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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Western Swing Along by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys

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Bob Wills, of course, has many better albums than Western Swing Along. Wills was the consummate bandleader whose motto could have been "Unity through Multiplicity." His eclectic appropriation got ballroom audiences dancing to tricked-out fiddle tunes, big band arrangements, gut-bucket Okie-style blues, and sentimental but dead-on crooner vehicles like "Faded Love," and "(Just Watching the) Bubbles in My Beer."

Wills had talent for attracting the very best players in the western swing field. There's a story about the night Charlie Christian heard Tiny Moore's wild mandolin machinations at a Wills dance before (literally and figuratively) electrifying Benny Goodman's Sextet. Did Moore and Christian trade fretboard secrets? Did Christian change his style after hearing Tiny, or vice-versa?

When rock and roll began to threaten to obliterate all that came before it, artists responded in various ways. (Mitch Miller, working as head of Artists and Repertoire at Columbia Records, tried to banish rock and roll by fiat. It took Columbia years to develop decent rock acts). This LP is one of Bob's attempts to stay relevant to rock and rollers. Although Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were among the victims of the cruel apathy dredged up by the young spenders toward the old geezers, there are some really fun bits here, at least in retrospect.

"So Let's Rock" stands both as concession and apologetic: "I've been rocking and a rolling for a long, long while and I still like to rock and roll," sings Johnnie Lee Wills (I'm guessing) in proxy as if Bob Wills himself created the genre(!). Bob works in a reference to one of his early hits, "Corrine Corrina," as if by pointing to his work from the 1930s seals the deal, but of course it only reminds the kids that this guy's from Squaresville.

Luckily, Bob Wills lived long enough to see the beginning of a revival in Western Swing thanks to young upstarts like Asleep at the Wheel and Lew London. But just barely. Wills died from a stroke while attending a reunion recording of the Playboys (released as a two record set called For the Last Time).