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Western Swing

Alive and Still Swinging.  

by Graham Lees

  photos courtesy of Rosetta Wills

The phenomenon of Western Swing began around Texas in the late 1920s, deviating to Oklahoma and then to California. The origins go back even further to the days of tent shows with travelling minstrels, which were set up to draw a crowd and therefore enable the glib-talking "doctor" to proceed in selling his cargo of concocted patent medicine, or bottled liniment appropriately named Snake Oil. The black-faced entertainer would warm up the show drawing the crowd by singing, playing an instrument or cracking jokes, followed by the salesman who would then do his best to persuade the gullible, to part with their hard earned cash for a bottle of  "doctors" cure-all.

The heyday of this fantastic big band sound reached its peak directly after the Second World War. By the mid 50s, this era had all but virtually ended. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was without doubt the best-known band in the history of Western Swing and was one of the very few bands to continue performing this once highly popular dance style music well into the 1970s.

This exciting style of music with its jazz based foundations is kept alive today by a dedicated array of highly talented musicians. In my endeavour to research today’s western swing scene, I have been fortunate to make contact with several artistes who have offered great assistance in supplying me with information.

Although she doesn't smoke a cigar or play the fiddle, singer/songwriter Dayna Wills has been dubbed "The Female Bob Wills". She has inherited the Western Swing star's stage presence and what Merle Haggard calls "those black Wills eyes". Dayna told me a little about herself.

"I live in Stockton, California. There is not a lot of WS music happening here, though there is some in San Francisco, about 90 miles from me. In 1995, I went to Oklahoma City and recorded 20 songs, which I divided into two, 10-song cassettes (at that time, my audience hadn't switched to CD.) Tommy Perkins, drummer and former Texas Playboy produced the session and he hired steel guitar genius Tom Morrell to direct the music.

I had been going to Turkey, Texas for Bob Wills Day since 1989. I started singing with several WS bands in Texas and Oklahoma during the summer. I do not have a band of my own in Stockton, music of any kind is not supported here now as well as it was before the advent of video rentals, the drunk driving law and computers.

In the studio, the band consists of 7 musicians, and some of the finest western swing players working today. Most of the players are located in Ft. Worth, Texas. When I decided to record a 3rd volume of western swing last Feb., I called on Tom Morrell to produce it. We used all but 3 of the same musicians. Two of the songs, which I co-wrote with gal-pal Norma-Lee, are nominated for Song of the Year at the Academy of Western Artists Award Show, (July 11th 2000), at the Scott Theatre in Ft. Worth, Texas. The songs are ‘Sing Faded Love, Dayna Gayle’ & ‘Texan in a Stetson’. The CD, Inside Out (Bob's Sister Helen's Kid Vol 3) is nominated for CD of the Year. I am nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year and won the award in 1998.

I named my first cassette Bob's Sister Helen's Kid because I am always asked which one of the Wills brothers is my daddy. Most of the fans know that Bob had 3 brothers, but what they aren't aware of is that he also had 6 sisters. So, my answer is, "They're not my daddy, they're my Uncle". When I quit screaming rock 'n' roll in 1974, I changed my name to Wills in memory of my mother.

I am considering writing my autobiography. Rosetta Wills wrote a book in 4 years, so I think I can write one in 10. In the meantime, I am doing a few casuals here and in Sacramento. I go to Sacramento the first Sunday of the month and sing at the Western Swing Society dance. I'm preparing to go to Ft. Worth for the award show. I'm also thinking of doing another CD of all original tunes. So much to do, so little time...Keep swingin".

Congratulations are in order for Dayna, as I received this brief message in July. "I just came home from Ft Worth TX where I attended the Academy of Western Swing Artists Award Show. My co-writer Norma-Lee and I won Song of the Year for ‘Sing Faded Love, Dayna Gayle’. It was exciting!!! "

Buddy Spicher is a well-known and accomplished fiddle player, session musician and has been a member of Crystal Gayle’s band since 1992. I had the great pleasure of contacting Buddy who told me of his own interest in modern day western swing.

"For a little background, I was born in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania and my music interest started with an old wind-up Victorola and the recordings of Gene Autry, Jimmy Rogers, Spade Cooley and Floyd Tillman. Later I listened to the music of Red Foley, Eddie Arnold, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb and their contemporaries, and eventually was fortunate to work and record with them.

I learned to play the fiddle so I could play hoedowns for dances, but my biggest desire was to learn how to perform fiddle/violin back-up for singers. I have always loved arranging tunes and it was this ability that helped me on my path to becoming a recording studio musician.

I became really good at playing harmony fiddle (second fiddle) and that was a godsend because most other fiddlers just did not know how to do it. I learned from those who could do it, including Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise, Johnny Gimble, and my favourite, Dale Potter. I moved to Nashville in 1958, and was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Those fellows all helped by letting me play double fiddles with them and I learned to play around them in harmony. I developed the ability to play single and double harmonies above and below their melody.

Western Swing appeals to the serious musicians because it has so much instrumental music. It challenges the musician because of the opportunity to improvise around the melody. The audience appeal of the swing music seems to be very broad. There will always be lovers of the big bands and the old standards with their great melodies and wonderful chord progressions. Western Swing includes such a variety of styles like hoedowns, blues, Dixieland, pop standards, polkas, cowboy songs, and it is performed mainly with string instruments. Some folks say they swear they hear sax and clarinet, but there are only twin fiddles. The magic is in the arrangements and the harmonies.

I have finally found a young man who likes swing fiddle as much as I do, and his name is Billy Contreras. He started playing with me when he was 8 years old and he is now 15. We just blend and work together like we were two people sharing the same musical thoughts. You can hear some of what we can do on the Nashville Swing Band album (which is being made available in the UK and reviewed in this magazine). You'll hear twin fiddles playing four part harmonies, which is something that is truly unique to our sound. Billy is also moving in sophisticated jazz circles and has performed with Lionel Hampton and other great jazz-inspired musicians like David Baker, Johnny Frigo and John Blake. His classical teacher is Rachel Barton of Chicago, and he has is own version of the Paganini caprices. He is one of best I've ever heard, and he'll be world class in virtually any musical style he pursues.

In live performance my Nashville Swing Band usually has fiddles, acoustic bass, arch top electric guitar, piano, drums and several vocalists. For fun and variety, we'll often add a second guitar, mandolin, trumpet, sax, vibraphone, or a lap steel guitar. My son David plays the bass fiddle, my son Matthew plays swing guitar, and my daughter Andrea is our primary vocalist. You can imagine how proud it makes me that they have become accomplished musicians and performers on their own.

I hope that more young kids will get interested like my own kids and Billy Contreras. You might know that I teach swing fiddle at Mark O'Connor's fiddle camps each summer. There we get the chance to bring the music to the younger ones for a change. When they hear swing at an early age and learn to appreciate the style and challenge, they spread the word and introduce it to their friends back home.

One young fellow, who has been attending Mark's camps for several years, just recorded a Tribute to Bob Wills album at my studio. He, too, is only fifteen, and he plays a good fiddle and sings the songs himself. His band plays in south Florida, and he's an example of how Fiddle Camp has exposed a new generation to Western Swing. Even my business partner Jim Peters first heard Western Swing music at Fiddle Camp. He took his son to the camp last year to learn how to play by ear and improvise. Jim will tell you that our relationship started when he wanted to buy a CD after he heard my band play. Up to then we hadn't recorded, so he agreed to put up the money right on the spot. Since then we've done several projects together, and have several more in the works. It is really gratifying how many people fall in love with our music once they hear it.

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a lot of demand for Western Swing outside of the festivals like in Wichita Falls (Snyder, TX) or Ruidoso, New Mexico, and Nacona, Texas. We hope to change that, and something that makes our band unique is that we do a much wider variety of swing music in the Western Swing style. Asleep at the Wheel is the only really well known group who has been successful because they won't give up and they brought in all the latest country artists to help with their tributes to Bob Wills' music. We love the Bob Wills songs, too, but on our albums you'll also hear swing standards that have never been done in this style; songs that are more familiar to mainstream audiences. We think adding these songs with demanding swing arrangements makes our band much more exciting to hear in person.

Our band has attracted some of the new generation of swing dancers who love the music. It’s been fun that they found us at The Bluewind, because there just aren't any other places around Nashville they can go to swing dance. The Bluewind is a music club near Nashville where we play a weekly gig. Our Wednesday night crowd has been steadily growing with more dancers each week. We realize too that a lot of the people who love swing music are older and maybe they really don't buy many CDs or go to the local clubs when we come to town. That is a challenge that we have to meet with radio play, which is very hard to break into because so much radio is programmed by big companies for broad markets.

It would be great if you can help us out in the UK and Europe. Maybe then Western Swing will take off again and have a new beginning there. We would love to play over there and work to get a following. Until now, we have mainly played local clubs around Nashville, and haven't travelled much as a group. We are changing that with Jim Peters' help, especially now that we're recording. Check out and our newest Western Swing album is almost complete and will be out in November.\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\2

Jim Peters, sums up the respect fellow musicians have for Buddy Spicher.

"Something nice to know about Buddy, is that he could be the most genuine person I've ever met. He's a great guy to have as a friend, and very interesting to chat with because he's been around Country and Western music for such a long time and has worked with all the great artists. He knows everybody, and everybody knows and respects him. Even walking down the street in Nashville or going into a store or restaurant, people come up to him and tell the story of how they met Buddy (usually 5-10 years prior), and thank him for how he helped them get a job, or meet somebody, or something. When we were at Westfest in Colorado (September 2000), Buddy and I went over to the festival grounds to see the Texas Playboys with Leon Rausch and Tommy Allsop, Bobby Boatright, Curley Hollingsworth, and Bobby Koefer and some others. From the stage, they spotted Buddy in the audience, and while they were playing a song, called out to him, "Hey Buddy ... how you doin'? ... great to see you". After the song they introduced him to the crowd as one of the greatest fiddlers ever, and pointed out that he had played and recorded with Bob Wills. Throughout the rest of the show, they'd make comments to him from the stage. It was almost like they were playing for him and not the crowd.

After that show, a young man came up to Buddy and introduced himself as David Coe, and reminded Buddy that some ten years ago Buddy had given him lessons and helped him get his first paying job in Nashville as a fiddler, and that now he had been with Michael Martin Murphey's band for some years now. He just wanted to let Buddy know again how much he appreciated the help he gave him because it led to the job with Murphey. Buddy's the real deal!"

"Westfest" is in the mountain resort of Vail, Colorado. The Cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey puts it on annually, and September 2000 it featured Crystal Gayle as a headliner, with Leon Rausch and Tommy Allsop and the Original Texas Playboys, Riders in the Sky, Sons of the San Joachin, and a very interesting group called, Cowboy Celtic. Chuck Woods holds another western swing festival over the third weekend of June at Wichita Falls, Texas.

Over the years Chuck Woods has been involved with the Western Swing Festival in Wichita Falls and Chuck tells me. "It all began back in November of 1987 when Gene Garland (since deceased) and I had just promoted a small Bluegrass festival in Canton, Texas. The highlight of that show was a gratis appearance of Leon Rausch who sang three Bob Wills numbers with one of the Bluegrass bands and received a standing ovation. Woods, a friend and promoter of Leon McAuliffe and the Original Texas Playboys, convinced his partner that for the next year they should do a Western Swing Festival back to back with their already planned Bluegrass Festival."

Woods selected the stars such as Hank Thompson, the Light Crust Doughboys, Jody Nix and the West Texas Cowboys, Clyde Brewer and Bob White and the River Road Boys Clay Blaker and Texas Honky Tonk Band, Jimmy Gyles and the Western Swing Allstars,  Leon Rausch and the Texas Panthers, along with Don Edwards, King of Swing, the Baker Brothers Band, and Cliff Bruner. The main act had to be special and would reflect the purpose of the Reunion, which was to honour the musicians who had helped to develop western swing and had played it with Bob Wills from the earliest years. Throwing all cautions to the wind, Woods carefully selected the very best of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys available, people like Eldon Shamblin, Johnny Gimble, Herb Remington, Tiny Moore (who passed away in December of 1987 after agreeing to appear) Tommy Perkins, the McKinney Sisters, Benny Garcia, Curly Hollingsworth, Leon Rausch, Bobby Boatright and Gene Gasaway. The show also had to have the most popular radio personalities to assist with MC duties, Larry Scott of KWKH Shreveport, Jack Fox of KVOO Tulsa and "Cowboy Joe" Aaron of New York, NY were selected.

The festival last year (2000) saw Hank Thompson, Leon Rausch-Tommy Allsup and Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, Johnny Gimble and Texas Swing, Clyde Brewer and the River Road Boys, Ted Scanlon & the Desperados, 13 bands in all...the best in Western Swing.

This years festival (2001) runs from June 20th until the 23rd with a line-up that includes Ted Scanlon & the Desperados, Jake Hooker , Dave Alexander, Cowjazz, Jimmy Burson, Ted Scanlon, Johnny Bush National Swing Band of Texas, Tommy Morrell, Highway 6, Jody Nix, Ted Scanlon. Also appearing at the festival are Tommy Allsup and Leon Rausch and the legendary Bob Will's Texas Playboys.

Asleep at the Wheel are the most noted of today’s Western Swing bands. In the early 70s, Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Reuben ‘Lucky Oceans’ Gosfield  landed in Paw Paw, West Virginia for the summer, with their plan to form a real live Western Swing band. They began playing a series of dates alongside Poco and Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. Following a move to San Francisco, pianist Floyed Domino joined, bringing his jazz influences into the band. The band got their record deal when Van Morrison raved about them in the pages of Rolling Stone, landed smack dab in the heart of Bob Wills' country: Austin, Texas. With their mixed bag of jazz, blues, rock and country, they were an immediate hit with the same folks who embraced Willie Nelson and the rest of the Outlaws. AATW scored a US top ten hit with ‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’ in 1973. Their first Grammy came for their version of Count Basie’s ‘One O’Clock Jump’.

Since then, Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel have been holding down their corner of the music world. Rather than changing with the times, they continue to make only the finest Western swing music. With over 80 personnel changes and 21 albums behind Asleep At The Wheel, Ray Benson has seen some fine musicians pass by on his way to the current line-up of: Texas fiddler Jason Roberts (who also happens to be second cousin to the legendary Johnny Gimble), steel guitarist/dobroist Cindy Cashdollar (who played on Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind") newcomer pianist John Michael, drummer Dave Sanger and bassist David Miller.

In 1993 AATW released their album Tribute to the music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys which featured a host of top country artistes such as Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Lyle Lovett, Suzy Bogguss, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and many, many more, plus ex- Texas Playboys, Leon Rausch, Herb Remington and Johnny Gimble. The second tribute album Ride With Bob, once again included many top line country artistes such as Merle, Willie, Reba McEntire, Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam plus a host of others and was released in 1999. With six  Grammy awards already to their name Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel added two more at the 1999 Grammy awards show in Los Angeles for their Bob Wills tribute album Ride With Bob. The 34th Country Music Association Awards in October 2000 have proved to be fertile ground for more awards with the Wheel being nominated for Vocal Group and Vocal Event, along with the Dixie Chicks for ‘Roly Poly.

Donald Ray Walser was born on September 14, 1934 in Brownfield, Texas. Don spent most of his life in the Texas National Guard. His occupation offered little time (except weekends) to pursue a career in the music industry. After 45 years of Don retired from his career in the National Guard and found the time to pursue his dream at last. By this time Don had already had a number of bands and had released several albums. When he and his family moved to Austin in 1984, Don's musical career seemed to take off when The Pure Texas Band, along with Don on vocals and the original members of the Pure Texas Band (Jimmy Day/Bert Rivera-steel guitar, Gil De Los Santos-Drums) P.T.B. began to get a sort of punk following. In fact, most of their fans to this day are not the traditional country fans, but people from all walks of life are drawn to their music. Don now plays every venue imaginable in Austin, and around the country and was featured on both of Asleep At The Wheel’s tribute albums to Bob Wills

Dave Alexander is one of Western Swing’s youngest and most exciting stars. After a short stint with the Dallas / Ft. Worth based Red River Brass during the late 80s (initially to promote the Red River line western wear), Dave created his own Western Swing Big Band. Alexander has opened for such entertainers as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Clint Black, and Reba McEntire and has performed at the MS Rodeo Ball with Trisha Yearwood in Dallas, Texas. He received top honours in 1999 by being named "Entertainer of the Year" by The Academy of Western Artists, when they awarded the prestigious Will Rogers award to their top Western Artists and Entertainers.

Dave is featured at many festivals and rodeos throughout America’s south-west. His big band western swing style is unequalled and he is one of the current leaders in today's trend of western swing, combining both yesterdays’ music along with his own compositions. His latest feature film The Hi Low Country, includes music written, arranged and performed by Dave with such artists as Willie Nelson and Marty Stuart. The film received a Western Heritage Award in 1999 at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Dave is also a guest artist on Asleep At The Wheel tribute album to Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, Ride With Bob, joining Dwight Yoakam on ‘New San Antonio Rose’ and Tracy Bird for ‘You’re From Texas’. Three times Grammy nominee, Dave Alexander’s latest CD, Tango In Durango has received rave reviews since its release.

When Dave is not touring with his big band, he is writing and performing music for the Dallas Cowboys at all their home games and has the honour of being house band for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Craig Chambers is a Texan known for his smooth baritone voice and easy stage presence. Craig’s Western musical legacy runs deep. As a youngster cowboying through the Southwest, Chambers acquired a knowledge and appreciation of the music from the older hands with which he worked. Craig appeared on stage as the bandleader and narrator of the hit Broadway play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The New York audiences and the press were fascinated by the music. Craig remembers. "I’d get stopped on the street, in a restaurant, wherever, who would say, your music - it sounds like Jazz, it sounds like Country...We don’t know what it is, but we love it!" Chambers’ voice and his music lent itself to the success of "Whorehouse" and to many radio and TV commercials as well. Innovative and versatile, Craig Chambers is as well known for his performance of Western Swing and released his top class western swing album West By Southwest, featuring Tom Morrell and the Time Warp Tophands.  In 1996, Chambers was named Western Swing Vocalist of the Year, and was honoured with the Will Rogers Award for his contribution to the music. His intent is to continue playing this music of the past with modern day inventiveness. In both kinds of Western music that he performs, Craig continues to tastefully mix new and original songs with familiar standards, bringing a new energy to the music while remaining true to its roots. Performing solo, or with his acoustic Cowboy, or Western Swing band, Craig Chambers keeps gaining fans the World over, wherever people enjoy real Western entertainment. Maestros of the craft of Western and Texas swing, Tom Morrell and the Time Warp Tophands burn a trail across the sonic landscape with some of the best Western Swing ever recorded. Ten releases covering the best styles in the genre, they display superb musicianship throughout.

Peggy Rains, the youngest of four daughters, grew up on a small farm just outside of Stilwell, Oklahoma in the community of Chalk Bluff, where her love for country music was born. She attended the former Hank Thompson School of Country Music at Rogers State College in Claremore, where she had the pleasure of working with Leon McAuliffe and Darrell Magee. In the spring of 98, Peggy made her first trip to Nashville to record with producer Joe Bob Barnhill and Ray Bingham. Working with such renowned musicians as Kenny Sears, fiddle, Bill Hullett, electric guitar, Tommy White, steel, and Gordon Motes on piano, the release of “It's A Good Day” has helped Peggy realise a dream that began on that quiet countryside in Adair County.

Peggy Rains has released two singles from her, It's a Good Day album on the Hillcrest Label. ‘It's a Good Day’ climbed to #4 on the Top 40’s Independent Chart and ‘You Don't Know Me’ hit spot #20 on Europe's Hot 99 Independent Country Artist Chart. Peggy’s new CD Living the Dream is now available and Peggy has released another single ‘After the Fact’, which has charted on the Pan European Top 75 Singles Chart for over seven weeks, as of June 2000. Peggy is currently working on a recording project with David Frizzell. Their new CD of duets should be available in the autumn.

 At the 5th Annual Will Rogers Cowboy Masters Awards presented by the Academy of Western Artistes on 11 July 2000, Peggy received the Female Vocalist award. I had the pleasure of asking Peggy how she felt about receiving this coveted award: "It was such a privilege for me to have been named the Western Swing Female Vocalist of the Year. I was in such good company with the nominees such as Belinda Gale, Trudy Fair, Joni Harms, Dayna Wills, Jean Prescott, Elena Freeman, Louise Rowe, Chris O'Connell, and Liz Masterson. I truly did not think I would be named, so one can only imagine what a great honour it was for me to be among the winners. The Academy of Western Artist does such a wonderful job continuing to promote the Western Arts. The Will Rogers Awards Show was filled great entertainment and Trudy Fair was the perfect hostess. Western Swing has been around for a long time, and I believe with an organisation like the Academy of Western Artists, it will continue to grow and be a mainstay in the music industry. It is not only good music, it is fun! = Peggy Rains"

Rooster Quantrell was the inception of the celebrated impresario Colonel Buster Doss. Rooster released an excellent album of western swing on the Colonel’s Stardust Nashville label, with Buddy Emmons on pedal steel, with Larry Franklin and Hoot Hester on fiddles, and Rooster playing piano and trumpet. 20 tracks all written and arranged by Colonel Doss, which can often be heard on Sky Music Choice (digital). The Rooster idea came to the Colonel from his favourite John Wayne character Rooster Cockburn and the movie Quantrell’s Raiders. I believe that Rooster Quantrell is a highly talented musician, Donald Bradley, who plays trumpet, piano, guitar and bass and is the piano player in Mark Chesnutt’s band.

Joni Harms is another artistes who is working to keep western swing alive. Joni included several of here own western swing numbers (‘Two-Steppin’ Texas Blue’, ‘Swing’, and ‘That’s The Way I Feel About You’) on her sensational Cowgirls Dreams album on the Warner Western label. Former Miss Northwest Rodeo Queen, Joni is a true cowgirl, living on the ranch in Oregon that her grandfather homesteaded over 100 years ago. Through contact made from her stint as Rodeo Queen, Joni started singing at several fairs and rodeos, with over 150 dates a year. From a writing deal with Anne Murray’s publishing company, Joni was signed by the Warner Western label, releasing her Cowgirl Dreams album in 1998, with its mix of tales of western life all co-written by Joni. Sadly Warner Western closed it’s door shortly after the album release and now Joni is hopeful of being signed to a new major label for her next release.

There have been several western swing bands in the UK over the years. Medicine Bow were an eight piece, sporting twin fiddles and saxophone. Pearl and the Prairie Dawgs played Morecambe Country Music Festival 6-7 years ago and the Liverpool based trio Gone West were a popular outfit on the club scene, keeping to traditional western swing until the band folded in early 2000. British bands staying dear to western swing, are the zany North-West based, The Winchesters, who have built a good fan base through several appearances on Carlton T.V. and performances at Burnley, Colne, Edinburgh and Maastricht Blues festivals, Birmingham and Wigan Jazz festivals. They have played for the troops in Germany and opened for Lindisfarne at Nottingham's Riverside Festival. Performed at the Alexis Korner Memorial concert at Buxton Opera House and at a wedding where Ben Elton, Jennifer Saunders and Victoria Wood thought they were great. Other bands playing western swing that have come to my notice, include Deep Ellum Playboys (formerly Tex Hollington & The Ostrich Wranglers) from around Stoke-on-Trent and Ian Rogers’ Nottingham-based Drayton Playboys.

There is still an element of western swing being kept alive, though it is not the commercial success it has been in the past. It may be a long stretch, but with the perseverance of the afore mentioned artistes and many others, western swing music will remain a significant element of today’s country music. 

"Take it away Leon"!!!



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