Oct 06, 2009, 06:07AM

Genre is Still King

Bob Wills should be a jazz legend, but superficial criteria like instrumentation and audience have relegated him to the "country" ghetto.

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Photo by El Rey del Art

"I grew up on music that we called Western Swing/It don't matter who's in Austin, Bob Wills is still the king." That couplet, sung by Waylon Jennings to a screaming Texas crowd, was probably the first time I'd ever heard Bob Wills' name.

It isn't the first time I ever heard Western Swing, though, for the simple reason that Waylon's song has nothing to do with the genre. Instead, "Bob Wills Is Still the King" is, like most of Waylon's repertoire, an easy shoulder-shrugger, indebted to rock, blues, and perhaps rockabilly. It couldn't have less to do with Wills' music; indeed, listening to the song, you have to wonder if Waylon ever actually heard a Wills' track himself, or whether he just name-checked the guy because they're both from Texas.

Not that this is Waylon's fault, exactly. The fact that Bob Wills was ever considered country is one of the odder genre blips of American music. The truth is that in performance style, repertoire, and attitude, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were essentially a territory band—one of the traveling outfits that brought a rough and ready version of sophisticated city swing to the boondocks and backwaters. Wills' songs were based around swing rhythm, anchored by that un-country instrument, the drum, and they featured jazz soloing. Pianists like Millard Kelso and horn men like Alex Brashear might as well have been playing in a regular swing band, and at least one performer, reedist Ray DeGeer, came from Red Nichols to Wills, and left to perform with Charlie Barnet and Gene Krupa. Electric guitarist Bob Dunn's remarkable bent-note solos were heavily influenced by the trombone of Jack Teagarden. Electric guitarist Eldon Shamblin dryly noted that since he played country music all the time, he never listened to it in his free time. Instead, he listened to jazz.

In some more logical alternate reality, it wouldn't be Waylon crowning Wills, but somebody like Wynton Marsalis. In fact, some jazz greats have been Wills fans—Charlie Parker was supposed to be fond of the Texas Playboys. But sporadic interest never translated into actual notice, much less influence on the mainstream jazz tradition. Again, you can imagine a world where, say, "Faded Love" became a jazz standard, or where the fiddles and guitars so central to western swing bands moved on to take a greater role in mainstream jazz. Perhaps the western bop pioneered by Bob's brother Billy Jack could have developed as a viable jazz subgenre, rather than being what it was—a remarkable but stillborn aesthetic experiment.

None of that happened, obviously. Jazz and western swing were all but identical, but the "all but" ended up being more important than the "identical." Jazz was sold to urban, sophisticated, and often black listeners; western swing was sold to rural whites. It was the same music with different demographics—but those demographics made a huge difference, as Sam Philips and Elvis were to discover a decade or so down the road.

The point here isn't that Wills was ripping off Count Basie like Elvis ripped off Jackie Wilson. Rather, that "ripping off" doesn't really do justice to the pervasive way in which race and marketing have affected American music. Because the fact is that Bob Wills is different from Count Basie. He used different instruments, he played different songs, he didn't use the same musicians. (Segregation meant he couldn't have, even if he wanted to.) Those differences could have been less important than the similarities, but, because of history and marketing and race, they weren't. Similarly, Elvis is different from Jackie Wilson, and contemporary R&B is different from contemporary country. How music gets labeled affects who listens to it, who loves it, who uses it, and, thus, what it is.

Sometimes these labels are based on how the music sounds—but just as often it can work the other way around. Merle Haggard and George Strait probably in some sense owe as much to Frank Sinatra as to Wills, but it's Wills' songs that show up on their set lists. An oddball like Willie Nelson may shake up the game a little, but even he can't deny the logic altogether, which is why Stardust isn't called To Frankie From Willie. Categories have their own logic, and who you think you are is often more important than who you actually are—presuming you can even tell the difference. Waylon claims Bob Wills, so Bob Wills belongs to him, even if, by all rights, he should really belong to someone else-or, for that matter, to everybody.

  • Intriguing article. I love Bob Wills, and I'm not sure I agree with you that the differences between his iconic style and jazz are inconsequential, but it was a pleasure to learn more about him from you.

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  • I don't think they're inconsequential exactly. I think they could be perceived as being of secondary importance...the way the differences between, say, Django Reinhardt and King Oliver are seen as of relatively minor importance. Wills is more like Reinhardt than he is like Waylon Jennigs...or than he was like Bill Monroe.

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  • First, the repertoire and attitude aren't any closer to jazz than country. In terms of songs chosen (rather than written), themes and singing style (which are all conspicuously missing from your account), Wills is more rooted in the country genre than jazz. But everything you say about the playing is true. Thus, Wills isn't "country," but "Western Swing" -- i.e., a hybrid genre (and, of course, there isn't such a thing as a pure genre). Second, it's ironic that your attempt at genre smashing is rooted in the same old genre politics: that it matters to you that Wills isn't considered jazz, but filed in most shops with country. Why is the latter a "ghetto"? I think both are equally valid genres.

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  • I agree with you that Wills leans more towards country. But "country" is a ghetto today because of all the awful music that comes out of that genre now. These aren't the days of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and the Carter Family.

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  • Hey Charles. I didn't write the kicker, and I wouldn't call country a ghetto. I do think that the forces which led Wills to be considered country rather than jazz have a lot to do with racial categorization, and that those same forces have led to the impasse that country has ended up in. I think jazz -- which I think is also a genre with a lot of problems -- might be better served if it were able to use someone like Wills as a resource. "it matters to you that Wills isn't considered jazz," It matters in that I think it's interesting to think about, and is telling in terms of what it says about why and how American genres are organized the way they are. I don't think it's a rank injustice to Wills, or that he's too good for country, or anything. I like lots of other country artists just fine (like Waylon, for example.) I do think that, as I said, both jazz and country and maybe the U.S. as a whole might be better off if it had been possible for Wills to be seen as a jazz artist.

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