Theoretically Speaking – S5:E12: What Makes Western Swing  Western Swing ? 


Western Swing musicians and historians are adamant about one thing:

Western Swing is not Country music.

Oh, sure, Western Swing musicians and fans wear cowboy hats and boots, and Country musicians love and play Western Swing.

But they’re two distinct genres.

Western Swing, as its name implies, is more closely aligned with Swing, and what its aficionados want you to know is this:

Western Swing is Jazz.

That may strike us outsiders as odd, but keep that in mind as you listen. If Swing is Jazz, then so is Western Swing.

Country music historian Bill C. Malone called it “Jazz on cornbread.”

Do this as a thought experiment: Imagine a big band, like Benny Goodman’s or Duke Ellington’s, but replace the horns with string instruments.

The saxes become a couple of fiddles, the clarinet becomes a steel guitar, the trumpets and trombones become acoustic and those newfangled electric guitars. And now you have a Western Swing band. It uses strings instead of winds.

You might remember from an earlier article in this series that Calypso was partially influenced by Venezuelan string bands. They used guitars, violins, and cellos, and other instruments, to make dance music. Similar string bands existed in Mexico and Texas.

During the Great Depression, musicians around Fort Worth used the string band setup as a starting point and added European and African Folk, Pop, Jazz, Blues, Polka, Mariachi, and more.

An interesting influence came from France. Black American soldiers who served in Europe during World War I heard the new French Jazz songs.

They brought those melodies and licks home with them and incorporated them into the Blues, and therefore into Western Swing, too.

It makes sense that all these genres were used, because Texas had large German, Polish, and Czech immigrant populations. Plus: black people who moved from the Deep South for better opportunities, and descendants of the Mexicans who lived in the area before the Mexican-American War. It’s melting pot music.

Western Swing’s originators didn’t set out to create a new genre. They just threw everything into the pot.

All they really wanted to do was make people dance. It’s a given among Western Swing musicians: if people aren’t dancing to your music, you’re not doing your job.

In the late 1920s, the Aladdin Lamp Company sponsored a radio show on WBAP in Dallas. They hired Milton Brown, Bob Wills, and Herman Arnspiger to provide live music. They were named The Aladdin Laddies. However, the show didn’t last long and the Laddies were soon unemployed.

Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel is now known for being a populist politician. But before that, he worked for the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, makers of Light Crust Flour. He was eventually put in charge of advertising.

Brown, Wills, and Arnspiger approached O’Daniel and suggested he sponsor a radio show with them as the stars. Using radio for advertising was still a relatively new idea, and he didn’t care for their “hillbilly” music. But he reluctantly agreed. He paid them $7.50 a week, though he insisted they also work at the mill.

They renamed themselves The Light Crust Doughboys. This was a play on the name of the flour, the dough it would make, and the WWI infantrymen known as the Doughboys.

They added other musicians, including banjo player Smokey Montgomery. He got the name Smokey because he played so fast his hands looked like smoke.

After the show’s initial success, they got out of those day jobs by asking O’Daniel to be the show’s master of ceremonies. It was through that name recognition that he was able to launch his political career. He was elected governor in 1939.

O’Daniel was stubborn and cantankerous, and Brown left the band after an argument about money. He started his own band, Milton Brown And His Musical Brownies. 

He took the basic Doughboys formula and added Fred “Papa” Calhoun on piano. Thereafter piano became an important part of Western Swing. They also added Bob Dunn on amplified steel guitar, a brand new instrument that became very important to the genre.

The band’s defining feature, however, was twin fiddles. Brown and Cliff Bruner would play harmony fiddle parts.

Two or even three fiddles playing in harmony is a signature sound of Western Swing.

Again, think of a big band’s horn section playing harmony parts, and then switch it to fiddles. For that matter, think of the harmony guitar parts Thin Lizzy used.

The Brownies got their own radio show, broadcasting from Fort Worth’s Crystal Springs Dance Hall every Saturday night. It had a capacity of 1,000 patrons and was sold out almost every week.

Crystal Springs Dance Hall, by the way, was on the banks of the West Fork Trinity River.

The sign out front said, “Dancing and Swimming.” It stayed in business until it burned down in 1966.

The radio show from Crystal Springs was as big a hit as the club itself.

People could call in and request songs. One person would always request “My Mary” and ask that it be dedicated to “you know who.”

J.B. “Blackie” Brinkley was a bouncer at Crystal Springs. He didn’t have a car to get there, but he knew if he stood on the corner of University and 7th, someone would recognize him and offer him a lift. It would likely be someone going to the dance hall anyway.

One night, a car driven by a woman with a man in the passenger seat stopped. Brinkley knew them because they sometimes danced at Crystal Springs. He went up to the car to say hello. He saw the man had a machine gun on his lap. The woman said, “We’re a little hot right now but you’re welcome to ride with us if you want to.” Brinkley thanked them but said he’d wait for someone else, and off they went. 

It was Bonnie and Clyde.

Clyde was the you-know-who that always requested “My Mary.”

Brown is known as the “Father of Western Swing” but he could have done much more had he not died at the age of 33.

He often fell asleep at strange times, possibly due to narcolepsy. It might have caused his one-car accident in 1936. The car he was driving went off the road and hit a telephone pole. His passenger was killed instantly. She was a 16-year-old who had sneaked out of the house to go to Crystal Springs. He was driving her home.

It was thought his injuries weren’t life threatening, but a broken rib had punctured a lung. He caught pneumonia and died five days later.

The accident happened across the street from the Avalon Motel, about a month after he recorded the song “Avalon.”

Meanwhile, Wills had also left the Doughboys and relocated to Waco. He started a band called The Playboys and in 1934 moved the band to Oklahoma City, renaming them the Texas Playboys. Like the Brownies, the Playboys had twin fiddles and a steel guitar. 

He loved Blues and, as the story goes, once rode 35 miles on horseback to hear Bessie Smith perform. In a time of Jim Crow laws and similar racism, he would hire musicians of any color if he liked the way they played.

Wills also gave Everet Stover a job as an announcer. But Stover, who had played with the symphony in New Orleans thought he had been hired as a trumpet player. He started playing and Wills, though he wasn’t thrilled, didn’t stop him. It worked so well that a sax player named Zeb McNally was also added.

Wills thought they needed something to balance things out, so he hired drummer Smoky Dacus. The addition of drums is one of Wills’ contributions to the genre.

Where Brown was the “Father of Western Swing,” Wills became the “King of Western Swing.”

In 1944, the Playboys were booked to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. One of the Opry’s rules said that only traditional instruments should be used, which excluded horns and drums. There are several versions of the story, some saying that the Playboys loaded in their gear without telling anyone, others saying that the drummer had to play behind a curtain.

But it’s thought the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were the first to use horns and drums on stage at the Opry.

As if the Great Depression weren’t enough, the Dust Bowl of 1930 put many farmers in Oklahoma out of business.

Many “Okies” moved to California, like Woody Guthrie and Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley.

A fiddle player, Cooley joined a band led by Jimmy Wakely, one of the last singing cowboys. When Wakely took a contract with Universal Pictures as an actor, Cooley took over as bandleader and hired Tex Williams, among others, to sing.

Cooley and Williams also acted. One of Cooley’s acting gigs was as Roy Rogers’ stand-in because they resembled each other.

Cooley’s contribution to Western Swing is adding an accordion and, of all things, a harp.

Very few other bands, however, added a harpist. The band’s sound was slightly different from the Western Swing in Texas.

The vocals were smoother and more precise, the arrangements more polished, and the use of horns more frequent. This became known as the “west coast” sound and is noticeably closer to Swing.

Spade Cooley had a temper, though, and suspected his wife Ella Mae of having affairs, including with Roy Rogers. He had had several affairs himself, but filed for divorce and custody of their three children. In 1961, he was tried and convicted of her murder. Their oldest child, who was 14, testified that her father made her watch as he beat her mother to death. The details are gruesome.

He was sentenced to life in prison.

At Cooley’s parole hearing after serving eight years, his Hollywood friends, including then Governor Ronald Reagan, testified on his behalf. Parole was granted, in part because of Cooley’s heart condition.

In 1969, before the parole took effect, he was given 72 hours leave to play a benefit for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County. He received a standing ovation, left the stage, and had a fatal heart attack.

By that time, Western Swing had faded, as had its counterpart Swing, but neither fell out of favor completely.

In the late 60s and into the 70s, it had a resurgence.

Country stars like Willie Nelson and George Strait had Western Swing songs in their sets, and new bands showed Western Swing influences in their Rock-based music. Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks called themselves “Folk Swing,” but the Western Swing shines through.

Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen had a hippie vibe about them, but they too knew Western Swing.

Their cover of the Rockabilly song “Hot Rod Lincoln” reached #9 in 1972, but they also covered Tex Williams’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” and wrote their own songs, too.

Perhaps the best known Western Swing resurgence band is Asleep At The Wheel. They’ve been together for five decades now and have been called the “Rolling Stones of Western Swing” due to their longevity. 

Western Swing continues strong today, and Fort Worth is still its epicenter.

A big difference is the number of women in the craft. Katie Shore, Ginny Mac, The Quebe Sisters, Devon Dawson, and Kristyn Harris are all names to watch.

The stereotypes say that the Swing musicians from the big cities were sophisticated and the musicians from the country were backwards hicks.

But c’mon. That’s ridiculous. First of all, Fort Worth had a population of 190,000 in 1935. It was a big city, too.  More importantly, the musicians in Texas, Oklahoma, and California were playing Jazz in new ways.

They adopted electric string instruments before nearly anyone else. They were innovators on the cutting edge.

Give ‘em the attaboy they deserve.

As they sing at the end of nearly every Western Swing show

Happy trails to you, until we meet again.

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

The Light Crust Doughboys Theme Song
The Light Crust Doughboys

Milton Brown And His Musical Brownies

Ida Red
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys

Swing With The Music
Adolf Hofner

Shame On You
Spade Cooley

Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!
Tex Williams

Fool Fool Fool
Louise Rowe with Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys

San Antonio Rose
Willie Nelson

Milk Shakin’ Mama
Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks

(Possibly NSFW)
Everybody’s Doin’ It
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen

Miles And Miles Of Texas
Asleep At The Wheel

The Fireman
George Strait

Stompin’ At The Savoy
Tom Morrell & The Timewarp Tophands

Jesse The Yodeling Cowgirl
Devon Dawson
(as Jesse The Yodeling Cowgirl with Riders In The Sky)

Glen’s Ferry
Ginny Mac

I Can’t Go On This Way
The Quebe Sisters

Happy Trails
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:

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Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 7:46 am

TIL that Western Swing existed. Never heard of it!

Interestingly, I hear more stride piano influence in the music than I do the call-and-response arrangements of big band swing. Even more than that, it sounds to me like a white update of jug band jazz and blues.

Just, minus the jugs and stuff. Jazz started out as a Southern city music with strong ties to country sounds, so it makes sense to bring back some of that deep-fried appeal.

Very interesting read, and thanks for the recs!

Famed Member
November 17, 2023 8:14 am

This was a great read. I have exactly one connection with this genre. In the early 80s, my brother became a huge fan of Jump’n the Saddle Band, a Western Swing band (we called it Texas Swing) that gained some popularity in the Chicago area. He gave me one of their cassettes and I wore it out. We went to a festival in the town next door to us, where they were playing, and it’s essentially the first live show I really remember. I was blown away.
A couple of years later, I went away to college and lost touch with their music, but was shocked when they released a novelty song about The Three Stooges called “The Curly Shuffle” and it went to #15 on the Hot 100. I was like “hey I know those guys!” They didn’t have a follow up hit after that, but I love that they got their 15 minutes.

Last edited 5 months ago by rollerboogie
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 10:57 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I thought of one more connection I have to Western Swing. As a music director for a church, I sometimes arrange a song or two as a blues-jazz shuffle and write a horn line that goes with it. On Sundays, I usually have tenor saxophone and violin playing, and when I have the violin play the same line as the sax on those particular songs, I’ve noticed that it does give it a bit of a Western Swing feel.

Last edited 5 months ago by rollerboogie
JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 11:52 am

Ok so I’m upto date with Swing, now it’s time for Western Swing, except despite the Western part its not Country. Its jazz. There’s a lot to keep up with. Swing made a big impact here, fair to say Western Swing did not. It sure sounds like a mix of Country and Jazz to me.

There’s certainly some characters involved. Just not necessarily ones I’d want to meet, especially Spade Cooley. 8 years doesn’t sound a lot for his crimes but hey, when you’ve got friends like Ronnie to vouch for what a great guy you are…..

Famed Member
November 17, 2023 12:50 pm


I was listening to your playlist, and I can’t tell the difference between Western Swing and bluegrass (I searched the article for bluegrass as well) – what is the difference?

I really can’t tell the difference!

Famed Member
November 18, 2023 8:17 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I have been looking forward to when you get to bluegrass.

Phylum of Alexandria
Famed Member
November 20, 2023 7:22 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I’ll bring the sodium-enriched peanuts.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 4:29 pm
Reply to  thegue

I can see the dividing line between bluegrass and Western swing pretty clearly, but I’ve spent a lot of time around bluegrass, so I’ve got it’s peculiarities baked in my mind already.

However, I feel like there are some cowboy melodies that aren’t Western swing and aren’t country either. A lot of Gene Autry, Marty Robbins, about 75% of the songs that Riders in the Sky cover (or their originals). Is that just “Western” (sans swing)? Or how are those songs classified?

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 5:56 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Believe it or not, Riders in the Sky came to tiny Franklin, KY, and played the auditorium in our public library. I was there. This was back in the late 90’s or early 00’s. Needless to say, they got a packed house and an enthusiastic crowd!

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 6:51 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Not for a long, long time… But I grew up there.

Famed Member
November 17, 2023 7:00 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

That’s pretty cool, seeing an artist with considerable name recognition play at a small unconventional venue. I almost have a perfect matching analogue. I saw Lisa Loeb perform an acoustic set at a public high school gymnasium on the east side of the island. Unfortunately, the songwriting camp was on Kaua’i. A good portion of the audience were students. I don’t think they knew who she was. I partly love Loeb because she has a slow-core connection. “That’s Ida on backup vocals,” I would announce to coworkers who just ignored me whenever the song played over the PA. I was also one out of five people, not counting the librarians, who saw a NBA-longlist nominated writer give a public reading at a rural library.

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
November 17, 2023 4:23 pm

So many great tunes and a fun story too — thanks for sharing Bill!

That Bob Wills song really put a smile on my face. Reminds me of bluegrass as well as jazz — each performer gets a chance to shine with a fancy solo.

The Tex Williams song has appeared in a few movies before — a fun tune!

Don’t recall ever seeing Willie Nelson performing without a guitar, but that was a real humdinger of a tune!

Ginny Mac is to Western Swing as Sarah Jarosz is to Bluegrass — performing a skillful and up-to-date (and somewhat smoothed out) take on an ostensibly old timey genre.

All really fun songs for a Friday!

Noble Member
November 17, 2023 4:58 pm

I can still remember that 35 years ago, a Biology teacher at college said that his favorite band was Asleep at the Wheel.

And when going to the Austin airport:
AUS Live Music Performances

Saxon Pub/Asleep at the Wheel Stage (Gate 19) from 3 to 5pm 

Famed Member
November 17, 2023 8:28 pm

Oh, Bill, I can’t believe how much I loved hearing this music today. I love it when swing takes a turn in the rural direction and sounds like this. Seriously, western shirts and western swing are two things that could almost make me want to move to Texas…west of the dryline. I love the ‘jazz on cornbread’ description…I’m going to use that in the future.

I cannot believe how much better that Willie Nelson song was than I was expecting. Also: another difference between bluegrass and western swing is while I appreciate and respect both genres, I can listen to bluegrass for about an hour, but I could listen to western swing all day long.

My full immersion country music period was 1987-1990, and I loved that even that late a western swing song could still get radio play on country pop stations. (Not sure when that ended, but I can’t imagine that has happened for decades). There was a traditional sound revival in the mid/late 80s that allowed artists like Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang to rise in popularity and other more traditional artists would have a jazzier hit here and there, too.

Here’s one of my favorites from that era. I know that she’s best known for “Constant Craving”, but I love her western swing, like this song (#22 Country/#1 Canadian Country), “Full Moon Full of Love”.

Famed Member
November 17, 2023 8:32 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Here’s a #1 country hit from 1989, Kathy Mattea’s “Burnin’ Old Memories”. One of the last 45’s I ever bought new during it’s initial popularity.

Famed Member
November 18, 2023 10:40 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford


Correct usage of lower case. Reason #340 that we love you.

Famed Member
November 19, 2023 12:51 am
Reply to  mt58

k.d. lang alienated potential lifelong fans who liked Shadowland because she starred in a PSA promoting vegetarianism. That’s what Maria McKee lacked, somebody from the establishment willing to work with an outsider. Owen Bradley, of course. I think lang was naive. I don’t think she knew there would be such a backlash.

Famed Member
November 20, 2023 7:49 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

When she was first rising to popularity, I sure didn’t realize how alternative to traditional country she was…in many ways.

Famed Member
November 20, 2023 9:06 pm

Just now getting caught up on my reading, and thought “man, that Spade Cooley story sounds really familiar”… turns out I read about it a couple days ago in this article posted over at THJKOC (doesn’t roll off the tongue like TNOCS, but I highly recommend the site… jb is a long time radio guy) the same morning as yours! Great minds, eh?

Last edited 5 months ago by Aaron3000
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