One of the best things about music is how it constantly changes and evolves, with different types often fusing into something new and different. It’s a process that’s always fueled by creative musicians, who are either consciously trying to be innovators or maybe just struggling to find a niche they can inhabit and make a living. Either way, it often results in a sound that gains momentum with musicians and fans until it becomes a genre all its own.
If you grew up in post-war middle America, especially in the rural areas (as I did) then you would probably have at least a passing familiarity with the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Although they were mostly based in the Texas and Oklahoma area, their hit songs often migrated to other parts of rural America, where they found a ready audience. It was a genre that came to be known as Western Swing.
Big band music had been popular for years, but listeners were beginning to turn away from it in search of newer sounds. That created an opportunity for creative artists to find new ways to entertain. One result was the bebop movement in jazz, but for rural audiences it often meant the music of Bob and the boys. It sounds odd to us now, but the group’s combining of country music with big band swing and a touch of blues somehow worked, and audiences loved it.
Bob Wills and his band weren’t necessarily the first — other groups performed similar music in pre-war years, and during the war it was very popular, with regional dance halls sometimes hosting thousands of fans. But Bob and his boys were generally given credit for solidifying and defining the genre, and were by far the best known performers. Hits such as “New Spanish Two Step” and “San Antonio Rose” helped reinforce his title as the King of Western Swing.
Bob reigned for a lot of years, but had become pretty inactive by the late 1960’s and died in 1975. However, he’s still a legend — especially in Texas. Just ask Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who helped keep Western Swing alive for a long time. In recent years though, the biggest star in the genre (in more ways than one) would have to be Ray Benson, the towering leader and consistent force behind an ever-changing group known as Asleep At The Wheel.
Ray and his bunch have enthusiastically embraced Western Swing and made it their favorite style of music, even through countless personnel changes. (By one count, the group – which varies from 8 to 11 members at one time – has gone through over 80 different musicians.)
They’ve also embraced the legacy of Bob Wills, and some of their biggest hits have been covers of his songs. I’d defy anyone to keep from smiling when they experience the sound – and the fun – of Western Swing.