If you’ve yet to enjoy the pleasure of Bob Wills’s company, you’d be wise to schedule a first meeting on better and more representative turf than this. Should he already be an old friend, on the other hand, you’d be well advised to check out these transcriptions from the early 1960s. The lack of a horn section and a less-than-superb edition of the Playboys notwithstanding, they present the man in some interesting and worthwhile lights.
Though Wills’s Western swing could be accurately defined as a rhythmic, infectious genre that emphasizes jazz-like steel guitar improvisations and a heavily bowed fiddle, that cursory description barely hints at the resourcefulness and diversity that characterize this double LP. The traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Wills’s “Don’t Let the Deal Go Down,” for instance, delightfully mesh blues and cowboy music influences with a New Orleans beat to form what annotator Charles Townsend cogently labels “Western jazz.” Versions of “From a Jack to a King” and W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues” respectively show Wills’s facility for mainstream country and 12-bar blues. And while many of the tunes could have profited from the use of his trademark horns, such tracks as Artie Shaw’s “Summit Ridge Drive” find the bandleader compensating imaginatively with a bright string section.
Another plus is the “live” setting, partly because it offers many fans a first opportunity to hear how Wills, like Duke Ellington, employed charm and quick wit to keep audiences in the palm of his hand. During this album’s excellent performance of the traditional “La Golondrina,” for example, he laughingly pleads, “Don’t leave, it won’t last much longer.” And when his listeners generously applaud another of the set’s fine efforts, Wills thanks them “for exaggerating like that.” Then he cues up the band and gives them more good reasons to “exaggerate.”