The Cowboy in Country Music: Bob Wills,King of Western Swing

Bob Wills
Bob Wills

Western Swing is the marriage of old time Texas fiddle music with Big Band Swing. It was created by rural musicians who were enthralled with the music of the Jazz Age and Swing Era.


Bob Wills is given credit for being the father of western swing; in truth he’s more like the big brother in a large royal family who refined the music and brought it to the forefront of American music. And, as the elder brother, he became King of Western Swing in his time. Bob Wills grew up in West Texas, where he and his father, who played fiddle, performed at “ranch dances.” These ranch dances were all night social gatherings held at someone’s ranch house. When radio developed in the 1920s, Bob Wills began to perform on that medium.

Some of the fiddle tunes Wills played can be traced back to British folk songs. But fiddlers were always altering tunes or making up new ones or perhaps even adding some lyrics to an old tune. The audience for Wills’ early performances were westerners—ranchers, cowboys and those connected to the cattle trade. And the purpose of the music was dancing. That’s why a social gathering hired a fiddler!

Wills moved to Fort Worth early in 1929 and, with two other musicians, obtained a spot on WBAP. However, the group didn’t have a sponsor and so, to earn money, Wills began playing in a medicine show. In the fall of 1929, he made his first recordings, “Gulf Coast Blues” (a Bessie Smith number) and “Wills Breakdown” for Brunswick.

Wills had teamed with guitarist Herman Arnspiger and in 1930 they began performing on KTAT in Fort Worth as well as at house parties. During a house party the Wills Fiddle Band doubled in size when singer Milton Brown and his brother, guitarist Durwood Brown, joined the group. The group was successful in and around Fort Worth, and in the fall of 1930 they began a show on WBAP sponsored by the Aladdin Lamp Company. The group became the Aladdin Laddies and, in addition to their radio performances, began performing at dances at Crystal Springs, a dance pavilion in Fort Worth.

In January 1931, Wills and his group were on KFJZ, sponsored by Light Crust Flour, a product of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. The band became known as the “Light Crust Doughboys” and soon a Burrus Mill executive, W. Lee O’Daniel was announcing for the band. O’Daniel, who had fired the group because he didn’t like their music, was persuaded to hire them for a salary but the musicians had to spend forty hours a week at the mill. They therefore practiced eight hours a day to earn their salaries.

The show thrived but personal differences led Milton Brown to quit in 1932 and form his own group—Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Wills hired Tommy Duncan to replace him. In 1933, Wills left the group, taking many of the musicians with him, moved to Waco, Texas, and formed the Texas Playboys. The original group consisted of Wills on fiddle; Tommy Duncan, piano and vocals; Kermit Whalin, steel guitar and bass; Johnnie Lee Wills, tenor banjo; and June Whalin, rhythm guitar.

In early 1934 Wills and his group moved to Oklahoma, first to Oklahoma City, then to Tulsa, where they began performing on KVOO. Here the group and the music both blossomed, as Wills added more musicians to his group and moved their sound closer to the Big Band music that was heard on network radio.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded first in 1935 for Brunswick in Dallas. Brunswick was later purchased by Columbia, which was later purchased by the American Record Corporation. The records that Wills made sold extremely well and soon he had a major reputation in the Southwest. This reputation was enhanced by the broadcasts and dances at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Wills went to Hollywood in the summer of 1940 with his Texas Playboys to appear in a movie, Take Me Back to Oklahoma, starring Tex Ritter. This was followed by Go West Young Lady, starring Glenn Ford. But he returned to Tulsa and continued performing at Cain’s and on KVOO.

When World War II began in December 1941, Wills lost a number of musicians to the draft. This trimmed his band, which had grown to 17 members. At the end of 1942 he was back in Hollywood, filming more movies and playing at the Venice Pier to large crowds. Then he returned to Tulsa, where he joined the army. Bob Wills didn’t last long in the army. He was three months short of 38 when he was drafted; he was discharged about six months later. Since almost every member of his old band had either joined the service or left Tulsa, he decided to move to California which he did in September 1943.

Wills and his new band began performing on KMTR in Los Angeles and played at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego. Wills was soon making movies again and signed with MCA, the major talent agency for big bands, in 1944.

In 1944 Wills put together his biggest band—22 instrumentalists and two vocalists. Unfortunately, this group never had a recording session in the six to seven months it played. Musically, the sound of Wills’ music changed during World War II. The horns were essential to the Big Band sound, but during the war the fiddle began to emerge as the dominant sound in the group. The guitar and steel guitar also assumed major importance.

In January 1945, Wills had his first recording session since July 1942. The term “western swing” had emerged by this time to describe the music that he played. The “look” of the group was “western” by this time as well—a result of Wills appearing in singing cowboy movies. It was also a product of the fact that Wills came from Texas and Oklahoma, where it was usual for men to wear cowboy hats and boots.

In June 1945, Wills moved to Fresno, California, and made radio transcriptions for Tiffany Music in Oakland. These Tiffany Transcriptions, which were sold to radio stations across the nation, include over 220 different songs. Many consider these recordings to be the best example of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. They may also be considered the canon for Western Swing.

In 1947 Wills ended his association with Columbia and began recording for MGM. That same year he purchased the Aragon Ballroom near Sacramento, changed the name to Wills Point, and began performing there. In September 1948, Tommy Duncan ended his 16-year association with Wills and formed his own band.

In 1949 Wills moved back to Oklahoma City then, in 1950, moved to Dallas. By this time, he was in financial trouble from back taxes he owed. He sold his music company— including the rights to “San Antonio Rose.” Wills continued to record and tour and moved back to California in 1952. But the Big Band era was over—and so was the era of Western Swing. In 1953 Wills moved to Amarillo, then back to California in 1954. He had a TV show in Los Angeles in 1955 and signed with Decca. In 1957 he moved to Abilene, then returned to Tulsa before moving to Las Vegas in 1958.

The rock ’n’ roll era had come and Wills could not make a living with his music, except in Vegas. But the Vegas crowds were there to listen—not to dance—and Wills never enjoyed being there, although that was his base of operations until 1961.

In 1960 Wills and Tommy Duncan re united and made a number of recordings for Liberty. They toured together until 1962; at this point, Wills moved back to Tulsa.

During the last ten years of Bob Wills’ life he had major heart attacks (in 1962 and 1964), toured, recorded for Liberty, and moved to Fort Worth (in October 1963). After 1964, he never had a band of his own; instead, he would front for other bands. He continued to record—and made almost 100 recordings between 1963 and 1969—mostly for Kapp Records.

Bob Wills never really cared for the “country” music that developed in the 1930s and 1940s. First, he did not like the term “hillbilly” applied to himself or his music. It was a derogatory term and Wills resented it. The country music that developed during his time came out of the South and had the mountaineer image. It was not made for dancing; the Bible Belt prohibition against dancing led that branch of country to develop the story song.

After World War II, country music was increasingly centered in Nashville, and Wills did not like recording in Nashville. He felt the musicians didn’t understand his music. The country music that came out of Nashville was not like the swing band dance music spiced with liberal doses of jazz that Wills loved and played. And so he held a certain disdain for Nashville and the music that came out of that city. Finally, Wills was a product of the Jazz Age and the swing era. His music was sophisticated—and he wanted himself and his band to be hip and “cool.” Country—or “hillbilly”—was not hip or cool.

It is ironic that Bob Wills was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968 in a ceremony held in Nashville. Although he never felt part of the country music community and his musical influences—outside the early fiddle tunes—were never country, Bob Wills had a major impact on country music because of his influence on the musicians who played and sang country. Many of those performers grew up listening to Bob Wills, and his music had a major impact on their lives, even though the country music that evolved did not sound much like the Western swing that Wills pioneered. A bigger honor, in Wills’ eyes, occurred two months after the CMA induction when the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City honored him for his “contribution to America’s Western music lore.”

Bob Wills’ final recording session occurred in February 1969. About two months later he suffered a major stroke at his home in Fort Worth. On May 30—just before his stroke— Wills made his last public appearance. He never fully recovered from these strokes. Although he lived until 1975, his legacy would have to be carried on by other musicians. The first to do so was Merle Haggard, whose album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World came out in 1970. In the fall of 1971 Haggard brought Wills and ten former members of the Texas Playboys to his home in Bakersfield, California, for a historic recording session for Capitol.

Tommy Allsup organized a recording session in Dallas for United Artists in December 1973; right after this session Wills suffered another major stroke. He remained in a coma for nearly 18 months before dying on May 13, 1975; he is buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Bob Wills put the “western” in swing music, and the swing in “western.” Every musician and singer in the fields of western, country or contemporary western swing has been influenced by the music of Bob Wills. To honor Bob Wills for his tremendous influence, the Western Music Association inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 1995.

SOURCES: Cusic, Don. Discovering Country Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008. Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Nashville: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Townsend, Charles R. San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986