Willis: A Brand of twang that swings

Pioneer put big band sound into country

Cowboy Nick Stahl is one of the few DJs keeping the country of yesteryear and today alive. He’s got two radio shows in Southern California: Cowboy Nick’s “TWANG!” show, every Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at 88.5 FM and KCSN.org, and “Toe Tappin’ Music,” Saturdays 9-10:30 p.m. on 88.9.

When you talk about Bob Wills, the music he made with the Texas Playboys was so far beyond their time. This is a guy who was using electric instruments very early on. Bob Wills actually performed on the Grand Ole’ Opry once. After his first performance, they banned him because he dared to use a drum kit. Country music up to that point — if you look at the popular singers, the Roy Acuffs, the Ernest Tubbs — was very much steeped in the bluegrass tradition.

He decided to swing and put a big band sound into it. Sometimes he would use one, maybe two drummers (and) a full horn section. This hybrid music — part country, part swing, part jazz — really laid a foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly and other styles that came after.

To this day Merle Haggard has a saxophone player that plays with him. I don’t know a whole lot of horn players (in country music). It’s a direct link to Bob Wills and that swing influence.

The Bob Wills sound is in essence so wild, so raw, that he ended up influencing many of the outlaw movements of the ’70s. Waylon Jennings wrote a really big hit for him called “Bob Wills Is Still the King.”

I once heard this story from Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. He’s having dinner with Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood is talking about when he was working at a factory in Washington. He’d gone to see Bob Wills, and Eastwood said to Benson: “I was more of a jazz fan, wasn’t into country music, heard there would be some pretty girls there.” Clint was blown away by the fact that those guys onstage were essentially jazz musicians with cowboy hats.

It’s also important to remember that even though … James Brown prided himself on having the best band in music — a band that could stop on a dime and turn — well, Bob Wills had that same kind of band. They could rip.

As told to D.R. Stewart.

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