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Six Western Swing Names You Should Know

Posted 8:29pm on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Western swing, an infectious amalgam of country, bluegrass, blues and jazz, is a decidedly American art form with a long, illustrious history. Here are six names to know.

Asleep at the Wheel

Though leader Ray Benson formed the group in West Virginia in 1969 and briefly based the band in California, he relocated everyone to Austin in 1974 — where they probably should’ve been all along since one of their most famous tracks is Miles and Miles of Texas — and hasn’t looked back. These guys tour constantly, starred in a play about Bob Wills (A Ride With Bob, recently staged at Richardson’s Eisemann Center) and have won nine Grammys. Recent collaborations, with both the Blind Boys of Alabama (on Reinventing the Wheel) and Willie Nelson (Willie and the Wheel), serve to underscore Western swing’s deep roots in both white and black musical traditions.

Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys

Coming out of L.A.’s ’80s rockabilly scene, Big Sandy and crew broadened their sound to include Western swing influences with such albums as Swingin’ West? and Jumping From 6 to 6. The band remains active and is on tour this spring, though no Texas dates are currently scheduled.

Spade Cooley

In the ’40s, California’s most popular exponent of the style went from playing for jitterbuggers at Venice Beach to Hollywood stardom, appearing in such films as Take Me Back to Tulsa and Spade Cooley: King of Western Swing. (It was Cooley’s promoter, Foreman Phillips?, who claims to have coined the term “Western swing,” even if others like Wills and singer Milton Brown actually invented the form.) Cooley died from a heart attack in 1969 while on a 72-hour furlough from his time in a California prison for brutally killing his wife in 1961.

Light Crust Doughboys

Bob Wills and his friend Milton Brown were in an early incarnation of this group, and, many members later, it continues to perform and has been declared “the longest-running country music band in the world.” In 1995, the boys were named “the official music ambassadors of the Lone Star State” by the Texas legislature. There’s a Light Crust Doughboys museum in the East Texas town of Quitman.

Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies

Fort Worth-based Arlington Heights High grad Brown, often dubbed the father of Western swing, had his own band in addition to his collaborations with Wills. His group, inspired by American jazz, played a brand of Western swing that is said to have influenced such Europeans as violinist Stéphane Grappelli? and guitarist Django Reinhardt?. In the early ’30s, Brown’s weekly shows at Fort Worth’s Crystal Springs Dance Hall were packed on Saturday nights. He died in 1936 after a car wreck on Jacksboro Highway.

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Fiddler Bob Wills, of Kosse (and later Fort Worth, Waco and then Tulsa), helped invent Western swing back in the ’30s along with singer/band leader Milton Brown. By the ’40s, Wills’ group was one of the most popular bands in Texas and Oklahoma and enjoyed big national hits with New Spanish Two Step and New San Antonio Rose. The native Texan was the standard-bearer for Western swing — and remains its most famous face — but, as with other big bands, popularity declined in the post-WWII and rock eras. Still, Wills managed the occasional hit, like Heart to Heart Talk in 1960. Following a series of strokes, he died in a Fort Worth nursing home in 1975 and is buried in Tulsa.

— Cary Darling

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