Most times, the first things you’ll notice are the hiss, pops and crackles of the antiquated fidelity. The genre’s earlier recordings are delightfully haunting – as if you’re hearing ghosts play scratchy old records. And then the slide guitars and fiddles sound like they’re laughing joyously over buoyant rhythms. But when those bouncy horns, piano and guitars saunter in; that’s when you’re hearing some top-shelf Western Swing. And should some cartoonish vocals pipe-in with a high-pitched, “A-ha!” you can be certain that you’re listening to Bob Wills, the king of Western Swing.
Every few years I go through a Bob Wills phase – and by proxy, a Western Swing phase. Subsequently, I just updated Pandora’s Country & Western Swing station with a bunch of my all-time favorite tunes from this realm (as well as some Classic Country and Honky-Tonk for complimentary flavor).
Much like Western Swing’s 1930s and 1940s heyday, the modern Western Swing Revival is less boogie-woogie than honky-tonk country. Where the narrative lyrics of many Honky-Tonk tunes were based on drinking, fighting or crying into one’s beer; Western Swing luminaries like Bob Wills or Spade Cooley commanded their listeners to get up and dance all night long. Likewise, revival bands such as Asleep At The Wheel and The Hot Club Of Cowtown are so authentic in their approximation of Western Swing, that sometimes they sound like those old timey recordings were re-mastered to make them sound new.
Western Swing actually predated Swing Jazz by 10 years. Though the sound is often considered to be a subgenre of Country & Western music, Western Swing’s roots stem back to 1920s Jazz, with guitar playing that was largely inspired by the dexterous Gypsy Jazz style of Django Reinhardt. And although they’re not exempt from the genre, you won’t hear many Bluegrass styled banjos in a lot of Western Swing recordings because let’s face it – banjos are great, but that style of picking just doesn’t swing like piano, horns and fiddle. Even those present day artists like Big Sandy or Wayne Hancock who can effortlessly toe the line between Honky-Tonk and Western Swing seem to prefer lap-steel over banjos.
The bending notes of pedal steel guitars are almost too complex for Western Swing – most purists tend to keep with the Hawaiian born lap-steel for the simplicity of its meowing tones. That floating slide sound of the lap-steel guitar has become synonymous with Western Swing. Joseph Kekuku invented the instrument in 1885 for Hawaiian Music. When the lap-steel went electric in the 1930s, it fell into the hands of musician Bob Dunn who was inspired by Hawaiian lap-steel guitarist Sol Hoopi. Dunn is credited for being the first person to ever commercially record an electrically amplified instrument, which he did on January 27, 1935 for Milton Brown (who is one of the co-founders of the Western Swing genre). Check out our Country & Western Swing station and you’ll hear Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies peppered throughout – the earliest recordings we have are so time-capsuled, the songs sound like they’re piping out from the musty speaker of an old wooden radio.
Keep your ears open and you’ll also hear some more contemporary Western Swing revival bands like Commander Cody, Asleep At The Wheel or even Merle Haggard. In his 1970 album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills), Haggard paid homage to the king of Western Swing by teaching himself how to play fiddle to approximate the old time style that still somehow sounds fresh and lively at the dawn of the 21st century.
In building up Pandora’s Country & Western Swing genre station, we leaned more on the original recordings. So you’ll hear a lot more old-school hard-hitters like the aforementioned Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. You’ll also find some chipper selections by Pee Wee King And His Golden West Cowboys, who infused even more Texas flavor into their blend of Western Swing with accordion and Latin rhythms. Ted Daffan & His Texans also utilize accordion, an instrument that shows up in more Lone Star State bands because of its close proximity to Mexico.
We hope our station sends you back to a time before television – when music was so universally important; families used to spend evenings huddled around the radio like tribes circling a campfire.