By: Roughstock Staff
Western Swing originated in the dance halls of small towns throughout the Lower Great Plains in the 1920s and 1930s, evolving from the old house parties and ranch dances where fiddlers and guitarists would entertain crowds with their toe-tapping melodies. According to Hall of Fame guitarist 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 it musical glory, my friend, you have Western Swing."
Western Swing, although hard to truly define, is best described as a blend of big band, blues, dixieland, and jazz, among others, and the genre introduced drums and the steel guitar (by way of Hawaii) to country music. This unique musical mixture was originally referred to as Western music until the 1931 Duke Ellington hit, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" brought the word “swing” into the mainstream.
Combining the popular styles of jazz and big band swing with the culture of the Southwest, Western Swing differed in several ways from the music played by the nationally popular horn-driven, swing bands of the same era. In Western bands—even the fully orchestrated bands—vocals and the other instruments followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, most Western bands, either lyrically or instrumentally, improvised frequently during recordings or performances, while popular horn bands tended to stick with the original arrangements. Numerous groups, from San Antonio to Shreveport, enjoyed this creative freedom and put their own stamp on the new sound.
Bob Wills (the "King of Western Swing") and Milton Brown (the “Founder of Western Swing”) are considered to be the seminal figures in the genre’s movement when, in the early 1930s, they co-founded the Light Crust Doughboys. Sponsored by Light Crust Flour (hence the name), the Doughboys played dancehalls and performing for rapt radio audiences in this period of rejuvenation and renewal after the Great Depression. Brown quit the group in 1932, recorded with his Musical Brownies for three years, and then passed away in 1936 when he developed pneumonia after a car accident. Wills, after quitting the Doughboys over a dispute with their sponsor, continued to perfect his style in the late 1930's with his band The Texas Playboys. Many of Wills’ greatest hits were recorded between 1935 and 1942, including "San Antonio Rose" and "Take Me Back to Tulsa" (click here to listen).
Western Swing reached its peak in this time period, and in the early 1940s, the Light Crust Doughboys (sans Wills) performed during radio broadcasts that went out to over 170 stations in the South and Southwest and were heard by millions of people nationally. Wills fine-tuned his sound with The Texas Playboys, as they continued their gig at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa from 1934 to 1943; crowds averaged 6,000 patrons nightly. Daily shows were broadcast on KVOO radio, and regular shows continued until 1958, with Johnnie Lee Wills as the bandleader.
Later in the 1940s, with the United States' continuing involvement in World War II, a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against "dancing" night clubs. Although the tax was later reduced to 20 percent, "No Dancing Allowed" signs went up all over the country. Wills still drew record crowds, greeting thousands of guests per month. The opening of famous establishments such as the Palomino in North Hollywood were a sure sign of the music’s widespread appeal, but soon the musical tastes of the nation change. The decline of Western Swing in the years following the War reflected the renewed enthusiasm of the more mainstream big-band sound, and although strands of Western Swing were still evident across the country, the genre would never attain similar popularity ever again.