Styles & Forms | Western Swing | Country

Western swing is an innovative, free-wheeling yet complex instrumental amalgam drawn from blues, jazz and Dixieland syncopations and harmonies. Central to the style is an emphasis on instrumental solos, often involving the transposition of jazz-style horn parts to fiddle, guitar and steel guitar.

It is indicative of western swing’s sophistication that Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, the definitive western swing band, included at various times a Dixieland drummer (Smokey Dacus), a jazz piano player (Al Stricklin) and a jazz-flavoured guitarist (Eldon Shamblin). Wills’ innovations with his long-time band The Texas Playboys were crucial to the emergence of this hybrid music that merged horns and the free-wheeling, improvisatory spirit of jazz big bands with country fiddle music and elements of honky-tonk instrumentation like the electric guitar, steel guitar and twin fiddles.

Rivaling Wills’ influence in establishing and propagating early western swing was his fellow Texan and one-time band mate, Milton Brown – the two played together briefly in the early 1930s as part of a trio called The Aladdin Laddies, and later The Light Crust Doughboys. Brown and his band The Musical Brownies were, until Brown’s untimely death in a car accident in 1936, pioneers of a number of the genre’s essential ingredients, including New Orleans jazz rhythms, twin fiddles playing in harmony, slap-bass fiddle playing and some of the earliest uses of electrified instruments in country music. Brown, just as importantly, brought a smooth and rhythmic vocal style to western swing that drew more heavily from jazz masters like Jack Teagarden and Cab Calloway than from country sources. He also recorded and popularized songs like ‘Right Or Wrong’ and ‘Corrine Corrina’ that still endure as western swing standards. Unfortunately, without Brown, The Brownies’ innovations ceased and the band’s popularity quickly waned.

Doughboys And Playboys

Bob Wills’ career began modestly in 1929 when a trio he’d formed landed a spot on a Fort Worth, Texas radio station. In the early 1930s, as he moved on to larger radio stations and his budget increased, Wills added additional players (including Milton Brown) to his band, which was called at various times the Aladdin Laddies and The Light Crust Doughboys (depending on what company was sponsoring his show at the time). In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1934 the name Texas Playboys finally stuck for good. By then Wills had further expanded his instrumental line-up to include two fiddles, two guitars and a bass, piano and banjo. Four years later, he had boosted the band to 14 members, including a third fiddle, two saxophones and a trumpet player.

By 1935, after more personnel shuffles, Wills assembled what some consider to be the most talented line-up of Playboys. Players included vocalist Tommy Duncan, banjo player Johnnie Lee Wills, bass player Son Lansford, trumpeter Everett Stover, saxophonist Zeb McNally, guitarist Herman Arnspiger, trombonist Art Haines, fiddler Jesse Ashlock, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, guitarist Sleepy Johnson, drummer Smokey Dacus, piano player Al Stricklin and Wills himself, also...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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