Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

by Duncan McLean

Using the prize money from his Somerset Maugham Award, Duncan McLean traveled from Orkney, Scotland, to Texas in search of the extraordinary mix of jazz, blues, country, and mariachi that is Western Swing.

This account of his travels takes in barbed-wire museums, onion festivals, hoe-downs, ghost-towns, dead dogs, and ten thousand miles of driving through the

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Using the prize money from his Somerset Maugham Award, Duncan McLean traveled from Orkney, Scotland, to Texas in search of the extraordinary mix of jazz, blues, country, and mariachi that is Western Swing.

This account of his travels takes in barbed-wire museums, onion festivals, hoe-downs, ghost-towns, dead dogs, and ten thousand miles of driving through the Lone Star State. A constant soundtrack of vintage music from bands like the Texas Top Hands, The Lightcrust Doughboys, and the Modern Mountaineers cheers McLean as he tries, with great difficulty, to track down any trace of his greatest heroes: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Both a quest for a musical grail and a wildly funny travelogue, Lone Star Swing captures the singular wonders of Texas and its maverick inhabitants, its staggering 100-in-the-shade heat, its mouth-blistering chilies. . . . Above all it captures the spirit of the glorious mongrel music-once incredibly popular, now all but forgotten-that he crossed the world to hear.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
This first nonfiction outing by the award-winning Scottish fiction writer McLean (Bucket of Tongues, 1994; Bunker Man, 1997) is sure to make some waves on this side of the Atlantic. McLean took the money he received for winning the Somerset Maugham Award and went to Turkey, Tex., of all places, to attend the annual Bob Wills Festival. Along the way, he also tried to trace the past that Wills, a pioneer of western swing, left scattered all across the Lone Star State. Laughingly chronicling his progress, McLean equals the best of American road literature. The principal source of his humor? The nearly constant problems Texans faced in deciphering McLean's Orkney-Scottish accent. A particularly fine moment in the saga: McLean's telephone conversation with an aged, nearly deaf swing musician who can only understand half of what the author is saying. McLean is also able to offer gentle yet pointed observations on American culture in general. His fascination with tabloids such as the Weekly World News (he claims to take it literally), his obsession with right-wing talk radio, and his enjoyment of such specifically Texan events as the annual Presidio Onion Festival display McLean's biting sense of humor, which distinguishes his book from the mere music survey or the everyday travelogue. But of course, music is still a subject here. McLean confesses himself to be left cold by Austinþ regarded by many in the music industry as the music city in Texas. Instead, he finds the smaller towns, where Bob Wills and his band members left their legacy, to be far more inspiring. If, like many another postmodern narrator, McLean often prefers anticlimax over climax in his writing, it'sbecause existentialism made him do it. A funny and charming lookþthrough Scottish eyesþat Texas as a microcosm of America.

Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
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Get With It


    PLEASANT 9690 10425 SO. VERMONT AVE.

    The guitar-shaped pool is closed for repairs. I goggle my hands and peer through the meshed-glass door. Corridor light shines off the water and shimmies up the far wall, flichtering across patches and tracks of raw concrete where the tiles have come unstuck. The air is saturated with chlorine. The vapour's so thick that my nostrils fizz and burn when I breathe in. That's good though: it burns out the last traces of my brown box-room's stink. (Sweat-soaked sheets, reconditioned air, stale fag-reek, businessman's beer belch.) There's a plop in the pool: another clump of little tiles scabbing off the ceiling into the deep end. The water ripples, the edges slosh, light-shards shiver up the walls.

    I turn and walk away: down the corridor, across the murky, stained lobby, out into the hot Nashville night.

The day's been spent chasing ghosts around the Country Music Foundation. Their museum has Ira Louvin's mandolin, Little Jimmy Dickens' sequinned stage-suit, Hank Williams' scribbled lyrics. These are holy relics, it's true, but still only relics: husks, shells. Jimmy's suit stands there, the chest puffed out, the arms stiff, the whole get-up full of emptiness. It floats a few inches off the ground as if modelled by some invisible hillbilly. Like I said: a husk. The body's long gone. The spirit too.

    Downstairs in the chill vaults of the record library, the spirit feels closer. Listening to ancient crackly 78s through heavy, leather-upholstered headphones, there are times when I think I'm about to catch it. Through a hiss of static, over a frantic background of fiddle, sax, trombone, and tub-thumping two-four bass and drums, two vocalists -- one singing swingingly, the other yelping joyously -- urge their listeners to Get With It:

Rhythm here, rhythm there
Rhythm floating everywhere
Get with it, A get with it
Red hot rhythm now

Some like to stomp, some like to hop
But give me the shimmy or the eagle rock
Get with it, oh get with it
Red hot rhythm now

This is Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This is their first recording session, in Dallas, September 1935, the one where the heat was so intense in the makeshift studio that big fans were angled to blow over barrels of ice in the direction of the sweat-lashed band.

    This is the hottering chilli-pot of New Orleans jazz, old country fiddling, big-band swing, ragtime, blues, pop, mariachi and conjunto that dominated Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and beyond -- all the way to San Francisco in the west, Memphis in the east -- from the mid-Thirties till mid-Elvis. This is western swing.

    It's square dances, reels, and schottisches, stomps, rags and waltzes. It's strings, brass and lap steel guitars, jive-talking, yodelling and scatting. It's the stuff I chanced across in a junk shop in Edinburgh five years ago -- one scratchy LP's worth of it -- the stuff that has been sending jolts of musical electricity through me ever since: It's the reason I'm three thousand miles from home, six hundred miles from anyone who knows anything more about me than the name on my credit card.

    I am not from these parts. I've come a long way in search of real live western swing. I won't find real live Bob Wills, that's for sure: he's been dead twenty years. But his spirit lives on; I know it, I feel it. It lives on ... somewhere. Not in the battered fiddle in the museum-case upstairs, not even in his three or four hundred vintage recordings down in the cool catalogued vaults. Nowhere in Nashville, probably; Bob always considered himself a jazz man, never thought he had anything in common with corny country music, always said that folk here didn't understand what he was after. (Cause he was always after something: he rarely, if ever, found what he was looking for -- in life or music. It's this restless searching for new sounds and inflections and ways of twisting old tunes that makes his music so startling, so stimulating, so endlessly fresh and exciting.)

    And now I am after something. I don't know exactly what it is, and I don't know exactly where I'm going to find it. But somewhere out there, further south and further west -- out amongst the country dancehalls, the ranch to market roads, the old musicians hunched over tin-tack pianos and tenor banjos -- somewhere in the wide, sun-struck wilds of Texas, that's where I'm going to track down the spirit of Bob Wills. That's where I'm going.

The first eating-place I come to is BK's Country Cafe. Posters in the window announce that this is their songwriters' night. Makes no difference to me: I haven't eaten all day. I walk in.

    BK's is a small, dark place with a serving hatch and bar at one end, a tiny stage at the other, unoccupied. It's easy to find a table: the place is less than half full. At scattered seats across the room, eight youngish men sit tuning and retuning and reretuning guitars. Some of the tuners are sitting with one or two or a whole gang of friends, partners, supporters. In fact, apart from me, everybody seems to be either tuner or supporter: at this amateur level, songwriting is apparently a participatory activity like angling, or knitting, not a spectator sport like baseball or Willie Nelson.

    A waitress flits about, bringing long-necked beers, coffee and platters of barbecued meat to the tables; and somebody else, a big guy, goes from tuner to nervous tuner with a pen and clipboard, taking down names, giving out places in the running order. He gets to me before the waitress does.

    You not brought your guitar?

    Eh ... no.

    He grins, leans on the table to tick his clipboard. No problem. I'll fix you one.

    No, listen ...

    You're not going a capella are you?

    I splutter. Too right I'm not!

    Fine, that's settled then. Now, three songs only, that's the limit. You got three?

    Well ...

    Sure you have! Every one a hit, eh? He laughs. Right, you're on second. Good luck, buddy!

    Thanks, I say, But ...

    Oh, what's your name?

    Listen, we're at cross purposes. I didn't come here to sing.

    You didn't?

    No, I'm just trying to get something to eat.

    To eat?

    Yeah, can I do that? I mean, this is a cafe, isn't it?

    Well ... sure. He laughs again, looks around for the waitress and waves her over.

    Yeah? she says. What is it, Grady?

    This guy wants to eat, says Grady. just to eat.

    Well, not just, I put in. I'll listen as well. I look from Grady to the waitress and back again. I'll eat and listen and watch at the same time. Is that okay?

    Sure, says the waitress.

    Sure, says Grady. It's just unusual, that's all.

    I shrug. I'm a spectator here, I say. I'm not joining in.

    Well, if you change your mind, just let me know ...

The waitress takes my order, and I sit back and sip on my beer. Grady is up on stage doing an MC routine, stuff about arriving in a cab and leaving in a Cadillac. Everybody laughs, then Grady introduces Billy Ray Pinkerton, all the way from Elgin, Alabama. A big BK's welcome for Billy Ray ...

    A tall lantern-jawed guy in a T-shirt and waistcoat climbs on the stage. He has a very expensive Ovation guitar, which he plugs in, tunes, strums, tunes, then strums again.

    This one's called, 'Since You Left I Feel Like Starting Colonic Irrigation, 'Cause I Miss My Pain In The Ass', he announces, and strikes a bold chord on the guitar. Actually, that's a joke, he says.

    Somebody laughs loudly at a table down the front.

    Thanks Myra. He nods, grins. But seriously, I'd like to start with this one ...

    And he launches into a song. It's so vague in its imagery, so twisted in its syntax, so abstract in its language, that even before the first verse is through I'm completely lost: I haven't the faintest idea what he's singing about. The chorus doesn't help much. It goes something like:

Expeditions of immorality in the modern world today

Explorations, navigations, trying to find the way

Seeking to locate the route that leads to what we're
    looking for

You'll know it when you find it, my daddy said of

Each of the verses describes a different expedition in immorality. I think. Halfway through what must be about the eighteenth verse, the waitress brings my food, and with relief I turn my attention to pulled pork, onion rings and hot pepper sauce.

The food is fantastic. The songwriters are dire. Every single one of them. By the time I hear the fifth one introduce himself by saying, I don't want to be just another cowboy singer, I want to be a cowboy singer pushing Jesus, I'm ready to leap up there, batter him around the skull with his expensive guitar (they all have expensive guitars) and launch into the 'Colonic Irrigation Song'. I've had plenty of dull moments to work out my own version of it ...

    But I don't. Instead I sign for the waitress to bring me the bill, and drag some dollars out of my pocket. When she arrives, the saucer has a thick felt-tip marker on it as well as the little slip of till paper.

    Thanks, I say. But I'm paying cash, I don't need a pen.

    Hey, she says. The pen's for the wall. Would you sign it for us?

    I look at her. Pardon?

    Everybody that comes here on a songwriters' night has to sign the wall. In case they get famous, see.

    But I haven't sung anything.

    She shrugs. It don't matter. Go on! There's a space right there above the sauce bottle.

    I look at the wall behind the table. She's right: there are scrawled names and good wishes, and posters and promo pics of nearly famous folk in black hats and big hair-dos all across the wall. But right above my chilli sauce bottle there's a definite space.

    I pick up the pen. Are you sure? I say.

    Sure I'm sure. Hey, you might end up anybody. Then we can cut that piece of the wall out.

    And burn it?

    Sell it.

    I pop the top off the pen. Right, I say. What am I going to write?

    Anything you like. She takes the saucer with my dollars on it and heads off for the bar, sashaying between the tables, the guitar cases, the tapping and twitching toes.

    I suck the end of the pen for a second, then reach out, hesitate, reach out again, and rest the tip of the pen on the wall. This is my chance to make my mark on Nashville, to give the country music establishment something to chew on. It doesn't matter a bean who I am. The person I want to bring to their attention is The King Of Western Swing. So I lean over and write, slowly and carefully:


I stop. That's not right. What is it that folk write up? Oh aye. BIRD LIVES! ELVIS LIVES! That's it: not a bloody address book, HENDRIX IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN anywhere, but a bold statement of faith, HENDRIX LIVES! But now I'm committed. I've started so I'll have to finish. Where could Bob be? IN THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF TEXANS EVERYWHERE ... IN HILLBILLY JAZZ HEAVEN ... IN LYLE LOVETT'S QUIFF ... No no no, none of those would do. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the waitress coming back with my change. Up on stage another expensive-guitar-and-paisley-waistcoat hopeful is singing too many words with too few ideas behind them, too many notes with too little tune. I've got to get out of this place.

    I read my sentence so far, then write the first word that comes to mind: SIN.

    In the words of swing steel colossus Bob Dunn, at the end of his brief sojourn in Nashville in the late thirties, I can't handle this shit. I'm going down to Cowtown.

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