“COME HERE, I want to show you something.”
Ray Benson walks into his office and points to a framed picture on the wall, a poster-size print of the photograph on the cover of For the Last Time, the last record Bob Wills appeared on. In December 1973, several Texas Playboys, joined by Merle Haggard, reunited in the studio and insisted that Wills be there.
Four years earlier, a stroke had robbed Wills of the ability to play his fiddle or sing. That night, he’d suffer another stroke. Though he lived another 18 months, he never spoke again.
“That’s the last picture of Bob Wills alive,” Benson says. “He was sitting there in a wheelchair, and that’s when I met him. That’s a man who’s about to have a stroke.
Now, look at those eyes.”
TAKE A MOMENT to think on the American music that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, was busy being born during the first three decades of the 20th century. Ragtime, a coupling of American march music with the polyrhythms of Africa, was emerging in Missouri. Dixieland jazz, the offspring of French dance music, American marches, and the blues, was bubbling up in New Orleans. With seemingly offhand brilliance, Louis Armstrong was turning jazz into a playground for soloists by liberating the pop tunes of the day with improvisations that capered far from their familiar melodies. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were reinventing American folk music and laying the foundation for what would eventually be called country music. And George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and their fellow Tin Pan Alley songsmiths were borrowing promiscuously from all of these new forms and mixing them with traditional music from the old country to create the Great American Songbook.
But for sheer mongrelizing audacity, Gershwin and company had nothing on Bob Wills. Western swing, the music Wills did more to popularize than anyone else, is an amalgamation of all of the above and more. For Wills, there was no music too humble, no music too disreputable, no music disqualified by the race or social station of the folks who made it. All that mattered was that people could dance to it; it had to swing. And if it didn’t in its original form, by God he’d make it. Bob Wills made Franz Liszt swing.