Texas Western Swing History

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Posted: Saturday, March 1, 2014 12:00 am

Ranch life is hard work and even lonely, as it usually means living far out in the country in isolated locations, miles from the nearest neighbor or town. As a result, music has always played an instrumental role within rural agriculture communities. Like a magnet, it pulls people out and brings them together, creating friendships and bonds that last for lifetimes.

Texas Monthly magazine once shared an accurate portrayal of the origins of western swing music and its significance to rural communities, “Spring time Saturday night in the 30s and 40s in small-town Texas meant big dance. Entire communities would ride their horses or drive their trucks to the local dance-hall, fill the dance floor, then shuffle and waltz the working part of the week away.” This is why western swing music is so deeply rooted within the character and culture of Texas.

Western swing first began back in the 1920s, which was a very transitional period in American history. Known as the “Roaring Twenties,” this was also the Jazz Age period.

Jazz had become very popular across the country. Jazz bands typically consisted of seven to 12 musicians and they elected one member to be the band leader of the ensemble. Western swing bands also had numerous musicians- guitars, steel guitar, stand-up bass, and fiddles, so following the suit of Jazz bands they too started appointing a band leader.

In the 1930s, new technology brought the radio. This gave musicians a means of reaching more listeners and helped them gain widespread attention and created national celebrities. Now those living in the East could hear country, cowboy music from Texas and listeners in Texas or other remote locations in the West could hear music from the East. As a result, musicians became inspired by other music and soon they were creating unique blends of folk, country,cowboy, jazz, and the blues.

Combine notes of blues, jazz, folk,country, cowboy, and add some yodeling and a few Texas whoops into the mix and that’s western swing. The legendary “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys wasted no time incorporating the new sounds and styles into their music and as a result they quickly popularized western swing in the 1930s and 1940s.

However in 1945, Bob Wills discovered that not everyone embraced new sounds when he arrived at the Grand Ole Opry.As he and the boys prepared to set up, the Grand Ole Opry staff refused to allow Bob’s drummer to play—drums were unheard of in country music at the time. At first, Bob refused to play at all, but then he had the drums set up behind the stage curtain. When it was time to play he hollered out, “Move those things out on stage!” Before staff could stop him, the drums were on stage and they were performing. From that moment on,country music had a beat, thanks to the King of Texas Swing Bob Wills. Needless to say,this little stunt didn’t impress the Grand Ole Opry and they never invited Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys back.

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