Pine Valley Cosmonauts

Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills


By Linda Ray

When a Tulsa Tribune reporter asked him what he thought of rock and roll in 1958, country legend Bob Wills said, “Why, man, that’s the same music we’ve been playin’ since 1928!…We didn’t call it ‘rock and roll’ back when we introduced it as our style…and we don’t call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But it’s just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time.” Since “his time,” Wills has been forgotten and remembered and forgotten and remembered again, but in all the tributes he’s received over the years, none has driven this particular point home like The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills–a labor of love by Welsh art-punk antihero Jon Langford with help from a couple Texas troubadours and a crazy quilt of midwestern rockers, many of whom will perform at a release party for the album Friday at FitzGerald’s.

Raised in and around Texas cotton camps by a family of well-known fiddlers, Wills had learned from dance competitions with his black playmates what a beat could do to pass the time, and from their parents in the fields how a holler could express the stirrings of a soul more perfectly than any words. But in 1933, Wills left Texas to escape his first bitter taste of big business, at the hands of future governor W. Lee O’Daniel: In 1931, as president of the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, makers of Light Crust brand flour, O’Daniel began sponsoring a Fort Worth radio show on which Wills and his band performed as the Light Crust Doughboys. Most of their revenue still came from dances, but in 1932 O’Daniel forbade them to play at them. Key members quit, and Wills eventually followed. The band then moved to Waco, with financial help from fans in the fire department there. Six weeks later, Wills was served with a $10,000 lawsuit for advertising the band–soon to become the Texas Playboys–as former Light Crust Doughboys. He eventually won the case, but by the time he left Waco for Oklahoma he didn’t even have enough money to pay the two recent law school grads who’d defended him.

The first Tulsa version of the Texas Playboys was something of a punk outfit. Wills’s biographer Charles R. Townsend writes in San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976), “One fine musician, who later played in the Wills band for more than twenty years, remembered…’No one in the band could play.’ Wills himself admitted he often had to clown in order to cover up its many mistakes.” But as the decades passed, as Wills briefly outsold Louis Armstrong, flirted with glamour in Hollywood, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he never wavered from the radical invention of his time in Tulsa–a blend of black and white folk music played with such an infectious beat that anyone with a pulse was compelled to dance to it.

By the fall of 1935, when the Texas Playboys made their first recordings, Wills was close to having the band of his career. It still lacked some of the musicianship he would build in the early 40s with big bands to rival those of Bob Crosby and Tommy Dorsey, but more than made up for it in energy and edge. The early Playboys were pioneers of a new sound, mixing folk-fiddle breakdowns and Dixieland jazz with blues tunes and rhythms heard previously only on “race records.” Wills expected band members to thrill him with their “hokum” improvisations, and his jabber and jive and trademark ah-haaas were a soloist’s reward for surprising or pleasing him.

Pioneers get shot at, and fellow musicians were among the first to fire on the Playboys: claiming that what they played wasn’t proper music, the Tulsa musicians’ union denied them membership for almost two years. Record company executives and the Nashville establishment took aim too. The Playboys were among the first to mix fiddles and guitars with horns, and are credited with introducing drums to country music. To keep this lineup intact, Wills had to threaten to walk out on his first recording sessions with the Brunswick label and his Grand Ole Opry debut; the men in charge of both eventually capitulated.

Throughout his career Wills resisted recording in Music City because, as he’d tell Townsend, “That damn bunch in Nashville just ruins my music.” He felt Nashville studio musicians, steeped in the popular country-music idiom, were unable to reproduce his eclectic style, particularly the rhythm element. He so successfully confounded the music industry’s efforts to squeeze him into a salable category that his records were ignored by both country-and-western and pop radio stations. But Wills was a hit with fans–his live radio performances and word of mouth generated a reputation that sold out halls wherever he went. By the mid-40s he could rake in more than $10,000 a night, yet his fifth wife, Betty, told Townsend that in their 32 years of marriage she never saw a royalty check for more than $4,000.

Like most other big bands, the Texas Playboys broke up to serve in World War II. Shortly afterward, television dealt the dance-hall era its final blows; Wills found himself in tax trouble and in 1952 sold his Dallas dance hall to Jack Ruby. He continued to tour, but his recording career was in decline, and in 1969 he suffered the first in a series of strokes. (He died in 1975 and was buried, as requested, in Tulsa.)

Subsequent generations have found Wills amusing when they’ve found him at all, and in recent decades his fan base has been limited to country-music geeks and the dwindling numbers of his original devotees. But there have been periodic revivals: in 1973 Wills (by then confined to a wheelchair) participated in one of two recording sessions of a Playboys reunion in Dallas. The result was a two-album set on United Artists called For the Last Time. Three musicians at those sessions also had been at the Playboys’ first. And in 1994, Liberty Records released a boxed set of Wills’s 1960-’61 reunion recording sessions with his best lead singer, Tommy Duncan.

Now new interest in old country music and the swing-dancing renaissance are making Wills’s music fun all over again–and the Wills music that’s the most fun is still the eccentric, jump-country-jazz that was born in Tulsa. Jon Langford first discovered Bob Wills much as Scotsman Duncan McLean does in his 1997 book Lone Star Swing, finding the rare record in a junk shop that sent “jolts of electricity” down his spine. Langford’s fascination with old American country music first found expression on the Mekons’ 1983 EP, The English Dancing Master. The band continued referencing the genre through Fear and Whiskey (1985), The Edge of the World (1986), and Honky Tonkin’ (1987), and in ’88 Langford finally gave in to it altogether and assembled a Europe-only release of Johnny Cash covers, ‘Til Things Are Brighter, with vocals by guests like Marc Almond and Michelle Shocked. Langford, now a Chicago resident, introduced the Pine Valley Cosmonauts in 1995 with another album of Cash covers, Misery Loves Company (on the German label Scout), and as a visual artist has focused almost exclusively on country-music themes in his paintings and prints. One recurring motif in Langford’s artwork is Wills signing a contract–a metaphor, he says, for “the fulcrum” over which musicians make the transition from freedom to servitude, from artistic expression to commercial viability.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Commercial radio formats have proliferated, but as Langford has illustrated with the Mekons, his loud country band the Waco Brothers, and the Cosmonauts, it’s still possible to elude them all. The genre stereotype of commercial country music has changed radically since Wills’s time, and Langford is even harsher than Wills was on the prevailing aesthetic. In their “Death of Country Music,” the Wacos contend that Nashville isn’t content to merely murder the music, but has also done unspeakable things to its corpse.

By comparison, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills is not particularly polemical, though a careful listener might infer a reprimand to the industry from Bob Boyd’s poignant vocals on “Hang Your Head in Shame,” a tune by Fred Rose (of Acuff-Rose). Boyd, a surviving member of Chicago country forefathers the Sundowners, intones, “Does your conscience ever bother you / Every time you hear my name? / Try to think of all that I’ve been through / And hang your head in shame.”

Still, Boyd’s track is primarily just one foot tapper among 19. The tribute opens with a country rhythm-and-string intro and Jon Langford hollering, in the manner of Bob Wills, “Ah here’s Chris Mills and his ‘Home in San Antone.'” Urban hayseed hunk Mills, with his rock-raw voice, does the song a certain justice, but the track is most interesting for its structure, which Wills would have loved. In an instrumental break, Langford calls on the Cosmonauts in turn. “Ah, steel it away,” Langford cries to kick off Mark Durante’s pedal-steel solo. John Rice follows on fiddle, then comes Paul Mertens on clarinet; later trumpeter Dave Crawford joins the fray for a full-on final ragtime chorus.

Angel-voiced fellow Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore salutes Wills with a soulful rendering of “Trouble in Mind,” a country-blues standard written by Richard Jones–an early member of Louis Armstrong’s band–that Wills often recorded. Drummer Steve Goulding and upright bassist Tom Ray all but call out where to put your feet with their driving, low-down-swing timekeeping, and Rice, the first fiddle player in the phone book of any Chicago band with country aspirations, reveals some criminally overlooked jazz guitar chops. Robbie Fulks tears through “Across the Alley From the Alamo” and leaves not one adobe brick standing. Langford delivers what may be his first cover of a love song, “Sweet Kind of Love,” demonstrating at times a tender melodicism that may surprise fans familiar only with his lovable-hooligan act.

“Steel Guitar Rag” turns loose the Cosmonaut instrumentalists on a product of Wills’s nurturing leadership, a quality Langford is said to share. The song’s author, guitarist Leon McAuliffe, was just 18 when the Playboys moved to Tulsa. Wills asked him to play steel and “make something out of it.” McAuliffe had not yet even named the tune when Wills had him play it on the Playboys’ first Tulsa radio broadcast.

Lone Star punk balladeer Alejandro Escovedo delivers Wills’s most poetic song, “San Antonio Rose,” with an assist from Langford. Although the tempo is a hair slower than Wills often played it, Escovedo’s ordinarily passionate voice still seems cramped by the pace. Wills based “San Antonio Rose” on “Spanish Two Step,” which he’d written while living in New Mexico in the late 20s. There he’d played drums in a group that included Mexican folk musicians. When he first recorded it as an instrumental in 1938, the melody so captivated Irving Berlin that Wills was persuaded to sell publishing rights to him. “San Antonio Rose” then languished through a comedy of errors which, according to Townsend, remain an embarrassment to Berlin’s publishing firm. Once Wills put lyrics to the tune, it became his most famous song. The Ventures recorded it and the Apollo 12 astronauts sang it in space, but by then Wills was no longer reaping the benefits, having sold any claim he had left to it in 1950 to pay off the IRS.

Wills never really explored how female vocalists might interpret his music, but Langford has chosen several who do it proud. Emerging diva Kelly Hogan sings “Drunkard’s Blues” with characteristic conviction and goose-bump-inducing phrasing, and Sally Timms’s mellow croon illuminates “Right or Wrong,” which also includes a saxophone and trumpet break with the punch big-band horns had before they got old and too serious. The Meat Purveyors’ Joan of Arkansas renders “Take Me Back to Tulsa” with a pneumatic sultriness that gives the lie to the line “I’m too young to marry.”

The biggest surprise on the record may be singer-songwriter Edith Frost. Much of the appeal of her own songs relies on the precarious vulnerability of her voice, but on “My Window Faces the South,” she sounds astonishingly like Les Paul’s partner Mary Ford–solid on the melody, spandex-tight on the harmony, and relentless as a dust storm.

Yet another woman, former Texas Ruby Jane Baxter Miller, closes the salute in harmony with Mekon Rico Bell and Brendan Croker on Wills’s oldest song, “Faded Love.” Written with his father, the song is likely one of the first Wills ever performed in public–when, at age ten, he stood in for his dad, who was too drunk to play a dance.

Despite his rocky relationship with Nashville, Wills has been belatedly toasted several times from deep in the heart of the industry: in 1970, Merle Haggard released A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills), and 24 years later, on the cusp of the country rock revival, Asleep at the Wheel headed up a glossy, star-studded tribute featuring surviving Texas Playboys Eldon Shamblin, who died in August, and fiddler Johnny Gimble who, ironically, has continued to insinuate the familiar Playboy sound into Nashville recording sessions. Chet Atkins, Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, Haggard, Huey Lewis, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton, and George Strait contributed their favorite Wills songs; two tunes off the album won Grammys.

But it’s taken a cast of fellow outsiders to capture Wills’s true strengths. With the raucously unsentimental Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts have accomplished what the man himself spent a lifetime trying to do: they’ve taken him back to Tulsa.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ Bob Wills; Jon Langford photo by Casey Orr.