By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn
Amidst the hardship, hunger, and bleak outlook of the Great Depression, one medium in particular succeeded in providing a bright spot on dark days for many Americans: the radio. Through radio, many Americans looked forward to a few minutes each day when they could put their troubles aside, tune in, and be truly entertained.
In Texas, a unique genre of music was born out of these troubled days and its popularly grew in part because of its wide appeal on the radio. This was the sound of western swing. The music combined everything from ragtime, jazz, swing, pop, fiddle breakdowns, polkas, and country ballads to blues and a number of other sounds. Two of the fathers of western swing were Texans Bob Wills and Milton Brown. They discovered there was a strong market for their new sound on radio.
Radio sponsors were drawn to western swing because of its diverse makeup and fans. By backing a western swing band, a sponsor company could market its product to a wide variety of listeners who tuned in to hear their favorite sound—be it jazz or blues, polka or ragtime—played in the blend that was western swing.
Fiddler James Robert Wills was born in Kosse, Texas on March 6, 1905. His family soon relocated near the small Panhandle town of Turkey, Texas. It was in Turkey that Wills learned to play the fiddle from his father, and the pair would often play at dances and parties. But Wills’ musical interests were not limited to traditional country music. He also learned to play the blues from local African Americans, as well as mariachi music from Mexican migrant workers. As a teenager, his ear was drawn to the sounds of 1920s jazz, and soon Wills was experimenting and combining the music of his father and predecessors with blues, jazz and other new sounds.
In 1929, Wills moved to Fort Worth where he connected with Milton Brown, born outside of Stephenville, Texas, on September 8, 1903. Together with musician Herman Arnspiger of Van Alstyne, Texas, Wills and Brown formed the Wills Fiddle Band. On Fort Worth’s KFJZ radio they became known as the Light Crust Doughboys, promoting the flour brand owned by the show’s sponsor, Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. Every day at noon, the popular announcer Truett Kimsey would signal the start of their musical hour with an enthusiastic: “The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!” During any given show, listeners could hear the Doughboys play a variety of music from fiddle breakdowns to jazz numbers. It’s said that the president of Burrus Mill, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who later served as Governor of Texas, at one point cancelled the show, citing his dislike for their “hillbilly music.” A deal was struck, however, to bring the Doughboys back on air, as long as they committed to working in the flour mill in addition to their performance hours.
When the original Doughboys disbanded, Brown left to start his own western swing band, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. Sadly, Brown passed away from complications related to a car accident in 1936. Many music historians agree: Brown played a central role in developing western and Texas swing and would have continued to be a driving force behind the genre’s success had he not died at such a young age. His original bandmate, Bob Wills, went on to form Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, which enjoyed tremendous success for the next 4 decades—playing across the country, appearing in a number of movies, and selling millions of records. Wills, often referred to as the “King of Western Swing,” was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968.
This year, thousands of gatherers in Turkey, Texas, celebrated the 40th annual Bob Wills Day Festival, from April 28-30th. Several other similar, Texas-based festivals are held throughout the summer, including the Texas Natural & Western Swing Festival in San Marcos, May 21st; the Texas Swing Festival in Athens, May 28th, the Western Swing Festival in Snyder, June 7; and the 24th Annual Legends of Western Swing in Wichita Falls, June 17th.
Today, this uniquely Texas sound is celebrated, listened and danced to across the nation. My good friend Ray Benson, the front man of Austin-based Asleep at the Wheel, has continued the western swing tradition for more than 40 years, releasing more than 20 albums and earning nine Grammy awards. In fact, Benson co-wrote the musical “A Ride With Bob,” which is the first of its kind to chronicle the life and music of Bob Wills. It debuted in 2005 and has toured around the country, including a sold-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Western swing is truly one of our state’s great treasures. No matter where I am, I can hear just a few notes of western swing and be taken right back to the place I’d always rather be: Texas.
Sources: Aridewithbob.com; AustinCityLimits.org; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum; Texas State Historical Association; The Bob Wills Foundation of Turkey, Texas; The History of Texas Music by Gary Hartman