Western Swing is one of America's great original artforms, a mix of hillbilly stringband music and uptempo jazz. Alternately raucous, raunchy and swank, western swing has enchanted listeners ever since its early 1930s roots, going through wave after wave of innovation and revival. While honkytonk country took its cues from traditional folk ballads and a hefty dose of the blues, western swing was a more self-conscious mix of squaredancin' barn-dance music and big city jazz... The idea was to pick up the tempo while also showing that hicks could get right on the mellow side just as much as the folks up North. Hillbillies with saxophones? Heck, why not? Here's a quick look at some of the great western swing records to look for...
Asleep At The Wheel - see artist discography
Bad Bob & His Good Friends "Bad Bob & His Good Friends" (Self-Released, 2001)
Good-timin' western swing and the local spirit of independent Texas music are alive and well, as heard in this fun album by fiddler and songwriter Bob Rohan. He pays dutiful homage to the spirit of Bob Wills in a rousing version of "Deep In The Heart of Texas," and on his original tune, "When You Play The Fiddle In Texas (You Better Know All The Tunes!)" It was the charm of his original material that caught my attention -- especially on great novelty tunes like "She Took A Blowtorch To My Workbench" and the similarly-themed "Daddy's Pad (When Momma's Mad)," which extols the virtues of sleeping in the cab of your truck when domestic tension looms. Fans of humble, obscuro alt.country greats such as Deadly Earnest, Alvin Crow, Chuck Wagon & The Wheels, or Cornell Hurd will find a lot to celebrate in this album -- this ain't super-slick Nashville pop, it's just a guy with a friendly-sounding voice and a bunch of pals who can pick some nice country music, and it's pretty cool. This is the kind of independently-produced album you used to hear a lot more often; nice to know someone out there still has the magic formula. (As far as I can tell, the only way to get a copy of this album is to contact Bob Rohan directly, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.... Tell him I said "howdy!" )
Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys - see artist discography
Bill Boyd "Bill Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers" (RCA, 1975)
A stunning 2-LP set. A cult favorite of western swing fans, Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers were certainly one of the best outfits of their time. Throughout the dark ages of the minimal major-label reissues, this twofer became a Holy Grail of sorts -- thirty-two long out-of-print classics by one of the greatest bandleaders of the 1930s. This features, of course, the irresistibly wacky "Wah Hoo", as well as tunes like "I Can't Tame Wild Women," "Fan It," and "What's The Use," which somehow always find their way into the canon. Even now, when a couple of Bill Boyd CDs have popped up, this collection is the one to look for. Hard to imagine a better collection, and boy, wouldn't it be great if RCA got around to reissuing this set again? (Vinyl only.)
Bill Boyd "The Master of Cowboy Swing" (Binge Disc, 1998)
These mid-1940s recordings are not necessarily his best; there are a bunch of indifferent instrumentals, and the sound quality is iffy in parts. Still, it's definitely worth checking out, since Boyd was one of the best cowboy swingsters to ever hit the big time, and the RCA collection is still long out of print.
Bill Boyd "The Eyes Of Texas" (Binge Disc, 1998)
Bill Boyd "The Golden Age Of Bill Boyd" (Binge Disc, 2000)
Bill Boyd "Swing With Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers" (Binge Disc)
Bill Boyd "...And His Cowboy Ramblers: 1934-1947" (Texas Rose, 1982)
Also long out of print, but quite welcome when it came out, this LP mirrors the RCA twofer mentioned above. The RCA collection is far superior, in sound quality, song quantity and in selection... Still, since both editions are pretty elusive, you definitely shouldn't hesitate to pick this disc up if you see it...
A stunning 5-disc box set gathering the complete recordings of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, the only band to seriously challenge Bob Wills' early status as the king of western swing. Brown died in a 1937 auto accident, but left behind dozens of killer, jazz-infused country tunes. The sound here is a bit rough -- Texas Rose isn't exactly a multizillion dollar operation -- but the archival value, and sheer fun of the music, is priceless. An accompanying book about Milton Brown, written by western swing archivist Cary Ginell, also came out on the University of Illinois Press, and is reviewed in my country books section. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
This single CD version of the '94 mondo-Milton box set is definintely all killer, no filler. Great, classic western swing, and a brighter, smoother sound mix. If you can't spring for the multi-disc version, don't worry: this disc will make you happy as a clam. Highly recommended!
Milton Brown "The Complete Bluebird Recordings: 1934" (Texas Rose, 1992)
I'm not sure if Texas Rose had more Milton Brown LPs out in this series, but this disc is pretty swell. All this material is included on the CD box set, but if you're a vinyl enthusiast, then this is an LP worth searching out!
Classic backwoods fiddle music from the Louisiana bayou... These late-'40s recordings are an interesting mix of cajun, straight old-timey fiddle music and honky-tonk heavy western swing tunes. A veteran of the Louisiana swamp scene, by the postwar years, Choates seemed ready to try just about any style of music and see what would stick -- fortunately, he was pretty darn good at any style he played, and this album is lots of fun from start to finish. The CD version includes ten extra tracks (although his big hit version of "Jole Blon" is still notably absent...) Cool stuff, a little off the beaten track.
Fiddle player Spade Cooley has one of those careers that they routinely call "colorful"... One of the most prosperous western swing bandleaders of the 1940s, Cooley smoothed the bluesy hard spots out of the rugged hillbilly jazz that folks like Milton Brown and Bob Wills created, and his slicker, poppier version made him a much more salable, mainstream commodity. Having Tex Williams, one of western swing's greatest singers, in his band didn't hurt none, either. Things fell apart pretty quickly for Cooley, though -- he and Williams had a big blowout, Williams took most of the band's crackerjack musicians with him, and Cooley shifted into an even more pop-oriented, orchestral sound. One night, though, Cooley totally lost it and brutally murdered his wife -- leading to a prison sentence that proved to be permanent. Legend has it that he died of a heart attack on stage, playing a concert for his prison pals. Even leaving the sordid stuff aside, history hasn't been kind to Cooley, since for decades only his cheesiest pop stuff was available from the record companies -- leading to his reputation as country's Lawrence Welk. The great news here is that this disc rocks. These WWII-era recordings show Cooley in peak form, with Williams on vocals and his best band intact. There's a bluesiness and looseness that you never would have suspected from listening the postwar stuff -- this disc completely vindicates Cooley and is well worth checking out.
Peppy old radio transcriptions from Fall, 1945. Cooley was one of the key figures in West Coast western swing; here is his band in top form, with vocalists that include Tex Willams, Johnny Bond, Smokey Williams and the Andrews Sisters-y "Sunshine Trio". Pedal steel star Joaquin Murphey anchors the band along with three fiddles and the ever-present chugga-chugga-chugin' accordion that was the signature sound of California country. Good stuff which forcefully contradicts Cooley's reputation as a cheeseball Lawrence Welk of country. Other than a couple of awkward fade-ins, the sound quality on this one is pretty good.
Here's the official, major-label entry into Cooley-ania, a swell set of Cooley's best studio recordings, including several of later vintage. But for a sound of his popular recordings, from the swinging to schmaltzy, this is a pretty tasty selection. Recommended!
A sad coda to the long career of this fabled western swing bandleader... After his orchestra splintered in the mid-1950s, Cooley concentrated on his TV career, and wound up hosting a wildly popular prime-time show in LA. That gig had started to peter out by the time he got into the studio to cut this set, an album that turned out to be his last, as Cooley wound up in prison a couple of years later, never to record again. The ensemble was packed with talent, including steelman Joaquin Murphey and sleek guitar picker Roy Lanham (who does a mean Chet Atkins imitation...) And, of course, there was Cooley himself, who dashes off some fine fiddle licks, along with two accompanists who double the fiddles and create a string section sound on most tracks. It's the feel of the album that makes it hopeless, though: Cooley's musical instincts had become irreparably popped out and muzak-y, and though the musicianship is high on this album, the music itself was pretty cheesy. It's worth checking out if you are a Cooley fan or a western swing buff, but don't expect too much from it.
Alvin Crow "...And The Pleasant Valley Boys" (Polydor, 1976)
Alvin Crow "Riding High" (Polydor, 1977)
Next to Asleep At The Wheel, fiddler Alvin Crow was one of the greatest hippie-era western swing revivalists of the 1970s... Not strictly wed -- by any means -- to the genre's canon, Crowe covered choice honkytonk tunes such as "Wine Me Up" and novelty tunes like "The Nyquil Blues"... He also has a dynamite version of Jesse Winchester's "That's A Touch I Like." I'm sure these two albums didn't sell like gangbusters, but we're lucky he had a major-label deal, because you can still find these LPs around from time to time. Personally, I think Crow was way underrated... I love the guy's voice and upbeat, playful tone... these albums are uneven, but definitely recommended.
Alvin Crow "...And The Neon Angels" (Big Wheel, 1979)
Alvin Crow "Honkytonk Trail" (Broken Spoke, 1988)
Crow fell off Polydor's radar, but not ours. Kicking back around Austin, Crow set up shop with his own indie label, and I believe he's still putting records out today. The Neon Angels LP is actually a re-release of material from 1973, presumably the same stuff that landed him his major label contract... It's got rough spots, but in a really good way. Ditto with the Honkytonk Trail album, which is a nice snapshot of a relaxed, talented artist with no corporate pressure on him and nothing much to prove. Fun stuff.
Tommy Duncan "Beneath A Neon Star In A Honky Tonk" (Bear Family,1996)
It's hard to overestimate the importance of Tommy Duncan's bluesy-crooner vocals to the success of Bob Will's western swing sound of the 1940s. Duncan and Wills had a several big blow-outs after the War, and in 1948, Duncan left the Texas Playboys and set out on his own. These two CDs document the uneven results of Duncan's solo career, with maybe a half dozen screamingly awesome tracks spread between them, a bunch of fairly good tracks, and some stuff that just doesn't measure up. It's instructive to see how a top-flight vocalist like Duncan could make mediocre records, when deprived of a steady, full-time backup band -- kinda gives you more respect for all those super-amateur bands whose hard-rocking honkytonk tunes grace all those endless compilation albums. These discs are well worth checking out, though in the long run they may not hold your attention.
One of the preeminent steel players of his generation, Emmons did tons of studio work, notably for Emmylou Harris and her country-rock crowd. Here he relaxes and works his way through a nice set of instrumental tunes, backed by fiddler Johnny Gimble and some of their pals. This is best when it showcases Emmons alone, as on slower numbers such as "Wild Mountain Time," where Emmons' precision and tonal control are best showcased.... The faster numbers, such as his version of "Sugarfoot Rag," with a drum kit rushing him along, are far less interesting, but still of a high caliber of musicianship.
Buddy Emmons "Sings Bob Wills" (Flying Fish, 1976)
This mid-'70s usual-suspects ensemble, featuring steel guitar whiz Buddy Emmons, along with fiddlers Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher, Pig Robbins and others, hits the right marks and doesn't bump into the furniture, but somehow I don't think they got the Bob Wills vibe down right. It's all just too clean and clever: where's the rowdy, disshevelled fervor of the old Wills/Duncan days. This album has its heart in the right place, but I don't think they were wild enough to really capture the easygoing beauty of the Texas Playboys sound.
Wow. The Farr Brothers were the backup pickers who added the musical punch to many of the best old recordings of the Sons Of The Pioneers, and of Pioneers alumnus Gene Autry. Left to their own devices, they knocked out a slew of great instrumentals, like the ones on this disc. The surprising thing is how completely jazzy these tracks are. If you like old recordings from the likes of Django Rinehardt, or Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti's duets, then you owe it to yourself to check this disc out. It's hot and sweet, and very listenable.
Dan Hicks - see artist discography
A sweet three-piece swing stringband which draws evenly on Tin Pan Alley and western swing standards (Gershwin, Bob Wills and the usual suspects). Their approach to the standards is brisk and bouncy, with nods towards Django Rinehardt, Chet Atkins and Wills himself, as well as Depression-era outfits like the Prairie Ramblers. The lead singers -- guitarist Whit Smith and fiddle player Elana Fremerman -- are limited as vocalists -- but they nonchalantly shrug it off, with the sort of just-plain-folks, come-and-hear-us-play-at-the-cafe attitude which reminds us that you don't have to be a rock god to make good music. For an extra dose of authenticity country/swing veteran Johnny Gimble pitches in on several tunes. Sweet, swinging, and fun to listen to. They're also pretty awesome live.
Their debut was so sharp and so accomplished, it was hard to envision them topping themselves (and not mucking it up) but ... surprise! This album is a real stunner. One big, BIG reason is that this time the trio had Dave Stuckey of the Dave and Deke Combo in tow as the album's producer. Dave has perfect pitch when it comes to reclaiming old-time western swing and hillbilly material, and as a producer he is so faultlessly sympathetic to the goals and passions of the Hot Club, that this album is one of the best of it's kind you're likely to hear. He also adds a punchy, slightly manic energy that is a nice balance to the band's somewhat cool natural demeanor. HIGHLY recommended!
And again, amazingly enough they seem to just get better and better... In the final balance, I do prefer Dave Stuckey's sublimnal rowdiness as producer of the last album, but Texas fixture Lloyd Maines keeps things on a cool, even keel at the helm of this disc. More great old-time acoustic swing, with novelty songs and sweet licks galore. Need I say it? Recommended!
A sweet live set, featuring this retrorific swing trio at a hometown venue, Austin's Continental Club, in May of 2003. They get a little risque with a version of the old Light Crust Doughboys ditty, "Here Pussy Pussy Pussy" (on a hidden bonus track), but otherwise this is pretty much par for the course for these folks -- old standards and western tunes from the 1930s and '40s, and plenty of bouncy fiddling and smooth geetar work. It's nice, classy stuff, and a nice chance to hear how they sound in front of a crowd.
I don't know anything about the movie this soundtrack is from, but the music sure is sweet! An album full of music from one of the finest western swing/stringband revival bands, the now-defunct Hot Club Of Cowtown, with five new tracks from HCCT co-founder Whit Smith's new group. It's fine stuff from start to finish, a very listenable, very pleasant set, roaming through various acoustic jazz, blues and country styles, with a healthy dose of classic western swing tunes. This is a well-programmed album, and a fine testament to the Hot Club's freewheeling, joyful style. Recommended!
Rollicking live broadcasts from a Fresno-based western swing band fronted by one of Bob Wills' frequent B-list pickup musicians, guitarist-singer Harley Huggins. A nice slice of what the average band would have sounded like back then... Not the best sound quality, but also not the worst -- Fresnan's will delight at the KMJ radio announcer's frequent mentions of local landmarks such as the corner of Chestnut and Butler Avenues (which was probably a fruit orchard back then...) Fun stuff.
An absolutely captivating and lively record from fiddler Elana James (nee Fremerman), formerly of the Hot Club Of Cowtown. Given her illustrious swing-string pedigree, the mix of western swing and jazz standards is no surprise, but what's a delight is the album's focus and cohesion, and how gosh-darn well-produced it sounds. It just sounds like a pure, unfettered expression of what she wants to do, and with an artist this talented, that's a pretty cool thing. Throughout the album, James is clearly channeling the spirit of Bob Wills, but with a lively snap of the bow that's all her own; the vocals are also nice, as are the nods to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Eubie Blake. If you liked the Hot Club, you're gonna want to pick this one up... pronto! (Available through www.elanajames.com)
So far, this is the most ambitious of the Soundies releases... this 2-CD set unleashes 51 tracks by one of the most sprightly (and prolific) of the western swing bandleaders... These early '50s transcriptions caught him at the height of his commercial success -- Patti Page's 1951 version of King's "Tennessee Waltz" was one of the biggest pop hits of the postwar era, and suddenly his name was a household word. What we get here is a pretty swinging, cool country sound, but with plenty of the hayloft square dance influences left intact. King just passed away in March of 2000, and there couldn't have been a more fitting tribute to him than this collection, which demonstrates his live sound at its best. Recommended!
Pee Wee King "...And His Golden West Cowboys" (Bear Family, 1994)
This super-duper, 6-CD box set might be too much for the average listener, but if you're a western swing fanatic, then this is a real find. King coasts back and forth between swing and '40s style honkytonk, and vocalist Redd Stewart was definitely among the best. Pricey, but recommended!
Favorite Roots Labels
Hick Music Index