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Bob Wills: The King of Country Swing

Bob Wills: The King of Country Swing

A lot of today’s contemporary country music touches on themes of drifting, cotton picking, dancing, and other marks of the Old South. And while Blake Shelton or Toby Keith might be jotting down these stories in a Nashville loft, country swing legend Bob Wills actually lived out these grand tales of riding rails and picking fiddles.

Known as the “King of Country Swing,” Wills’ early life reads like a novel. Born James Robert Wills, his family nicknamed him Jim Rob, and counted on his hard work in the cotton fields to keep them financially a float. That was near the turn of the 20th century in Kosse, Texas, and times were always kind of tough for cotton pickers. To earn extra money, Jim Rob’s father, John, played the fiddle for dances. Playing dances could earn the family extra money here or there, and by the time Jim Rob and his siblings were old enough to play, nearly all of them had picked up an instrument.

Jim Rob was particularly talented on the fiddle, though. Although his father still out-shined him, at age 10, the young talent finally had an opportunity to play his first ranch dance. In 1915, Jim Rob arrived to a private home with his father’s instruments, preparing for the family to turn up. John Wills, however, got distracted by a corn liquor wagon and never showed up. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to earn extra money, Jim Rob picked up his fiddle and played every song he knew. His music library wasn’t yet as large as his father’s, but he played a fine set and the people danced.

Continuing to work on the family farm, Jim Rob never had aspirations to become a paid musician. Still, he enjoyed singing with the African American cotton pickers, and playing with the family band.

Cotton picking was hard though, and by age 16, Jim Rob couldn’t see anything in his future except for calloused feet and arthritic joints. He took the advice of a family friend and ran away from the family farm. He hopped a train that took him away from the farm, changed his name to Bob, and never looked back.

Bob’s drifting years were hard—perhaps just as difficult as farming. He was injured badly once when he fell off of a train, and almost died in the hospital. Riding the rails was the only way Bob could carve out a living, until 1929, when he joined up with guitarist Herman Arnspiger and finally started making money for his craft.

Together, Arnspiger and Wills recorded two projects with Brunswick Label—unfortunately, those songs never made it to the airwaves, and they are believed to have been destroyed. In 1930, brothers Milton and Derwood Brown joined up with Wills and Arnspiger, and the foursome created a group called the “Aladdin Laddies

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payday loans milwaukee.” The Laddies had a spot on WBAP Fort Worth until Wills and Arnspiger left to start a new project. The music created by the Aladdin Laddies in that short two years is considered by some to be the first glimmers of a then-new genre called country swing.

In 1932, Arnspiger and Wills formed the Texas Playboys and traveled through Texas and Oklahoma, looking for their niche. They found it in Oklahoma, when they scored a 12:30 p.m. slot on KVOO in Tulsa. That spot launched the Texas Playboys into a position as the most popular act in the South.

In the next several years, The Texas Playboys added 16 members to their numbers, including some great talents, like steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, guitarist Eldon Shamblin, and fiddler Jesse Ashlock. From 1935 until 1947, Bob Wills and his band enjoyed great success while recording with ARC/Vocalion/OKeh/Columbia. Most of their albums sold thousands of copies, with the exception of “San Antonio Rose,” which most likely hit sales in the millions.

During this time, Bob Wills married a very young Mary Louise Parker. The couple was only married for two years before they divorced, largely due to Bob’s heavy drinking and depression. The same year Wills divorced Parker, he met Betty Anderson, who later become his second wife.

Following the strength of his recording success, Wills moved to Hollywood to make western musicals in 1940. Unfortunately, not long after, band members started enlisting in the army, and the Texas Playboys fell apart. Wills even served for a few years, but he went back to making music in southern California as soon as he was discharged. By this time, Wills’ drinking was out of control, and singer Tommy Duncan left the band to start his own project. Wills still had the Texas Playboys, but not one of the original members was still a part of the group.

For the next twenty years, Wills managed to stay ahead of the trend—despite a nearly crippling drinking problem. In the 40s, he exchanged his brass and reed instruments for steel guitars, fiddles and mandolins. By the 1950s, western swing was back, so Wills relocated to Tulsa. His band expanded once again, and eventually Wills relocated to Las Vegas, where they played most of their gigs.

Wills’ success continued until the 1960s, when, unfortunately, the Texas Playboys finally disbanded. In 1969, Wills lead his last dance in California, continuing to break attendance records throughout the tour.

Thanks to his great contribution to the western swing genre, Bob Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968. A few months later, he suffered a stroke that ended his performing days. In 1975, Bob Wills died from pneumonia, leaving behind a great legacy of swing dancing, cotton picking, and riding the rails until he found what he was looking for.

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