at the Wheel and George Strait, among others, all brought Western swing into their sound and included a Wills tune in nearly every concert. The band also directly affected everyone from rock pioneer Bill Haley to jump R&B king Louis Jordan to various jazz ensembles--saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a Fort Worth native, has proudly bragged about jamming with the band as a young man.

But the reason this music still sounds so good today is the same reason the band stayed so popular for so long: It's dazzlingly fun to hear and even more fun to dance to. Wills' primary innovation was laying down a pulsing rhythm and adding accents of steel guitar, fiddle, piano, brass and reeds. In the simplest terms, the Playboys merged big band horns and country stringed instruments, but their sound was much more encompassing. Wills not only brought in blues and pop but also tackled everything from Mexican mariachi to Cajun waltzes to German polkas. He was the first country bandleader to widely use electric amplification--all the better for those rowdy dancers to hear his players--and the first to regularly use drums.

The new compilation naturally includes Wills' major hits: "San Antonio Rose," "Faded Love," "Time Changes Everything," "Right or Wrong," "Stay a Little Longer," "Brain Cloudy Blues," "Steel Guitar Rag," "Big Ball in Cowtown" and others. The first songs are pre-Playboys tracks cut in 1932 by the Fort Worth Doughboys (who performed on radio as the Light Crust Doughboys). They reveal how Wills and colleague Milton Brown created a propulsively uninhibited sound by combining Texas fiddle music, the cheeky Dixieland side of Jimmie Rodgers and the jaunty strut of black string acts the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band.

Many of Wills' most important musicians joined the band early on. Singer Tommy Duncan, whose smooth tone would be echoed in later years by everyone from Ray Price to Merle Haggard to George Strait, joined the first version of the Playboys in 1932 after Wills split with Milton Brown. Drummer Smoky Dacus and renowned steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe were recruited in 1935. Two years later, guitarist Eldon Shamblin joined, and his sweet-toned, big-bodied electric guitar and his big-band arrangements greatly expanded the Playboys' style.

There'd be many other well-regarded sidemen--pianist Al Stricklin, mandolinist Tiny Moore, steel guitarists Herb Remington and Noel Boggs, guitarist Junior Barnard, fiddlers Joe Holley and Johnny Gimble. Their time in the Texas Playboys would put them in a rare fraternity that will likely be celebrated by fans and musicians for eternity.

The day after Wills recorded "What Makes Bob Holler" and another Cindy Walker tune, "Going Away Party," he suffered his most debilitating stroke and couldn't finish the sessions for what would be his final album, For the Last Time. He'd spend the end of his life in a Fort Worth nursing home, passing away at age 70 on May 15, 1975.

Today, just as bluegrass will forever invoke the name of founder Bill Monroe and zydeco conjures that of creator Clifton Chenier, the phrase "Western swing" will bring with it the image of Bob Wills, his chest jutted forward, his spindly legs waltzing in front of his band, his bow twirling in the air as the band swings. Ah-haaa, indeed.


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