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Bob Wills & Western Swing

When I think about Western swing music, the very first word that comes to mind is FUN! It's hard to listen to live (or even recorded) Western swing without a big smile on your face! I also immediately think of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys - because Bob was one of the earliest pioneers, had tons of star charisma, was the biggest architect of the style - and had what most would agree is the absolute best Western swing band in history. And on top of that Bob Wills was (and always will be) the undisputed "King of Western Swing"!

But let's dig in a little more.

When you throw Texas frontier fiddle tunes, string band and hillbilly music, early jazz/swing, big band, blues, African American spirituals, jump blues, Mexican mariachi music, and early country music into a melting pot, we get Western swing music as we have come to know it. Western swing is a genre of American music that has its earliest roots in the state of Texas, and has been officially recognized as the "Official State Music of Texas"! As Western swing music's popularity grew in the early 1930s, it gradually found its way to other parts of the southwestern United States, then all over America, and now is found around the globe. Even from its early beginnings, Western swing was played as dance music and features a lively rhythm with a strong beat, and also makes wonderful and exciting listening music in a concert style setting. Western swing bands come in all shapes and sizes and typically feature musicians on electric bass, electric mandolin, tenor banjo, and also often have drums. The larger bands may add piano, a single horn player or an entire horn section with trumpet, trombone saxophone, etc. At his peak of popularity, Bob had bands as large as most touring big bands of the era featuring a dozen or more pieces, including stringed instruments such as fiddle, steel guitar, standard guitar (lead and/or rhythm) and upright bass. The Playboys band could hold their own, and often even outdrew their contemporaries like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington. 

In Western swing bands the vocalists are prominently featured, and often became stars in their own right. When we look at the early groups such as The Lightcrust Doughboys, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys - all the way up to Asleep at the Wheel, The Time Jumpers, and even a little band called The Western Flyers, the vocalists play a big part in the overall sound of their bands. Singers like Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, Milton Brown, Tex Williams, Cindy Walker, Hoyle and Jody Nix, Tiny Moore, Leon Rausch, Hank Thompson, Ray Benson, Carolyn Martin, and others often became as popular and well known as the bands they performed with.  


I love that most Western swing bands tend to put their own stamp on the music, but at the same time they don't wander too far outside the parameters of the style. Most Western swing artists try to honor the music and retain tradition, but may make stylistic changes and bring in new songs that fit their band, and create the individual Western swing style they are looking for. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Asleep at the Wheel, Jody Nix and the Texas Cowboys, Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, Tex Williams and his Western Caravan, Billy Jack and Johnny Lee Wills, Leon McAuliffe and his Cimarron Boys, The Time Jumpers, The Western Flyers, etc, all sound noticeably different from each other, and at the same time are all unmistakably Western swing bands!   


If you are brand new to the world of Western swing, do your ears a favor and start with the Grammy award winning landmark album “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys - For the Last Time’

Recorded at Summit-Burnett Studios in Dallas, Texas, on December 3rd and 4th, 1973 - these are two of the most important days in music history. 

Bob had been ailing in the years prior to the session…. a stroke had affected his speech and rendered him confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, he was excited and happy to see his old Texas Playboys bandmates – and honorary bandmates come together to make an album in his honor. The band was a who’s who of Western Swing and Texas Playboy history – Eldon Shamblin on guitar; Johnny Gimble on fiddle, mandolin and harmony vocals; Keith Coleman on fiddle and harmony vocals; Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar and vocals; Al Stricklin on piano; Leon Rausch on bass and vocals; Smokey Dacus on drums; Hoyle Nix on fiddle and vocals; Jody Nix on drums and vocals; Merle Haggard on fiddle and vocals; and producer Tommy Allsup on bass.

The first day of the session was electric! From his wheelchair in the center of the room, Bob was the spiritual leader providing plenty of his trademark banter. The musicians were thrilled to be a part of the album and playing red hot. Our pal Jody Nix said: “It wasn’t long after the first song that he called on me to do ‘When You Leave Amarillo.’ I will never forget that. The vocal mic was right by him, as I stood there, he was to my immediate left, watching me the whole time. I can see those jet black eyes to this day just gleaming. He put quite a few ah-ha’s and other words in my song and the feeling I had doing that is indescribable, knowing that the King of Western Swing was right there, and had asked me to be a part of it.” At the end of the song, the line says “When You Leave Amarillo, Turn Out The Lights,” and at the end Bob said, “Cut Out The Lights.”

Toward the end of the first day Bob was getting tired and asked Betty to take him home. That night, at his Ft Worth home, Bob had another massive stroke that left him comatose.

Of course, the second day of the session was a very different vibe…. Jody Nix said “The atmosphere changed in the studio. All the Playboys were quiet, but there was a job to do.” And that’s exactly what they did. Under unbelievably tough circumstances, everyone pulled it together and laid down some of the best – and most important tracks in American music history.

Bob never regained consciousness, passing away on May 13, 1975.

“Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys – For the Last Time” is much more than just a great Western Swing album. In the 43 years since it was recorded, this album exposed so many to the music of “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys”, and helped steer so many appreciative listeners and musicians (like The Western Flyers!) down the path of Western Swing.  

For fans of Western Swing, or just great music and musicianship, this album is a must have.  If you don’t have it, go get it now!  It’s available in lots of formats, but there’s nothing like the original vinyl 2-record set with extensive liner notes and lots of cool pics.   -   Joey McKenzie 



Bob Wills was a Texas musician who pioneered an American art form known as Western swing. He was a visionary, fiddler, composer, bandleader and showman and is an important part of American music.


Born March 6, 1905, near Kosse, Texas  James Robert 'Jim Rob' Wills was the oldest of nine children. HIs family was musical with a heritage of champion fiddlers and they survived on talent and hard work. 


Young 'Jim Rob' absorbed the music of cotton fields and ranch dances. Working in the cotton camps, he shared a passion for horns, frontier fiddle, rhythm and rural blues.


He was a great fiddler with his own style, from a very young age. He played his first dance at age ten starting a lifetime of dances.


San Antonio Rose, Milk Cow Blues, Roly Poly, Faded Love, Home in San Antone, Bubbles in My Beer, Take Me Back to Tulsa, Right or Wrong and Time Changes Everything  - to name but a very few. 

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