It’s taken me many years to truly appreciate the breadth and soulfulness of Western Swing but I get it now, so I was thrilled to attend (and record) this leisurely long presentation by a genuinely all-star group, co-led by Dave Stuckey, guitar, vocal; and Hal Smith, drums, at the 2019 Redwood Coast Music Festival.
Here’s the personnel — the hot / sweet rascals all in a row: Dave Stuckey, guitar, vocal; Elana James, fiddle, vocal; Hal Smith, drums; James Mason, fiddle; Dan Walton, piano, vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, reeds; Rusty Blake, steel guitar; Chris Wilkinson, guitar; Jamey Cummins, guitar; Wally Hersom, string bass.
Because I don’t think of myself as an authority on this music, I asked Dave and Hal for their comments, which are as different as they are. Dave, first:
While most people think of Western Swing as a melting pot…and I wouldn’t disagree necessarily (music did come across the border…Wills had Spanish Fandango, the Tune Wranglers had el Rancho Grande, etc), I think that was a just a subset of what they played. The base line was jazz, though. When you look at WS’s (as it was called by 1947 — previously it was regarded as Hot String Band) repertoire, it’s all jazz. Very few originals.
I always think of it as a bunch of cats in Texas who were wild about jazz and wanted to play it – so they did with the instruments they had (steel guitar, fiddles). Judging from what I’ve heard from the limited amount of old-timers I’ve been lucky enough to meet is that jazz was just about ALL they listened to.
I met Benny Garcia, the excellent guitarist for Wills, Tex Williams, Hank Penny and at one point, Goodman (!). He grew up in Oklahoma City and when we chatted, all he wanted to talk about was Charlie Christian, his biggest influence.
I don’t know how often the jazz guys even knew of Western Swing but I do know the story of Jimmie Bryant, the singular country jazz guitarist who, it was said, would often leave his weekly gig at Hometown Jamboree in El Monte (south of L.A.) and shoot up to Hollywood and sit in with Stuff Smith at Billy Berg’s on Vine Street.
Jimmie Rodgers is a wellspring, just like Pops. I regard those two as the only occupants on Music Mount Olympus. I also think to call Jimmie The Father of Country Music is to way undersell him. He was all of it – jazz, country, blues, Hawaiian. I don’t know if you’ve read Finding Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor, but I think you’d really enjoy it. It ties a lot of it together with fact and supposition.
Milton Brown? Well, it’s hard to imagine what the whole timeline would be like had he not died so young. He was right there…once he and Bob broke up after that first, seminal record, they both went in fairly disparate, but equally great directions.
I was aware of Western Swing music in the ’60s, after finding out that hot jazz cornetists Benny Strickler and Danny Alguire had worked with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. But it was difficult to find comprehensive reissues of Wills’ music until the ’70s. Once I heard those recordings, with more great hornmen like Tubby Lewis, reedmen Wayne Johnson and Woody Wood, the Jess Stacy-like piano of Al Stricklin, the hot jazz of fiddlers Jesse Ashlock and Joe Holly and steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, the swinging drums of Smokey Dacus, Bob Fitzgerald and Monte Mountjoy and the friendly vocal styles of Tommy Duncan and Wills himself…I was hooked!
Fast-forward to the early 2000s in Southern California, when I made the acquaintance of Dave “Pappy” Stuckey. We quickly found out that we shared a lot of musical interests, from the Firehouse Five Plus Two to Eddie Condon to…Western Swing! With the help of some talented Southern California musicians, we organized the “Hi-Lo Playboys” to perform at a variety of events. However, conflicting schedules, disagreements regarding the band’s approach and a general lack of work doomed this group within a short time.
Fast-forward again to the 2017 Redwood Coast Music Festival…As Dave and I rode together in a van to the Eureka airport, the subject of Western Swing came up. We agreed that a hot Western group would be a great addition to the musical presentations at Redwood Coast. When we contacted Festival Director Mark Jansen, he immediately agreed. After receiving the green light for a special set at the 2018 festival, “Pappy” Stuckey and “Junior” Smith began to contact musicians who would be able to play the music the right way and simultaneously put together set lists to reflect the best music from the Texas Playboys repertoire. “Pappy and Junior’s Barn Burner” was a smash hit at the 2018 Redwood Coast Music Festival. Happily, Mark Jansen agreed to a reprise in 2019 and friend Michael videotaped the band for posterity.
And now . . . the first half of this glorious effervescent evening of music.
TAKE ME BACK TO TULSA:
A HOME IN SAN ANTONE:
WHOA BABE! — which some of us will also know from a Lionel Hampton Victor:
I’M FEELING BAD:
SMOKE, SMOKE, SMOKE:
DRIVIN’ NAILS IN MY COFFIN:
I will close by saying that my ears were opened wider by this erudite hilarious feeling presentation, that a second half is waiting in the wings, that all of this wouldn’t happen were it not for the generosities of Mark and Valerie Jansen, AND that the next Redwood Coast Music Festival is May 7-10, 2020, and you will see us there.
May your happiness increase!