Jazz zealots might be put off by the notion of a country ensemble overhauling the music, but my how these guys could swing-or so the country-and-western apologists would maintain, even if Bob Wills and his bands always seemed more inclined to flat out throb than swing a rhythm.
From the first few tracks of this stellar four disc collection, one gets a sense for just how radical the Wills band was, and how shocking it must have been in its original late ’30s context. Wills’ musical idols are apparent enough-Bessie Smith, the Mississippi Sheiks, the impossibly strange Emmett Miller-but in fusing the gutbucket rhythms of the blues with the far more ebullient bounce of swing, Wills hit on a music that would eventually grow into rock ‘n’ roll in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios.
For a C&W band at the time, electric guitars were about as welcome as French horns and tambouras, and yet Leon McAuliffe absolutely laces into Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” with such gusto that he must have been in Muddy Waters’ head when the blues master cut his own classic Chess version. The horns rage, crude mutes cut up the rhythm, everyone careens along madly-Wills sawing away at his fiddle-and then McAuliffe lets rip, country music forever altered. And as assuredly as the Playboys could blast their way through a number like the appropriately titled “White Heat,” consider the full-flowering jazz artistry on this set’s third disc documenting the band’s 1940s prime. Ornette Coleman loved to jam with the Playboys, and with “Home in San Antone” and “Let’s Ride with Bob,” one realizes why-this is improvisational music of the fiercest nature, underpinned by R&B chords, a perfect balance between the precepts of formal composition and the real-time composition of a jazz solo. The leap from “Bluer Than Blue” to “Lonely Woman”-in terms of C&W and jazz theory, at least-isn’t so far as it might seem. Even the uninitiated listener would be hard pressed to deny that Wills eradicated boundaries as few did.
A musical career that spans generations perhaps inevitably suffers the occasional lull, and Wills muddled through a few-mid-to-late ’60s sides like “Panhandle Rag” and “A Big Ball in Cowtown”-not the shindig you’d imagine, given this perfunctory treatment-can’t touch the bulk of these selections. But even Wills’ final session, from December 1973, following a series of strokes, possesses what one might consider an extra-musical dignity. “Goin’ Away Party” could well be the C&W equivalent of a New Orleans funeral march, the short walk out of town and into the jazz pantheon.
Seasoned collectors will be sticking with their Bear Family box or completing their Tiffany Transcriptions series. For anyone else in search of some of the rowdiest, most virtuosic saloon music ever, here are 105 tracks to elevate Wills’ Playboys to a level shared by the ensembles of Coleman, Holly, Goodman and Presley.