A young musician arrived at radio station KFJZ in Fort Worth, Texas. He wore a cowboy hat, boots, and a tailored Western-style suit. It was 1930. The United States was experiencing an economic crisis called the Great Depression. Many people were unemployed. It was no surprise that Bob Wills came looking for work.
Wills had a reputation as one of the best fiddle players around. He asked if his group could have its own radio show. The program director, the person who selects the music a radio station plays, had a question.
“What type of music does your band play?”
Bob Wills wasn’t sure what to answer. He loved country music, but he also loved blues music. His band performed traditional American fiddle music, but it also played the jazz music popular in many U.S. cities at the time.
Met with silence, the programming director repeated his question.
“I asked, what kind of music does your band play?”
The fiddler from rural Texas, who would someday be nicknamed the King of Country Swing, had a simple one-word answer.
A fusion is style of music that results when two or more styles are combined. In Brazil, the music known as samba combines traditional folk songs with the music of enslaved Africans. Jamaica is the home of reggae. Reggae music fuses Jamaican folk music with American jazz and rhythm and blues.
Western swing, also known as country swing, is a musical fusion born in Texas, where it was invented by a singer and bandleader named Milton Brown. However, no one is more important to western swing’s development than Bob Wills. His version of western swing would fuse American, African American, and Mexican music.
This musical style remains popular with audiences today, but at first, audiences did not all enjoy Wills’s musical innovations. Many record labels who sold traditional fiddle music thought their customers wouldn’t be interested in saxophones, trumpets, drums, or electric guitars.
In 1945, Bob Wills and his band, the Texas Playboys, were asked to play at the legendary Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. While setting up, the Opry management told Wills that his drummer wasn’t welcome. Although drums are common to country music today, most groups did not have them then. It was only when Wills threatened to leave without performing that the Opry changed its mind.
“Back in those days, nobody talked back to a label or the Opry, but Wills did, and he won,” writer John Morthland explains. “Drums, twin fiddles, amplified guitars, even horns, were eventually accepted as country instruments.”
Wills’s musical fusion would move beyond Texas and become known internationally. Western swing is so important that in 2011, the Texas legislature adopted a resolution designating western swing as Texas’s official state music.
African American Songs
When Bob Wills was born, racial attitudes dictated that African Americans and white people would rarely associate with each other. Wills’s parents, however, cared little about the race of Bob’s friends. Other than his own siblings, Wills remembered that all of his childhood playmates were African American. Through his friends, Bob became fascinated with the blues songs sung by African American farm workers.
“I don’t know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,” Wills said of the farm workers, “but they sang blues you never heard before.”
Bob fell in love with the blues. His favorite singer was Bessie Smith, who was nicknamed the Empress of the Blues. He liked to brag about the time he traveled 50 miles on horseback to see her perform.
“She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard,” Wills recalled. “In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard.”
Wills became a fan of another African American musical style: jazz. Jazz music was a fusion of African singing and rhythms with European song forms and instruments. Along with fiddles and guitars, Wills included instruments popular in jazz like trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.
Although it was unfamiliar at first, audiences grew to like Wills’s fusion of jazz and country music. Popular jazz artists in the 1940s, like Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, were surprised that in some places, Wills’s audiences were bigger than their own. By the mid 1940s, western swing was so popular that Wills was able to tour with an ensemble of 23 musicians.
While Wills explored blues and jazz, the frontier fiddle music of his childhood remained part of his music.
“Bob cared about whether a song made people happy and would get them to dance,” explains music historian David Stricklin. “His experiences and training grew from the rich dance traditions of Southern and Texas fiddling. People would move furniture out and have neighbors over for a dance that lasted well into the night.”
The Wills family earned its living by farming cotton. However, it also had a reputation as expert fiddlers. Wills’s father, John Tompkin Wills, was a championship fiddler. His band, John Wills and His Lone Star Rangers, performed for dances and on the radio. Surrounded by music, Bob Wills learned quickly. At age 10, Bob played fiddle at his first ranch dance.
Wills remained an important and influential country fiddler until his death in 1975. He was inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in 2007.
At first, Bob Wills didn’t earn enough money from music to support his wife and children. However, he was also worried about taking on jobs that could make it hard for him to play his fiddle.
Years of chores on his parents’ farm had made his hands rough and calloused. He was concerned that they would affect his fiddle playing. Wills wanted a way to earn money that would not damage his hands. He decided that being a barber met that requirement. As a result, he enrolled in barber school in Amarillo, Texas. Within a few months, he was qualified to cut hair.
In 1927, Wills moved to Roy, New Mexico, to work as a barber. The town had a large Mexican population.
Wills was a barber by day and still played music at night. He was disappointed to find that the Mexican people in his audiences had a difficult time dancing to his music. They were unfamiliar with the traditional country rhythms the Wills band played. He wanted to find a way to keep his Mexican fans.
Bob Wills had an idea. He would write a song that captured the spirit and rhythms that he heard Mexican musicians play. This new song would appeal to both American and Mexican dancers in his audience.
A Mexican music style called mariachi was very popular in New Mexico. Mariachi is a fusion of native Mexican music played with the instruments that Spanish people traveling to the New World brought from Europe. These mariachi bands even used some of the same instruments that Wills did, such as violins, guitars, and trumpets.
Inspired by mariachi musicians, Wills wrote a song called “Spanish Two Step.” The song combined country music and jazz, but added melodies and rhythms similar to what mariachi musicians played. He didn’t know it at the time, but Wills was writing one of the best-known country music songs all time.
The song was eventually retitled “San Antonio Rose.” It was so popular with audiences that words were added. The version with lyrics was retitled “New San Antonio Rose.” It was released in 1939, and it was Wills’s first hit record. This song brought him to national attention.
Other people now wanted to perform “New San Antonio Rose.” Famous American singer Bing Crosby released his version in 1940. It sold more than one million copies. More and more performers recorded the song, making it a country music standard. Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson are just some of the musicians who have released versions of it. In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine listed it as #17 on a list of the 100 greatest country music songs of all time.
Watch a video about the history of western swing at the Center for Texas Musical History at Texas State University.
Images and Sources
Bob Wills photo: GDuwen
Bob Wills photo license: Public domain
Bob Wills touring photo: University of Missouri
Bob Wills touring photo license: Public domain