Texas Times: Celebrating the 'King of Western Swing'

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn | Apr 10, 2014

You've got a smile like two acres of sunflower
Your eyes are blue bonnet blue
Shake hands, it’s grand that you're from Texas
Cause I'm from Texas too

--Recorded by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, 1946

The small panhandle town of Turkey, Texas, was named after flocks of wild Rio Grande turkeys who roosted on the nearby (and also aptly named) Turkey Creek. But large as they may be, the tail feathers of the Rio Grande turkeys eventually were forced to make way for an even bigger star from Turkey, Texas – the father of western swing, Bob Wills.

Though not technically his home (Wills was born on a farm outside Kosse, Texas), the town of Turkey claims Wills as its native son and Wills himself always referred to Turkey as his hometown.

Wills was the first of 10 children born to John and Emmaline Wills. Born in Limestone County, the Wills family moved to West Texas when Bob Wills, called “Jim Rob” as a child, was 8 years old. The family traveled by wagon, with Wills following closely behind on his donkey Little Joe. They stayed in cotton shanties and picked cotton at various farms along the way to bring in money.

It was during these stays that Wills first developed a deep appreciation for blues and jazz, as he would hear African American families playing horns and singing work songs in the cotton camps. The sounds were much different than what Wills had heard since the day he was born – folk music played primarily with the fiddle, often referred to as the “royal instrument of the frontier.” Wills’ father was a well-known fiddler and taught his children how to play the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and other stringed instruments from a young age.

Once the Wills family settled in the rolling plains of Hall County near Turkey, it was not long before Bob Wills, age 10, first played the fiddle at a public dance. His father was the hired entertainment for the evening but was running late. As described in San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills, young Wills “faced a large crowd that was ready to dance –with nothing to dance to” so he began to play. He didn’t stop until 2 a.m. It was just the beginning of a 50-year musical career.

Most of Wills’ teen years were spent working on cotton farms by day and playing for ranch dances at night to supplement the Wills’ family income. Ranch dances, which often ran until the early morning hours, were a staple of frontier life. The cowboys did the cooking, typically serving barbecue beef, pinto beans, potatoes and pickles. The dances took place in each room of the ranch house, requiring the fiddler to play in a central location in the house where he could be heard in all of the rooms.

Wills soon earned a reputation as the best fiddler in West Texas. His only rival in Turkey was his father.Wills began experimenting and combining the music of his father and predecessors with the music he had heard in the cotton camps –blues, jazz and other new sounds. Through these experiments, a Texas original—western swing—was born.

In 1929, Wills moved to Fort Worth in search of work and landed a gig with a medicine show. He soon formed his own band with the guitarist Herman Arnspiger, and brothers Miton and Durwood Brown.On Fort Worth’s KFJZ radio they became known as the Light Crust Doughboys, promoting the flour brand owned by the show’s sponsor, Burrus Mill and Elevator Co. 

Every day at noon, the popular announcer Truett Kimsey would signal the start of their musical hour with an enthusiastic: “The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air!” During any given show, listeners could hear the Doughboys play a variety of music from fiddle breakdowns to jazz numbers. It’s said that the president of Burrus Mill, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who later served as Governor of Texas, at one point cancelled the show, citing his dislike for their “hillbilly music.”

When the original Doughboys disbanded, Wills went on to form Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, which enjoyed tremendous success for the next four decades—playing across the country, appearing in a number of movies, and selling millions of records.Wills, often referred to as the “King of Western Swing,” was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968.

Each year in late April, thousands of western swing enthusiasts travel from around the world to Turkey, Texas, to celebrate the Bob Wills Day Festival. Live music is heard throughout the weekend, complete with a parade, BBQ cook-off and other activities.

Western swing—and the man who created it—is truly one of our state’s great treasures. No matter where I am, I can hear just a few notes of western swing and be taken right back to the place I’d always rather be: Texas.

The 43rd Annual Bob Wills Day Festival will be held this year from April 24-26.

Sources: City of Turkey, Texas; Country Music Hall of Fame; San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills; Texas State Historical Association

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