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Western Swing 

by Dave Richards

I think a lot of men would agree that it's cack being a feller now. The golden age of child-free boozers, state-sanctioned domestic violence and a caution for fighting like-minded chaps at the match has long gone. It's a cast-iron fact that my dad never once attended a pre-natal meeting, ate the umbilical cord or changed a nappy. He was in the alehouse or at the game or out in his lorry. Today's male role models are the likes of Beckham, Lampard and that ponce out of Coldplay, it's nearly enough to make you stick your head in the oven (Gas Mark 10 ? Jamie, what do you reckon ?). But I'm not giving up without a fight, and I've become a bit of a Randle McMurphy to the young parrot-headed metrosexual Billy Bibbits in the office with my "Just Marry A Rich Old Bag" self-help classes. One of the main weapons in my campaign of re-education is a compilation CD I've put together for them of various Country tunes from the 1940s with a simple instruction - "Listen and Learn".


Country ? That's right Country. But not the Nashville garbage of Travis Twat, Billy Ray Shitehawk, Tammy Whine-ette and the rest, I'm talking about the classic Cowboy songs of the Western Swing bands from 1940s California. The big Los Angeles record companies hosted weekly live radio shows where these bands pumped out an hour's worth of hillbilly noise for migrant workers who came out West to make money in the booming War Economy. These guys weren't interested in Making Brown Eyes Blue or introspective musings on "relationships" -  there was a war on for fuck's sake, and the audience that these bands were playing for were rednecks building tanks, planes, guns'n'ammo and other killing equipment. R'nR for this crowd consisted of getting hammered and brawling with squads of GI's waiting to go to the Pacific or local Chicano Zoot-Suited gangbangers, and their music reflected this state of affairs.


Western Swing was weird hybrid of a number of styles that had evolved over the previous 20 years in the South Western states, predominantly Texas (the style is often also called "Texas Swing") and Oklahoma. It was reflective of the area's immigrant mix of English, Scottish, Irish, German, Mexican and African peoples. Their mass migration West in the 30s and 40s meant that there was a market for this music that was originally played in barndances and hoe-downs and the executives at the California radio stations, mostly owned by the major record companies, were happy to oblige. Many of the musicians were also hired by film studios to produce music for Western movie soundtracks. The music was usually performed by large bands, featuring guitars, bass, horns, fiddles, harps, accordians, banjos, percussion, piano and anything else you could lob in. It often had a jazzy feel, with a Count Basie-esque swinging rhythmn section, punctuated by short, snazzy bluegrass solos on guitar and fiddle or jazzy trumpet breaks. The vocals were usually delivered in a smooth crooning style, with the occasional outbreak of yodelling to keep the listeners on their toes, and it was the lead vocalists who were the undoubted "stars" of the genre.


The subject matter of the songs mostly revolved around the pleasant male pursuits of gambling, drinking, two-timing and telling your tart to fuck off - think of a cuss-free NWA in ten gallon hats. Many of the song titles give the game away - "Divorce Me COD", "Never Trust A Woman", "Hang Your Head In Shame", "Too Blue To Care", "Shame On You", "Natural Born Gamblin Man". One of the most famous songs of the era was "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette" by Tex Williams (he died of lung cancer in 1968 !), a sensationally mental tune about bifterheads that was a number 1 hit and sold over 2 million. It was written by guitar legend Merle Travis, who himself led a shit-hot West Coast honky tonk band in the 1940s, featuring a foxy babe on trumpet who Merle jibbed his first wife for, and who used to accompany him on his week long drinking and brawling benders where he travelled round California on a big bastard Indian motorcycle (Merle succumbed to drink and drug problems later in life, and his recorded output slowed right down. He died in 1983 - check out "Hot Pickin'" on Proper Records for a superb career retrospective).


Probably the biggest stars of the genre were vocalists Hank Thompson (And His Brazos Valley Boys), Bob Wills (And His Texas Playboys) and Tex Williams (And His Western Caravan), and fiddle playing band leader Spade Cooley. Each of them could be considered to be the "King Of Western Swing" and all have plenty of recordings available. It was Spade Cooley who, in the early 1940's, coined the term "Western Swing". Spade was one of the most successful entertainers in America: at his peak he owned a 20 acre ranch on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, had a 15 million dollar fortune (in 1961), led America's largest Swing band, and appeared in the longest running television show. In 1961, it all ended for Spade when he forced his young daughter Melody to watch as he murdered his wife because he thought she was having an affair with cowboy film star Roy Rogers - she wasn't either, way to go Spade ! Eight years later, in 1969, he died of a coronary on stage while on a prison furlough to perform at a Sheriff's benefit concert in Oakland.


There's plenty of solo recordings and compilations out there if you want to give this music a listen. I've found that it really annoys the wife, and for that reason alone it deserves to be heard, and on journeys back from aways I've lobbed it on for the lads who've all been in bulk laughing - think of "Tom and Jerry music" or that great bit in "Way Out West" where Laurel and Hardy do the little dance in front of the saloon ("At the Ball" that one's called). They don't make music like this anymore.



Select Discography (all available from amazon and they're dang cheap)


Western Swing - As Good As It Gets - if you just get one, get this 2 CD corker. Most of the tunes mentioned in this piece are here.


Doughboys Playboys and Cowboys (The Eyes Of Texas - The Golden Years of Western Swing) - 4 CD box set, copious liner notes, low-fi magnificence.


A Six-Pack To Go - Hank Thompson - a whole album about ale !


Spadella - The Essential Spade Cooley


Hot Pickin' - Merle Travis


King Of Western Swing - Bob Wills


That's What I Like About The West  - Tex Williams







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