When crowds jam into this year's Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo on Saturday evening, they might just hear a hint of jazz mixed in with the ubiquitous country music.
That's because Dallas band Shoot Low Sheriff will be taking the stage at the Rodeo Roadhouse with its take on Western swing, the North Texas-born love child of rural Americana and urban cosmopolitanism. The style became a sensation -- especially in the Southwest -- in the '30s and '40s with such acts as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and the Light Crust Doughboys. And now a newer generation is carrying on the legacy of this hybrid of country, bluegrass, blues and jazz.
Long-running acts like the Doughboys and Austin's Asleep at the Wheel are today's standard-bearers of Western swing, but such outfits as Shoot Low Sheriff, Fort Worth's Great Recession Orchestra and the Quebe Sisters Band are providing increased visibility for the form. So is a declaration by the Texas Legislature last year, which adopted Western swing as the state's official music.
In fact, it was the Texas aspect that initially attracted Erik Swanson, guitarist and leader of Shoot Low Sheriff. "I'm from Texas, grew up here, but I really wasn't familiar with [Western swing] until a buddy of mine turned me on to Bob Wills," he says. "Something about it struck a chord with me, no pun intended. It's part of the common experience of growing up in the Southwest. It's there even if you haven't listened to it.
"A lot of what I like about the music is that it evokes a Texas of the '30s and '40s.... I like that Western swing ... allows you to play jazz-oriented music but gives you the license to do it dirtier," he says, with a laugh. "You didn't have to be so clean and pristine."
In the '90s, he was in a band called Cowboys and Indians (which played, he says, a mix of Western swing, jump blues and rockabilly) that broke up in 2001. But Swanson's love of Wills' music didn't subside. He took the name of his current group from a classic Wills line, "Shoot low, sheriff, he's riding a Shetland," and the band's debut album, The Mockingbird Sessions with such tracks as Big Texas and Take Me Back to Tulsa, is a tip of the cowboy hat to Wills.
Wills was also an inspiration for guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James to form Hot Club of Cowtown, which, despite its name, is based in Austin. Their most recent release, What Makes Bob Holler, is a tribute to the master.
Neither Smith nor James had any Southwestern ties -- they're from the Northeast -- but, while working in a New York City record store in the '80s, Smith tripped across Western swing. "I was discovering a lot of different swing music, but Western swing, I had a natural affinity for," he says. "Bob Wills and pre-World War II Western swing was my favorite.... I started taking field trips to Texas and Oklahoma."
After a brief stint in San Diego (a friend had a beach house), Smith and James moved to Austin, where they immediately felt at home.
"We felt we had to try this in Texas," Smith says. "Even now, playing shows around Texas, I still can't get over being in Texas, playing to a bunch of people drinking beer and dancing. There are very few places in the country to have that feeling."
Born in Fort Worth
While Western swing bloomed across Texas, its seeds were planted in Fort Worth. Early pioneers from the '30s like Wills, Milton Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys were all, at one point, based in Cowtown.
As to why Western swing then took off in the Lone Star State -- and ultimately throughout the West -- like a prairie wildfire, it seems it was a happy accident of geography and culture.
"Bob [Wills] through Milton had all those jazz players who were from Texas, and Bob mixed in the Dixieland and the blues from the cotton fields and the big bands. It happened here because this was the confluence of all those different sounds," says Barbara Martin, publisher of the magazine Western Swing Monthly and its website, wswing.home.texas.net.
"The music had a Texas attitude built into it," Swanson says. "It was like, 'We do it ourselves, we do it our way.' It's a rugged individualism sort of thing, and that's a big part of what Texas swing is. Bob Wills was the first one to have drums on the Grand Ole Opry. That's the kind of attitude that comes from Western swing."
Like so much of American pop music, Western swing was born at the intersection where of white and black cultures. No one is more aware of that than producer Steve Satterwhite, whose Great Recession Orchestra is all about the roots of the rhythm. The group's new two-disc album, Double Shot (due in February), is split between covers of songs that were on the Fort Worth Hit Parade in the '40s -- everything from the jazz of Louis Jordan to the country of Ernest Tubb -- and a tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks, the pioneering 1930s African-American fiddle group.
Satterwhite says that, without them, Western swing might not exist: "That was the first time blues and hillbilly music came together."
Western swing has mostly been on the musical sidelines since its peak in the '40s. Like more traditional swing, it suffered in the postwar jazz, country and rock eras as styles shifted to smaller combos. But it would occasionally seep into the mainstream. In the '70s, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen (Hot Rod Lincoln) and the Charlie Daniels Band (The South's Gonna Do It Again) took Western swing-influenced pop to the top of the charts, while Asleep at the Wheel would become the standard-bearers for the style, scoring on country radio with such songs as The Letter That Johnny Walker Read, Bump Bounce Boogie and, of course, Miles and Miles of Texas. In the '80s, the rockabilly and swing jazz revivals also piqued some interest in Western swing.
There were some fears along the way that it might disappear and be seen merely as a museum piece. Many musicians switched to straight-ahead country or polka to pay the bills, Martin says.
Today, Swanson says, Western swing is still often the odd man out on the music scene, adrift between genres.
"People who are into jazz and go to dance clubs, that's not what they want to hear," he says. "And with country music, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Pat Green are the biggest things in Texas right now. It's a disconnect for those guys as well. We're too country for jazz and too jazz for country."
Still, Swanson says audiences like those who will show up Saturday for the Stock Show are often very appreciative. "Yeah, we have played venues like this, and it's always gone well," he says. "Fort Worth is one of the best places for us to play; they seem to get what we're about."
Indeed, Western swing may be in for a turnaround. Martin says there has been an infusion of energy from young players, even if they are mixing it up with more rock, Cajun or other Americana styles. Consider San Antonio's Billy Mata & the Texas Tradition, Houston's River Road Boys, Oklahoma's Tulsa Playboys, Louisiana's Red Stick Ramblers and Los Angeles' Lucky Stars. England's even getting into the act with the Swing Commanders.
"It's even more expansive now," Martin says. "Some folks might say, ' That's not Western swing.' But Bob Wills would say it is because you can't put Western swing in a box."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571