Bob Wills: His Rollicking Roots Are Showing

By Bill Friskics-Warren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 24, 2006

It might be hard to imagine, given how fenced-in the format has become, but back when Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were tearing up the dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma, country was as wide open as any genre of popular music. Blues, polkas and breakdowns; mariachi and jug band music; parlor ballads and Tin Pan Alley pop; Dixieland and big band jazz: As the four-CD set "Legends of Country Music" attests, these Western swingers could do it all, and with as much imagination and verve as anybody. And they weren't just magpies fluent in every strain of the American musical vernacular. To paraphrase the immortal "Time Changes Everything," they could "change the name of an old song, rearrange it and make it swing." And how.

Witness "Brain Cloudy Blues," a tune based on "Milk Cow Blues," a 1934 recording by blues singer Kokomo Arnold that also formed the backbone of Elvis's 1955 single "Milkcow Blues Boogie." Picking up the tempo and sugar-curing the melody with a front line of fiddles, the Playboys overhaul Arnold's brooding original for the dance floor. In their hands the song becomes a transporting vehicle for hard-working men and women who didn't so much want to wallow in their blues as stomp all over them. Using much the same approach, they re-imagined songs made famous by the Mississippi Sheiks, whose "The Jazz Fiddler" became "Get With It," and the Memphis Jug Band, whose "Rukus Juice and Chitlin'" morphed into the unbridled "Osage Stomp."

Wills and company didn't reserve their inventiveness only for recordings they covered. If their leader's "Big Beaver" proves that his Playboys could achieve Ellingtonian grandeur, then "Twin Guitar Special," an instrumental written by steel player Leon McAuliffe and electric guitarist Eldon Shamblin, beats it eight to the bar like Basie, and with a pair of guitars making like an entire horn section. "Roly Poly," meanwhile, is prototypical rock-and-roll, and so is "Ida Red Likes to Boogie." The latter anticipates the backbeat of Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" (by way of the jump blues of Louis Jordan) by nearly a decade.

This career-spanning, 105-track set isn't the most complete portrait of the Playboys' dazzling output out there; that honor goes to the 11-CD box issued by Germany's Bear Family label. But it's easily the best-sounding collection of Wills material yet, and not just because it so beautifully captures the effulgent warmth of his band's blooming, buzzing ensemble sound. It also renders the individual parts -- Junior Barnard's fat, dirty-toned guitar break on "Brain Cloudy," Tubby Lewis's trumpet tirade on "Big Beaver," Al Strickland's barrelhousing solo on "Take Me Back to Tulsa" -- with more clarity and presence than before. Maybe best of all, it presents the expressive, blues-inflected crooning of Tommy Duncan in all its nuanced glory, revealing him to be a stylist on a par with his idol Bing Crosby.

This set's four discs include material dating from 1932 to 1973, but the irrepressible sides that the Playboys cut for Columbia and its ARC affiliate between 1935 and 1947 constitute the bulk of what's here. And well they should. In terms of tightness, invention and reach, the recordings from that golden era are not lightly compared to those of Louis Armstrong's epochal early combos. Listening now, it's no wonder that Wills never thought of his freewheeling excursions as country.

DOWNLOAD THESE: Disc 1: "Get With It", "Osage Stomp"; Disc 2: "Big Beaver", "Time Changes Everything"; Disc 3: "Twin Guitar Special", "Roly Poly"; Disc 4: "Brain Cloudy Blues", "Ida Red Likes to Boogie"

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