“Western swing,” suggested country legend Merle Travis, “is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing.”
In 2011, western swing was recognised as the official state music of Texas. Paula Evone Jungmann, the activist who petitioned for the official recognition describes the genre thusly:
“Western swing music is infused with songs from many cultures. The Anglo-Saxon fiddle (or violin if you wish to call it), came to Texas from the British Isles; jazz, blues, and gospel from our African-American population; mariachi and conjunto from the Mexican people; the polka and waltz beat from our German and Czech ancestors; and the Cajun French Fiddle and accordion music from Louisiana. Perhaps because of it’s multi-ethnic origins, Texas Country music appeals to a wide variety of people from all generations, races and ethnic groups and is appreciated all over the world.”
Possibly the whitest derivative of jazz ever, western swing did share some musical similarities with the “gypsy jazz” contemporaneously innovated in Europe by the Belgian-born Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt, but its lyrical sensibilities were unmistakably “down home”, and some of the genre’ key composers, such as Jimmie Rodgers, were also among the first wave of country musicians in the 1920s.
The kings of western swing were Milton Brown and Bob Wills, who formed the first “professional” western swing band, the Light Crust Doughboys, in the early 1930s. Interestingly, this has to be one of the earliest examples of a band being manufactured primarily to sell non-musical product! The Burrus Mill Flour and Elevator Company president and future Democrat senator, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, had a vision of advertising his company’s Light Crust Flour on the radio – a relatively new marketing arena – and decided the best way to go about this would be to write some songs of his own and hire a group of musicians to perform them in a regular segment on his radio show.
O’Daniel would later tour with the group and use them as a springboard for his political ambitions, but by 1933, both Wills and Brown had departed, fronting Milton Brown & His Brownies and Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, respectively.
O’Daniel, meanwhile, would go on to find fame in unsubtly fictionalised form, as ‘Governor Pappy O’Daniel’ in O Brother, Where Art Thou!
Western swing bands would perform swing-esque rhythms, but in smaller ensembles, and with the band led almost exclusively by fiddle rather than horn. Finger-picked banjos – popular in hillbilly music, but uncommon in jazz, which favoured strumming – were also the norm here, and the genre marks the first appearance of Hawaiian steel guitar in country music.
Once musicians began electrifying their steel guitars – initially by figuring out how to play them through radios, or so the story goes, we see a new innovation in 20th century dance music: amplification.
Although we’re still some way off from acid techno here, previously all dance bands had performed acoustically – and loudly – to get their audience’s feet moving. Electric guitars were here now, opening up the potential for a certain hybridisation of hillbilly honky tonk and African-American boogie woogie that could change everything.
Drums, too, had a renewed purpose in western swing – nailing down a strong backbeat that would only became more pronounced and central with further evolutions in dance music.
And unlike the heavy balladeering of country, this music was dance music through and through. It proved phenomenally successful in pre-war America, which saw crowds of up to 10,000 throng at western swing dances in California.
America’s involvement in World War II had a curtailing influence on western swing and much musical development (dance-related or otherwise) during this period, as many of the key musicians enlisted, and a brutal wartime tax on nightclubs made public dances largely untenable. In retrospect, the genre now scans like something of a peculiarity – a kind of “cowboy jazz”, uniquely appropriate for the dialled-up quirkiness of Coen Bros movies – but it’s mostly fun, inventive and overlooked stuff that, like O Brother…, also makes a strong case for miscegenation rather than separatism as a driver of culture and innovation.
Certainly, country music would never again sound so informed by African-American music. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys included WC Handy’s St Louis Blues in their repertoire – would the late 20th Century equivalent of this have been Garth Brooks covering Public Enemy?!