Ironically, this new series of Columbia/Legacy box sets debuts with an artist who didn’t want to be labeled as a Country Music performer. In a 1945 Time magazine he said, “Please don’t anybody confuse us with none of them hillbilly outfits.” That’s because Bob Wills, who coyly called his work “Texas fiddle music” wasn’t confined by genres or rules.
The band’s first producer, Arthur Satherley, questioned the inclusion of horns, but Wills made it clear they were part of the package. 1935’s “Get With It” was the first country record that featured amplified lead guitar. He was first country bandleader to use a drummer and in 1944 flaunted the Grand Ole Opry’s rules regarding modern instruments by bringing his drummer on stage.
In the liner notes, Rich Kienzle writes, “In Wills’ universe, musical boundaries simply didn’t exist.” He was a fan of all types of music so that’s what his Texas Playboys played: originals and covers that could be classified as country, big band jazz, blues, pop, etc.; sometimes changing within a song. Eventually Wills’ music would be labeled as Western Swing, but the only distinction that needs to be made is the word “outstanding.”
Though he played the fiddle and occasionally sang lead, he can be heard on almost every track. He yells out his trademark “A-ha!” or shouts to punctuate lyrics and moments when a song moves him; he calls out musicians to play and when they’re swinging; and on some songs he provides a humorous, running counterpoint to a song’s lyrics, reminiscent of Popeye’s asides in the ‘30s Fleischer cartoons. His joy radiates off each track and is infectious.
This set is the mother load, containing 105 tracks in chronological order spanning 41 years over four discs. Kienzle’s liner notes provide a great biography about Wills and his Texas Playboys and an impressive annotation of the recording sessions, explaining song origins and giving credit to the original artists whose work provides the foundation they built upon. It’s a musical history lesson well worth investing your time and money.
Disc 1 covers the early years. The first two tracks from 1932 feature Wills in his previous band. Because of a radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour, they were known as the Light Crust Doughboys, but Victor Records changed their name for legal reasons to the Fort Worth Doughboys. The audio quality of “Sunbonnet Sue” and “Nancy Jane” sound surprisingly clean considering their age.