Legends of Western Swing
The Vinyl Word welcomes Boston-based Noah Schaffer as a guest contributor. Noah is a regular visitor to soul gigs in the UK and to festivals in the US. He is a regular contributor to the Arts Fuse in Boston.
What’s a Texas western swing dance without the beer?
It’s still a lot of fun, at least if it’s at the annual Legends of Texas Swing Festival in Wichita Falls.
89-year old promoter Gloria Miers and her late husband Dewey started the event to provide a family-friendly alternative to the smoke-filled Texas ice houses and honky tonks where western swing was traditionally heard. Presenting live music with no alcohol sales revenue isn’t an easy task, and raffles, vendors and auctions help make up the difference.
The festival has switched homes a few times over its decades-long existence. It currently resides at the Wichita Falls Multi-Purpose Event Center, which true to its name was also hosting a dog contest in another part of the facility. While perhaps lacking the personality of a classic Texas beer hall, the MPEC had enough space for multiple dance floors and enough air conditioning to combat the intense June heat. While some patrons sat in folding chairs in front of the stage, many others brought lawn chairs which they placed around the circumference of the dance floor for easy access as soon as the band kicked into “Faded Love” – which happened during nearly every set.
Each of the three days featured three bands performing both an afternoon and an evening set. Thursday, which I missed, focused on some of the genre’s younger talent which is keeping western swing alive: the Hot Club of Cowtown, former Asleep at the Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts and bassist Jake Hooker and his Outsiders.
Friday included well-received sets from veteran area bandleader Eddie McAlvain and the Mavericks (including his annual salute to veterans) and hard-working multi-instrumentalist Bobby Flores and his Yellow Rose Band (pictured below), who besides his honky tonk showed off his impressive jazz chops with Wes Montgomery’s “Unit 7.”
Friday’s headliner was the most famous western swing band of them all, Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Today the aggregation is led by 87-year old Leon Rausch, who sang with Wills in the 50’s and then returned in the mid 70’s, and 83-year old guitarist Tommy Allsup. Besides his time with Wills, Allsup is perhaps best known for his role in a yarn which claims he lost a coin toss to Richie Valens and was denied a seat on the flight that crashed, killing Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. (Allsup’s version of the somewhat-disputed story and the rest of his career are detailed in the 2010 book “Flip of a Coin.”)
Between Rausch’s classic country vocals and Allsup’s bluesy guitar sound, the current 9-piece Texas Playboys are as musically adventurous and rewarding as ever, with their revolutionary blend of jazz, blues and hillbilly music still at the forefront. Besides Wills classics like “Corrina Corrina” and “Milk Cow Blues” the group also offered the gospel of “How Great Thou Art” and their take on “Honky Tonk.” Allsup stepped to the mike for versions of “Raining in My Heart” and “Big Boss Man.”
Like many other classic American genres, western swing is just if not more popular oversees than in the land of its birth. This year the international scene was represented by the UK’s high-energy Swing Commanders, whose retro World War II-era presentation created a strong bond with the older audience members.
Saturday’s biggest star power came from Johnny Bush (pictured below), who at 80 is one of the last Texas country greats still performing. A former Ray Price sideman, Bush also co-wrote and first recorded “Whiskey River.” (Willie Nelson returns the favor by having Bush perform each year at his 4th of July picnic.) Surprisingly that song wasn’t on the set list during Bush’s afternoon set, but there were plenty of his other classics like “Jim, Jack, and Rose” and a moving version of fellow Texan Tony Booth’s “Secret Love.”
Bush also offered some tracks from his recent recordings on the Heart of Texas label, which has been issuing valuable new recordings from veteran honky tonkers. Especially effective was a cover of the Derailers’ tale of a hard-touring Lone Star troubadour “All the Rage in Paris.”
The afternoon session concluded with Dave Alexander, who is a major star in Texas but receives little exposure in the other 49 states. His versatile Big Texas Swing Band included everything from Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” to a New Orleans-style “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” And Alexander boasted yet another Wills album in his horn section: 92-year old Billy Briggs.
At the start of the supper break I departed for a very different musical experience on my itinerary: Dallas soul-blues great R.L. Griffin’s Blues Palace in Dallas, which features the infamous Hen Dance at the end of every evening. For more information on future editions of Ms. Miers’ festival visit her new website at http://thelegendsofwesternswing.com/ or join the Facebook group. Photos courtesy of Beth Miers Hague.