|Cultural origins||1920s–1930s, Southwestern United States|
Western swing music is a subgenre of American country music that originated in the late 1920s in the West and South among the region's Western string bands. It is dance music, often with an up-tempo beat, which attracted huge crowds to dance halls and clubs in Texas, Oklahoma and California during the 1930s and 1940s until a federal war-time nightclub tax in 1944 contributed to the genre's decline.
The movement was an outgrowth of jazz. The music is an amalgamation of rural, cowboy, polka, old-time, Dixieland jazz, and blues blended with swing; and played by a hot string band often augmented with drums, saxophones, pianos and, notably, the steel guitar. The electrically amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, give the music a distinctive sound. Later incarnations have also included overtones of bebop.
Western swing differs in several ways from the music played by the nationally popular horn-driven big swing bands of the same era. In Western bands, even fully orchestrated bands, vocals, and other instruments followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, although popular horn bands tended to arrange and score their music, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively.
Prominent groups during the peak of Western swing's popularity included The Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, Spade Cooley and His Orchestra, and Hank Thompson And His Brazos Valley Boys. Contemporary groups include Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep at the Wheel, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and the Hot Club of Cowtown.
According to country singer Merle Travis, "Western swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing."
Western swing began in the dance halls of small towns throughout the lower Great Plains in the late 1920s and early 1930s, growing from house parties and ranch dances where fiddlers and guitarists played for dancers. During its early development, scores of groups from San Antonio to Shreveport to Oklahoma City played different songs with the same basic sound. Prince Albert Hunt's Texas Ramblers out of Terrell in East Texas, and the East Texas Serenaders in Lindale, Texas both added jazz elements to traditional music in the later half of the 1920s through the early 1930s. Fred "Papa" Calhoun played in a band in Decatur, Texas that played swing music in the style of the Louisiana Five.
In the early 1930s, Bob Wills and Milton Brown co-founded the string band that became the Light Crust Doughboys, the first professional western swing band. The group, with Fred "Papa" Calhoun on piano, played dance halls and was heard on radio. Photographs of the Light Crust Doughboys taken as early as 1931 show two guitars along with fiddle player Wills, although by 1933 they had three guitarists.
On February 9, 1932, Brown, his brother Derwood, Bob Wills, and C.G. "Sleepy" Johnson were recorded by Victor Records at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas under the name The Fort Worth Doughboys. Derwood Brown played guitar and Johnson played tenor guitar. Both "Sunbonnet Sue" and "Nancy Jane" were recorded that day. The group was credited as "Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies".
When Brown left the Doughboys later in 1932, he took his brother to play rhythm guitar in what became The Musical Brownies. In January 1933, fiddler Cecil Brower, playing harmony, joined Jesse Ashlock to create the first example of harmonizing twin fiddles in a western swing recording. Brower, a classically trained violinist, was the first to master Joe Venuti's double shuffle and his improvisational style was a major contribution to the genre.
In late 1933, Wills organized the Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas. Recording rosters show that beginning in September 1935, Wills utilized two fiddles, two guitars, and Leon McAuliffe playing steel guitar, banjo, drums and other instruments during recording sessions. The amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, gave the music its distinctive sound. As early as 1934 or 1935 Bob Dunn electrified a Martin O-series acoustic guitar while playing with Milton Brown's Brownies, an idea he may have picked up from a Black guitarist he met while working at Coney Island in New York.
By the mid-1930s, Fort Worth was a hub for Western swing, particularly at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, a country music dance venue that was popular until the 1950s. Bands like Brown and His Musical Brownies played there, interspersing waltzes and ballads with faster songs.
A documented instance of a Western swing group adopting the newer, by then mainstream 4
4 meter swing jazz style, replacing the 2
4 style, was when producer Art Satherley required it at a September 1936 Light Crust Doughboy recording session.
1938 session rosters for Wills recordings show both lead guitar and electric guitar in addition to guitar and steel guitar. The "front line" of Wills' orchestra consisted of either fiddles or guitars after 1944. That helped the style gain a much wider following through the music of Wills and his Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys in Fort Worth.
Wills recalled the early days of Western swing music in a 1949 interview. Speaking of Milton Brown and himself—working with popular songs done by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, songs he had learned from his father and others—Wills said, "We'd...pull these tunes down an set 'em in a dance category. ...They wouldn't be a runaway...and just lay a real beat behind it an' the people would began to really like it. ...It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryin' to find enough tunes to keep 'em dancin' to not have to repeat so much."
Western swing was extremely popular throughout the West in the years before World War II and blossomed on the West Coast during the war. Radio broadcasts transmitted live shows to radio stations across the South and the Southwest, reaching millions of listeners. Throughout the 1940s, the Light Crust Doughboys' shows were featured on 170 radio stations in the region. From 1934 to 1943, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played nightly at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. 50,000-watt radio station KVOO broadcast daily programs. Regular shows continued until 1958 with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader.
Phillips developed a circuit of dance halls and bands to play for them. Among these halls in 1942 were the Los Angeles County Barn Dance at the Venice Pier Ballroom, the Town Hall Ballroom in Compton, the Plantation in Culver City, the Baldwin Park Ballroom, and the Riverside Rancho. These Western dances were a huge success.
One group which played at the Venice Pier Ballroom was led by Jimmy Wakely with Spade Cooley, his successor as bandleader, on fiddle. Several thousand dancers would turn out on Saturday nights. When Bob Wills played the Los Angeles Country Barn Dance at the Venice Pier for three nights shortly before he broke up his band to join the U.S. Army during World War II, the attendance was above 15,000. Fearing the dance floor would collapse, police stopped ticket sales at 11 p.m. The line outside at that time was ten deep and stretched into Venice. Another source states Wills attracted 8,600 fans.
In 1950, Hank Penny and Armand Gautier opened the Palomino in North Hollywood, which became a major venue for country fans in Hollywood. "Western jazz" brought it its initial popularity. Western swing bandleader Hank Thompson, who was stationed in San Pedro during World War II, said it was not uncommon to see "ten thousand people at the pier" at Redondo Beach.
Fred "Poppa" Calhoun, piano player for Milton Brown, vividly remembered how people in Texas and Oklahoma danced when Bob Wills played. "They were pretty simple couples dances, two steps and the Lindy Hop with a few Western twirls added for good measure. By 1937 the jitterbug hit big in the West and allowed much greater freedom of movement. But the jitterbug was different in the West. It wasn't all out boogie woogie; it was 'swingier'—more smooth and subdued."
In 1944, with the United States' continuing involvement in World War II, a 30% federal excise tax was levied against night clubs that featured dancing. Although the tax was later reduced to 20%, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up all over the country. It has been argued that this tax had a significant role in the decline of public dancing as a recreational activity in the United States.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys remained popular after the war, and could not provide enough new recordings to fill demand. In 1947 Columbia reissued 70 of their older recordings. In January 1953 Billboard reported Spade Cooley played to 192,000 payees over 52 Saturday night dates at the Santa Monica Ballroom, grossing $220,000.
In 1955, Decca Records, in what Billboard called "an ambitious project", issued seven albums of "country dance music" featuring "swingy arrangements of your customers 'c&w' dance favorites". Milton Brown and His Brownies, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley and His Buckle-Busters, Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians, Tex Williams and His String Band, Grady Martin and His Winging Strings, and Billy Gray and His Western Okies all had their own albums. In November, Billboard reported Decca was rushing out three more albums in the series, albeit with less of a Western swing flavor.
The genre now called Western swing originated from the dance music of the 1920s–1930s, but lacked a coherent label until after the Second World War. The term swing music, referring to big band dance music, didn't come into use until the 1932 hit "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". Recording companies came up with several names before World War II trying to market the strain that would eventually be known as "Western" swing—hillbilly, old-time music, novelty hot dance, hot string band, and even Texas swing for music coming out of Texas and Louisiana. Most of the big Western dance bandleaders simply referred to themselves as Western bands and their music as Western dance music, many adamantly refusing the hillbilly label.
Bob Wills and others believed the term Western swing was first used for his music while he and his band were still in Tulsa, Oklahoma between 1939 and 1942. The Los Angeles-area Wilmington Press carried ads for an unidentified "Western Swing Orchestra" at a local nightspot in April 1942. That winter, influential LA-area jazz and swing disc jockey Al Jarvis held a radio contest for top popular band leaders. The winner would be named "the King of Swing". When Spade Cooley unexpectedly received the most votes, besting favorites Benny Goodman and Harry James, Jarvis declared Cooley to be the King of Western Swing.
Around 1942, Cooley's promoter, disc jockey "Foreman" Phillips, began using "Western swing" to advertise his client. By 1944, the term had become solidified. On May 6, 1944, Billboard magazine contained the following: "Spade Cooley, who moved in with his Western swing boys several months ago, has released the Breakfast Club." On June 10, 1944, the same magazine wrote: "...what with the trend to Western music in this section, Cooley's Western swing band is a natural." A more widely-known "first use" was an October 1944 Billboard item mentioning a forthcoming songbook by Cooley titled Western Swing. After that, the style became known as Western swing.
Western swing influenced genres known as honky-tonk, rockabilly, and country rock, popularizing the following in country music: use of electrically amplified instruments, use of drums to reinforce a strong backbeat, expanded instrumentation, a honky tonk beat of a heavy backbeat superimposed onto a polka or waltz beat, and jazz/blues solo styles.
Western swing was one of the many subgenres to influence rockabilly and rock and roll. Bill Haley's music from the late 1940s and early 1950s is often referred to as Western swing, and his band from 1948 to 1949 was named Bill Haley and the 4 Aces of Western Swing.
The outlaw country movement led by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, and Asleep at the Wheel helped make Austin, Texas a major center of Western swing beginning in the 1970s. The annual South by Southwest music festival and the Austin City Limits PBS television series have contributed to this success. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and The Strangers were also key players in this revitalization. Western Swing Monthly, based in Austin, is a newsletter for musicians and fans.
In Clint Eastwood's 1982 movie Honkytonk Man, his character meets Bob Wills (played by Johnny Gimble, an original Texas Playboy), who is recording in a studio with other former band members.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution designating western swing as the official "State Music of Texas".