Inside the Music | The Dancehalls & The Airwaves | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
Country music today retains little of the regional identity that characterized it in its early days. There are pockets of resistance to this homogeneity and to the hegemony of Nashville – a honky-tonk dance circuit and a fiercely independent singer-songwriter tradition in Texas, for example – but overall the scene is one of major stars playing huge venues.
The middle ground of regional stardom has largely disappeared, but it was once the norm. The popularity of an artist like western swing pioneer Milton Brown was limited to the area in which he or she operated – limited by the reach of local radio and by hard travel in the days before superhighways.
It is almost a cliché of country-music scholarship to underscore the differences in regional styles in black and white: east of the Mississippi the music was for ‘show’, west of the Mississippi its primary purpose was for dancing. This is largely true, though certainly there were plenty of exceptions on both sides of the river to disprove the rule. The south-eastern band of Curley Williams (1914–70), for example, flourished on a dance circuit in southern Georgia and northern Florida prior to its arrival on the Grand Ole Opry in 1943. At the same time, non-dance shows that featured more straightforward country music were popular all over the south-west and beyond, including such major Saturday-night radio barn dances as the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport and the Big D Jamboree in Dallas.
Even among the western swing groups in the south-west, dance bands in a region in which dancing – whether in large dancehalls or small honky-tonks – was dominant, there were bands that were exclusively radio and show bands. These included some of the most important and influential bands in the style: Fort Worth’s Light Crust Doughboys and Dallas’ Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers and Roy Newman And His Boys. The Doughboys and Boyd toured widely as purely show bands behind their regionally popular radio shows, while Newman’s band, though it played locally on a limited basis, was chiefly a radio band.
The Rise And Decline Of The Dancehall
Far more common, however, were dance bands like Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys, who in their pre-war heyday operated with stunning success within a region defined by the coverage of their radio broadcasts. In the case of the Playboys, who played over powerful 50,000-watt KVOO, this was a fairly large range of several hundred miles beyond their Tulsa home base. In the days before prerecording was common and radio shows were performed live, such performers were also limited by how far they could realistically travel to perform and still make it back for the radio show the following morning.
What Wills’ dance band and the Doughboys’ show group had in common was radio sponsorship – in both cases flour companies. This was a new development in the 1930s and it proved lucrative for both band and sponsor. At the same time, many bands had no such sponsorship...
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