A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After one year of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Twelve years ago, when Keith Phipps and I were roommates, I used to avail myself regularly of his CD collection. Keith had far more sophisticated and eclectic tastes than I did, so I used his sizable musical library as an opportunity to enhance my musical education and broaden my horizons. One aspect of Keith’s collection made a particularly strong impression on me and helped lay the groundwork for this project: a Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys box set. Listening to Bob Wills for the very first time, I was blown away. It was a revelatory experience. Wills’ music was radically different from my narrow conception of country music. It was black. It was white. It was country. It was jazz. It was blues. It was pop in the very best sense. It was hillbilly. It was sophisticated. It contained multitudes. Wills was a one-man musical melting pot, the very embodiment of American musical democracy.
But more than anything I responded to the irrepressible energy and optimism in Bob Wills’ voice. For perhaps the first time in my life I found myself listening to country CDs over and over again. To put it in hip-hop terms, Wills was the world’s greatest hype man. Decades before Flavor Flav, Diddy, and Lil Jon, Wills mastered the art of making every song he appeared on better through ad-libs, joking, rhythmic whoops, shout-outs/instructions to his musicians, and all-around bonhomie. He was simultaneously a narrator, Greek chorus, emcee, color commentator, conductor, joyful taskmaster, and musical air traffic controller ordering up solos and doling out bottomless praise.
Though he generally left the singing to others (most notably silky-smooth, versatile longtime Texas Playboys crooner/songwriter Tommy Duncan), Wills was ubiquitous on his songs, with a high-pitched Mickey Mouse squeal of ecstasy that might just be the purest vessel for joy in the history of pop music. Wills’ lust for life all but dares listeners not to break out into a big idiot grin. Last week, when I was reintroduced to Wills’ oeuvre via my iPod, I was having a really tough day. I was gloomy. I was brooding. I was a sad panda. But as soon as Wills started squealing into my ear my frown turned into a rare smile. My leg started shaking. My toes started tapping. I was on the Brown Line home after a long day at work and briefly rebelled against the unofficial prohibition against expressing happiness on the Chicago Public Transit System.
Wills cultivated an effortless sense of intimacy that engendered fierce loyalty among his bandmates and his fans. In Merle Haggard’s autobiography he writes of smacking his hot-blooded first ex-wife and throwing her out of his car after she insulted Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. When he goes back to pick her up, she’s defiantly telling onlookers that Haggard tore her dress trying to keep her in the car when she decided to bolt of her own accord.
Say what you will about mom and country but talking shit about Bob Wills clearly crossed a line for Haggard. She was walking on the fighting side of Hag. Later, an older, wiser, and hopefully less domestic violence-prone Haggard brags that his newest, bestest wife gets every day off on the right foot by putting on his beloved Bob Wills records as soon as he gets up in the morning. To Haggard, domestic hell was a wife with no damn respect for Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys, and domestic heaven was a woman who intuitively understood how important he was to him. Haggard didn’t just praise Wills: In 1970 he helped spark a revival in western swing and Wills’ fading career by covering many of Wills’ classic hits on A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (Or, My Salute To Bob Wills) with six of the Texas Playboys.
Waylon Jennings scored one of his signature hits with “Bob Wills Is The Still The King,” an homage to one of his heroes and a not-so-subtle dig at friend/collaborator/rival/fellow Texan Willie Nelson. Austin was Nelson’s home base, so when Jennings sang, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king” it was easy to read between the lines. Jennings went from implicit to explicit when he sang that Texas was “the home of Willie Nelson, it’s the home of Western Swing / and he’ll be the first to tell you Bob Wills is still the king.” He wasn’t lying. Nelson is right up there with Haggard and Jennings in his love for Wills. He’s covered Wills songs and emulates Wills’ performing style on the recently recorded Willie And The Wheel, a tribute to Wills featuring Asleep At The Wheel, a band that has spent its entire career traveling down the road Wills blazed decades earlier.
These newfangled outlaws are responding to Wills’ music, but they’re also responding to the way he conducted himself and his career. He was the most genial of outlaws. When the Grand Ole Opry, that most tradition-bound and regressive of institutions, banned the use of drums, Wills And His Texas Playboys went ahead and used them anyway. The beat was vitally important to Wills’ sound. He was all about getting asses out on the floor. An accidental innovator, Wills more or less invented Western Swing out of a desire to create the most danceable sound imaginable: If that meant fusing country with jazz and blues, then so much the better. To Wills it didn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing.
Wills came about his musical miscegenation naturally. As a small boy, his friends were all black and he picked up his love for blues—Bessie Smith was a particular favorite—and vocal signatures from his pals. While he was still trying to find himself as a performer, he appeared in blackface in medicine shows. Mysterious blackface performer Emmett Miller—about whom Nick Tosches wrote an equally fascinating and maddening book called Where Dead Voices Gather, whose best parts explain the cultural importance of blackface without apologizing for it—served as a huge inspiration. Wills’ patterned the Texas Playboys’ version of Mills’ “I Ain’t Got Nobody” very closely after Miller’s version, especially the wild, ragged, almost unhinged yodeling that makes it so striking nearly 75 years later.
Wills’ background in blackface is perhaps most apparent on “St. Louis Blues,” a track that’s half low-down, dirty country-blues, half blackface vaudeville routine as Wills shucks and jives with his singer and hushes up a joker who takes the line about a black-headed woman who “make-a freight train jump a track” just a little too literally.
Wills could care less about propriety. He was an early proponent of the notion that if you free your mind your ass will follow. “I’m A Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” is even further out-there, a wild, zoot-suited jazz number about a debauched libertine who boasts:
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy baby and liquor is my racket
Lots of times when things are dull I deal in other traffic
I can sell you morphine, coke or snow
Take a little shot and you’re raring to go.
It’s not quite N.W.A., but one can only imagine what the blue-hairs made of it.
Wills could turn any song into a dance number by adding a swinging beat and his own endlessly enthusiastic presence. One of Wills’ signature songs, “Bubbles In My Beer,” is so much fun it’s easy to overlook the utterly despairing nature of its lyrics. It’s a song about a man looking at the wreckage of life through a buzzed haze: “I know that my life’s been a failure” is Duncan’s concise judgment of the mess he’s made of his sadsack existence.
Then again, “Bubbles In My Beer” is “Walking On Sunshine” compared to “Trouble In Mind.” Wills was a friend for all seasons. If you wanted to dance and party then Wills and his band would make sure you had the best damned time of your life. But if you wanted to lay “your head on some lonesome railroad line and let that 219 pacify” your mind then Wills was right there with you as well, ready to share your suicidal depression and urge for permanent self-negation.
If Wills could make gut-wrenching hopelessness fun and danceable, he made disposable, borderline novelty pop songs downright giddy. One of my all-time favorite Wills songs is “Roly Poly,” an exuberant celebration of childhood obesity about a portly, pint-sized eating machine about whom Duncan enthuses, “bet he’s gonna be a man someday” assuming, of course, that he doesn’t die of a massive heart attack while still in his teens.
Wills’ winning personality, infectious rhythms, and peerless understanding for the needs of a mass audience made him a huge superstar and laid the foundations for the Bakersfield sound through driving beats and his embrace of the electric guitar. But after parting ways with Tommy Duncan, Wills entered a steep professional decline.
The very things that made Wills so vital and influential made him an increasingly noncommercial proposition as country grew more standardized and homogenized. He was too jazzy for the country crowd and too country for the jazz crowd. Pop didn’t have much of a use for him either, and though songs like 1954’s “Cadillac In Model ‘A’” pointed confidently in the direction of rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll, he wasn’t about to be played on rock stations either. (Years later, however, Wills and The Texas Playboys were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in the “Early Influence” category.) Bad business decisions and problem drinking didn’t help either.
Wills’ best days were long behind him by the time he died at 70 in 1975, but at least he lived to experience a revival of interest in him and the Western Swing movement he pioneered thanks to acolytes and fans like Merle Haggard. Wills’ massive popularity as a bandleader and radio personality might not have proved sustainable, but he leaves beyond a formidable legacy of untamed joy. Though it doesn’t include tracks like “Trouble In Mind,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” or “Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas)” the Anthology: 1935-1973: Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys still serves as a potent musical anti-depressant. Pop in its two discs and let Bob holler your blues away.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Tom T. Hall
The Louvin Brothers