Beginning down South in the early 1930s, Bob Wills turned what is technically known as “pretty much everything” into a singular sound, challenging audiences as it suavely extended an arm and escorted them to the dancefloor. Later categorized as “western swing,” Wills and His Texas Playboys’ grooves sample ragtime, bluegrass, vaudeville, c&w, and swing—Ellingtonian swing.
A four-disc box set of 105 remastered tracks, Legends of Country Music: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
casts doubt on the notion that several allegedly original pop music developments emerged only in the past 50 years; Bob was an early originator in disciplines including but not limited to hollering, waxing ironic, and rocking out. As a fiddler, he leaves the singing to pros, but he verbally encourages his orchestra almost to a compulsive degree . He’s credited with coining the expression “Take it away!”; his signature “Ahhh-haaa!,” which sounds a lot like Mr. Hankey’s “Hiii-dee-ho!” from South Park, is similarly unaffected—accidentally cute, even. Sometimes, like on the songs about “Bob” (“Ride With Bob,” “Bob Wills Special,” “What Makes Bob Holler”), Wills’s interjections work. Steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, dishing out a curvy solo on “Drop Me Off at Bob’s Place,” crunches his strings a little harder than normal in response to the bandleader’s cheers: “Yeah, that’s what you’ll get down at Bob’s place/Mr. Leon and his steel get-tar/Ahhh, yeah!” Other times, though, Wills buzzes from the clarinetist to the mandolin player to the trumpeter back to the clarinetist—it’s a mite dizzying. He chatters nearly as much on the earlier, instrumental version of his hit “San Antonio Rose” as on the subsequent vocal rendition, probably to singer Tommy Duncan’s dismay.
Wills’s ego was as vigorous as his liver was sickly. When he didn’t go missing on a terrific bender, he usually appeared onstage in his uniform: a white Stetson on his head and a cigar between his grinning teeth. In 1975, after years of illness, he died at the age of 70. Along with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Wills is a member of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Consider: To whom does Jim Morrison owe “Do it, Robbie, do it”? Bob Wills. The peaceful accord between horns and electric guitars? Bob Wills brokered it. They Might Be Giants? They Might Be Bob Wills’s Boogie Chillun.