By HAP MANSFIELD
Because some of the Texas Playboys will be at Natural Fest on May 17, it does not seem amiss to present a little history for those who may not know the royal path they walk.
Royal? Sure, Waylon Jennings sang it himself (as did Merle Haggard and Mick Jagger et. al.) — when you cross that old Red River, “Bob Wills is still the King.”
Wills has been dead since 1975, yet his reign continues, undisputed. Many have taken up the mantle, but they would all agree – it’s Bob’s property.
Wills (born March 6, 1905, near Kosse, TX) was among the originators of Western Swing – an amalgam of country, Tex-Mex and jazz tinted with shades of the blues that roared through the American Southwest in the 1930s and 1940s. It is downright impossible to not become infected with its pulsing beat and mellow swing.
Wills was the hippest of the hip, the coolest of the cool, and his faultless musical choices were often imitated, but rarely surpassed. He just knew how to swing and swing with Western style. Wills and his band, the Texas Playboys, most always appeared in dapper Western garb, but you’ll find no sequins or rhinestones on these cowboys. Wills’ choice of attire was masculine with little flash.
His smile provided the glamour and his music (and musicians) provided the flash. If you’ve never seen him in action, YouTube has many fine examples (“New San Antonio Rose,” written by Wills, is particularly moving. You’d be hard pressed to find a song that better defines the feeling of Texas moonlight and sunshine).
Bob Wills was a handsome, larger-than-life fiddler who was so very popular in his prime that it is hard to equate with today’s kind of popularity.
When Wills was a radio superstar, “Take it away, Leon” (referring to steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe), became a household phrase. There was no television, no Internet and very few national magazines covered the entertainment scene. It was all radio, the honky-tonk and the dance hall, and these alone propelled Wills to fame. His records and his various movie appearances with the Playboys cemented his national reputation.
Much of Bob’s kingly rule can be attributed to the plethora of fine musicians he employed. According to Texasplayboys.net, there were around 600 “Playboys” throughout the years. Some of them were with Wills in the Light Crust Doughboys when Wills drove a delivery truck for the Burrus Light Crust Flour Company by day and played Burrus-sponsored radio by night in the 1930s. Some were with him when he formed large orchestras in the 1940s and others still, were with him in tight, little groups of four or five.
Bob Wills had bands going until the day he died and the Texas Playboys, in some form or another, still play on today. The musicians you’ll see at Natural Fest are a testament to Will’s unerring judgment in musical proficiency.
So when you see the Texas Playboys in a reunion show like the one taking place in San Marcos on May 17, remember that they are a treasure trove of musical history and fascinating anecdotes about the music business. Like all working musicians, they’ve got stories. But these guys are not strictly history. They are vital music makers who continue to add to their chronicles at reunion gigs like Natural Fest/Western Swing Hall of Fame.
We would be pleased if you would share your Texas Playboys memories and we urge you, no matter what part of the country you are from, to leave your Western Swing stories in the comments beneath.