This is another one of those incredible deals floating around the Internet that sounds simply too good to be true: a four CD box set of the incredible Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys -- 109 tracks in all -- for $21.99? You're putting me on! Well, it's all true. These four CDs contain superb quality versions of all the songs; I've never heard Bob Wills sound so clear and clean. The CDs present his musical career from 1932 to 1948, a treasure trove of Western Swing of all varieties, in roughly chronological order. The four CDs come in a sturdy library case jacket, not some cheap cardboard sleeve, and also come with a beautiful 52-page booklet loaded with pictures, a full history of the band, and detailed personnel and session date information for every piece on the four CDs.
And just what kind of music did Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys give us? A good question. Wills's music is neither straight country, nor straight jazz, but a wonderful gumbo mix of nearly everything: folk, blues, ragtime, jazz, Dixieland, country, gospel. But above everything else, it swings! And so the label "Western Swing" stuck. Bob Wills took his love of jazz and blues he had learned from black musicians, and applied the instruments of country folk to it: fiddles, banjos, and especially the distinctive sounds of the steel guitar. Even people who don't like modern country music (and I'm one of those people) will find it hard to resist the hard swingin' power of Bob Wills and those crazy Playboys of his. Fans of big band swing of the era will go nuts over Bob Will's down home Texas interpretation of their favorite music.
Wills had some incredible musicians in his stable, such as singer Tommy Duncan, banjoist Johnny Lee Wills (Bob Wills's younger brother), and piano player Al Stricklin, but most importantly he had steel guitar genius Leon McAuliffe, whose tune "Steel Guitar Rag" is one of the masterpieces from the Texas Playboys. Wills himself played the fiddle and sung a few lead vocals, such as the delightful "Sugar Blues," but his strongest force in the band was as the "caller," a constant voice that propels the band on and teases the singer and the soloists with encouragement ("All right, cut it down boy, cut it down! That's telling 'em! Take it away Mr. Leon!")
The first two tracks on this collection are actually by the immediate predecessors to the Texas Playboys, The Fort Worth Doughboys. With the third track, "Osage Stomp," The Texas Playboys proper tear into the music and never stop. The variety of music you'll hear over the four CD is stunning. The band stomps and fiddles up a storm on "Get with It," "Who Walks out When I Walk In," "Playboy Stomp," "Texas Playboy Rag," "That's What I Like about the South," and "Roly Poly." They get very jazzy and big band with "Big Beaver," "New San Antonio Rose" (Wills's biggest hit), "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy," "Dinah," "Fan It" (my personal favorite piece), "A Little Bit of Boogie," and "Crazy Rhythm." And there are some country novelties as well, like "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Stay a Little Longer," "Frankie Jean," and the beautiful "Along the Navajo Trail." My pick for the most unusual piece is the twin-female vocal of "Hawaiian War Chant."
There's so much variety here that everyone is bound to find something they love, and probably many surprises as well. And at this price, it's easy to take the chance.