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
Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys
Swing With The Music
Shame On You
Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!
Fool Fool Fool
Louise Rowe with Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys
San Antonio Rose
Milk Shakin’ Mama
Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks
Everybody’s Doin’ It
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen
Miles And Miles Of Texas
Asleep At The Wheel
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)
I Can’t Go On This Way
The Quebe Sisters
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
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