“I can’t really say why everyone loves Bob Wills’ music, but I have yet to meet a person who didn’t like it.”
- Merle Haggard
In 1945, Bob Wills teamed up with a Bay Area DJ and music salesmen to package and distribute pre-recorded programs to radio stations. The plan bombed after only 26 episodes, and the tapes of those shows sat forgotten in a vault until they were bought by independent label Kaleidoscope Records in the early ‘80s, and packaged as a 10-volume series of vinyl best-ofs. In the ‘90s, Rhino Records re-released the Kaleidoscope package on CD, and now Collectors’ Choice is re-releasing them again, but for the first time in a box set, with new liner notes and remastered sound. The notes on the new Tiffany Transcriptions box set feature memories from Wills’ original Texas Playboys, and testimonials from latter-day fans from acts like Asleep At The Wheel, Riders In The Sky and Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys. There’s multiple levels of nostalgia at work here: nostalgia for the original sessions, which capture one of America’s best dance bands at the peak of their creativity and improvisational power; and nostalgia for the now-out-of-print Kaleidoscope LPs and Rhino CDs, which introduced a generation of budding alt-country musicians to the genre-bending, smokin’-hot interplay of The Texas Playboys.
I’d never heard the Tiffany discs until the Collectors’ Choice set came out a few weeks ago, though I’ve heard scattered Wills studio tracks on various anthologies, and have a basic understanding of the Playboys’ place in country music history. Wills' boys were the kings of western swing, bringing together the barn dance and the jitterbug, and on their seminal 78s they sounded like a crackerjack hot-jazz combo, only with fiddles and steel guitar filling out their sound. By the mid-‘40s, post World War II, the Playboys were a popular touring attraction, filling dance halls up and down the west coast in between Wills’ appearances in Hollywood movies. Bob’s little brother Luke summed up the band’s appeal thusly: “Bob insisted on a good heavy rhythm section, because he said, ‘You got to put their feet down and pick ‘em up again.’”
The Tiffany project was Wills’ way of spreading his music (and making money) in markets his massive ensemble couldn’t reach on their tours. (The original promotional materials for the transcriptions promised “a sure-fire audience-builder for your station” and “a powerful selling-vehicle for your sponsors.”) But the recordings became something else—something unexpected. I’ve always liked the Wills’ 78s I’ve heard; they’re bright, catchy and good-spirited. But the music on The Tiffany Transcriptions has an edge to it, born of the circumstances under which the shows were recorded. As the surviving bandmembers recall, the Tiffany sets were scheduled for the end of the tour, when everyone was anxious to finish up their business and get home to their families. After months on the road, they all knew the songs backward and forward, so they banged out each song in one take, and with added urgency.
According to Playboys electric guitarist Eldon Shamblin, the extra vigor in the Tiffany performances were also due to the way Wills liked to work in a live setting. “[You had to keep] your eye on Bob all the time as you didn’t know when he would give you a solo. At a dance he would just point at you with his fiddle bow or finger, and you started playing. That is what made it interesting to play with Bob Wills, because there was no cut-and-dry routine. You never played the same tune twice the same way.” The live Wills projected an image of good times and high spirits, but the music contained an immediacy that had more in common with blues shouters roped into hotel rooms by traveling songcatchers than the polished pop of showbiz veterans.
I’ll be honest: The nearly seven hours of music on The Tiffany Transcriptions can be a little overwhelming, especially given Wills’ recurring vocal tics: A high, nasal, “AHHHHHHH-Haaaaaaa!” and a jazzy, minstrel-like, “Yaaaaaaas, yaaaaaaas.” The Texas Playboys can also be a little tough to stomach on the racial sensitivity front, although their songs about Indians and Chinamen and Negroes aren’t substantially dicier than anything else that emerged from mid-20th-century showbiz. (In fact, Wills spoke often about his own Native American heritage, and about what he learned from the black friends he worked alongside on his parents’ cotton farm.) And after a while, the charm of hearing Wills call on his sidemen by name starts to fade a little, as song after song turns into a succession of short solos.
But those are only problems if listeners over-indulge. The best way to tackle The Tiffany Transcriptions is to spend time with each disc individually, admiring the eclectic mix of originals with covers, and of instrumentals with songs that take advantage of smooth-dude lead vocalist Tommy Duncan. Even better: narrow your Playboys appreciation down to one song at a time, until you can hear each individual fiddle and horn and guitar, and imagine what it must’ve been like to be in a dance hall with so many musicians playing in unison on stage. The beauty of Bob Wills’ music was in its vastness, both in terms of sound and subject. Well before the bastard American music form known as rock ‘n’ roll had a name or a following, The Texas Playboys were stealing liberally from pop, jazz, R&B and country music, taking primarily the parts that made people move. Their direct descendents may be acts like Asleep At The Wheel, but their spiritual descendents are Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Wilco, and every other musician who’s combined and reinterpreted American music in their own special way.
For me though, what’s remarkable about The Tiffany Transcriptions is what lies immediately behind the music. I like to think about this group of guys traveling the country by bus, telling dirty jokes and drinking too much and chasing tail, just like every other band of musicians has done since the dawn of time. On their 78s, Wills and company sound energetic but confined: a group of professional music-makers. On The Tiffany Transcriptions, they sound like human beings: scruffy, sweaty, disheveled and irritable. It’s a side of everyday existence that mainstream show business largely tried to screen out in the ‘40s, but listening to The Tiffany Transcriptions is a way of conjuring up the past the way it actually was. It’s like digging beneath a stack of Hollywood fan magazines and finding a cache of family photos.