The King of Western Swing

Jan 27, 2022 | Bluegrass History, Bluegrass Musicians, Welcome Column

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, publicity photo, University of Missouri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


I took another dip into the archives this month, and I chose an issue of the Breakdown that had a bit of sentimental meaning for me. I chose one that was published the month I graduated from high school (okay, so now you can figure out my age if you care to do the math).  I was fortunate that this issue had another fine article written by Burney Garelick about a fiddler I’ve long admired: Bob Wills.

Before we get to Burney’s memoir, you can watch a 1951 video of Bob Wills playing double fiddle with Joe Holley, another great (and left-handed) fiddler.

Warner Brothers also produced a 10-minute newsreel about Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1944. It features a number of songs, but notably “San Antonio Rose,” sung with Tommy Duncan, a founding member of the Texas Playboys, and composer of “Stay a Little Longer,” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Bob Wills fired Duncan from the Playboys in 1948, apparently because he thought Duncan was commanding too much attention.

Here are some random tidbits about Bob Wills.

  • There is a documentary about his life: Fiddlin’ Man: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, though it seems to be available only on DVD (or VHS!).
  • He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (yes, you read that right) in 1999. He was nominated by Stockton, California-born musician Chris Isaak.
  • The 50th annual Bob Wills Day celebration is coming up this April. Read more about it and past celebrations here.
  • The Rolling Stones sing Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King
  • According to IMDB, Wills’ music is featured on the soundtracks of 49 feature films.

BOB WILLS: 1905-1975
by Burney Garelick

I first heard of Bob Wills in the summer of 1971. We were traveling across the South, casually following music festivals and fiddle contests. It was at our second fiddle contest–the first having been the California State Contest in April of that same year–in Fort Worth, Texas, that the name “Bob Wills” first caught my attention. Many people we met would ask, “Have you heard Bob Wills?”; “You oughta hear Bob Wills!”; “Boy, that Bob Wills.” “No,” we said and shrugged. To each other we said, “Who is this Bob Wills–some local boy?”

Local boy indeed! When I discovered Bob Wills was King of Western Swing, when I heard his music–I blushed at my innocence. How, I wondered, could I have lived twenty odd years and never have heard of Bob Wills!

That fiddle contest in Fort Worth, incidentally, proved to be another eye-opener. Afterwards, we wandered throughout the South–Louisiana, Tennessee, Galax, Virginia–but we never found a fiddle contest that was so totally exciting as the one in Fort Worth. After we returned to California and learned more about fiddling, we realized that what we had experienced in Fort Worth had included some of the most outstanding contemporary fiddlers: Dick Barrett, Norman Solomon, Vernon Solomon, Lewis Franklin, Major Franklin, Dale Morris–all competitors at the Grand Masters Invitational Fiddlers Contest in Nashville and one twice National Champion at the fiddlers contest in Weiser, Idaho. But all this helps to illustrate that the best things in life often jump up and take you totally unawares, surprising you with their spontaneous spirit and joy. Serendipity, as it were.

But back to the first time I heard Bob Wills. It was actually a kind of cart before the horse situation. Back in California we chanced to hear Merle Haggard’s A TRIBUTE TO THE BEST DAMN FIDDLE PLAYER IN THE WORLD. Well, I was sold; I knew what everybody meant. And I couldn’t wait to hear the “real thing.” So I bought all the Bob Wills recordings I could find. I became familiar with the Texas Playboys and their own special breaks and Bob’s side comments throughout the songs and what it was that made him “holler.”

It seemed as though I couldn’t get enough. In fact, it wasn’t long before I was going around asking, “Have you heard Bob Wills?” Of course I found out that just about everybody had.

When we lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco, after our trip to Texas, we had a downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged woman, who used to get drunk quite often and blast the original Bob Wills’ records as loud as her modest record player would play. Once we talked to her and she said she’d actually met Bob Wills and convinced him to perform in San Francisco. She had a fantastic record collection of 78’s for which, she claimed, collectors all over the area had offered a lot of money. But she wouldn’t part with a single disc. Sometimes in mid-sentence she would drift off with the strains of “old-fashioned love in my heart.” Bob Wills’ music seemed to have a therapeutic effect on her. After a time we moved on, leaving her with her nostalgia.

Since that time I have met many people through the California State Old-Time Fiddlers Association who have danced to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys at the Wills Point Ballroom in Sacramento. Former Playboy Tiny Moore has joined the CSOTFA, and I discovered another Playboy and super fiddler Johnny Gimble. At fiddle contests it is Bluegrass that releases the competitive tension, but for Bluegrassers and fiddlers alike, Western Swing allows an improvisational freedom and relaxation from the rigid breakdown structure. I guess Bob Wills has influenced just about every fiddler, old-time or Bluegrass, from Kenny Baker right on down.

Wherever fiddlers and guitar pickers gather, Bob Wills’ tunes are played. Recently we spent an afternoon at the San Francisco Folk Music Club’s annual campout–at Kirby Cove, a eucalyptus grove on the beach almost underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Although the S.F. Folk Music Club is open to all acoustic music–folk singing, old-time, even Bluegrass–I didn’t expect to hear Western Swing at one of their gatherings. However, I was delighted to come across a group of really fine pickers indulging in the entire Wills’ repertoire. And with each tune, the crowd swelled. No one left until the fiddlers’ arms couldn’t raise their bows and the guitar pickers’ fingers refused to pick.

Which only goes to show what I have discovered: once you’ve heard the swinging strains of Bob Wills, you’re always ready to be “taken back to Tulsa.” Bob Wills is not really dead; he is one of the immortals.

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