The Man Who Would Be Swing
A new play gives Ray Benson the chance, finally, to chat with the King, Bob Wills
Any Texas schoolchild will tell you that Texas was a republic well before it was a state, and the independent, hearty spirit that sets Texans apart is as alive today as when pioneers defended the walls of that tiny mission against Santa Anna’s army.
Writer Anne Rapp is Texan through and through, born and raised on a farm in West Texas, and while Ray Benson is, as he says, “a Jewish kid from Philadelphia,” he looks and sounds like what many outside the state imagine a Texan to be: big, burly, bass-voiced, a presence much larger than life. For the uninitiated, Benson, along with his band Asleep at the Wheel, is the foremost modern purveyor of Western swing, that joyful, exuberant dance music so closely identified with the fiddle and the steel guitar. Together, Rapp and Benson have penned a tribute to Bob Wills, the originator of Western swing, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated on March 6. I’ll let them tell you why.
Ray Benson: Right here in this room, Casey Monahan of the Texas Music Office told me, “Bob Wills is having his hundredth birthday next year.” And I went, “Oh shit. I gotta do somethin’.” Because, you know, that’s what Asleep at the Wheel is known for. I was going to do another Bob Wills tribute album, but I thought, “I can’t get this album ready by March 6. What can I do?” We thought about a big tribute show or a television show, but Anne and I knew it wasn’t gonna get done in the way we would want to get it done in the time frame and for the money. So I started thinking about a play. We sat down with Sarah Bird, a great Austin writer who had done a lot of research on Bob. We started talking about the time that I went to meet him, long ago. We had just put out our first record, and they wheeled him out, he’s in a wheelchair. He was kind of slumped over, and they said, “He’s not feeling well, we’re going to take him back to his room.” And that night he had a stroke, and he died two years later.
Anne Rapp: And he never spoke another word after that stroke.
RB: So I never got a chance to talk with him. And Sarah says, “There’s your play. It’s the conversation you never got to have.”
AR: And we set it on a ride to Tulsa. What better place to do it than on the bus traveling? Ray had some questions he wanted to ask Bob, and he gets a few answers. And we find out Bob had some questions for Ray, and Bob gets a few answers.
RB: And it’s historically accurate, so whatever scene we’re playing, the music would have been played in that time period.
AR: In the course of it we learn the history of the songs that Bob played and wrote. It’s not really a traditional play. And it’s not really a traditional musical, because in a traditional musical, the music is written for the story. We hear some of Bob’s songs, and some of them just underscore the scenes.
Austin Chronicle: So if this isn't a traditional musical or traditional play, what is it?AR: We're doing our own little it's more of a, it's like a pusical or something.
AC: [Laughter.] It's a pusical!RB: Like a play and a musical! AR: It's our own thing. RB: I'd hate to see that written. A pusical by Anne Rapp.
[Considerable laughter.]AR: And with this music, we were halfway there when we started. It's so powerful. But the other half is trying to show his amazing history and his connection with Ray. RB: And how important he was to Texas and to Texans.
AC: I get the sense that, when you almost got to talk with him, you felt some kind of torch being passed.RB: At the time I was 22 years old, so it never really sank in until much later. And sometimes people ask me, "How can a kid, a Yankee from Philadelphia, be carrying the torch of Bob Wills? You have to be born here." And I say, well, that's sort of like saying Van Cliburn can't be playing classical musical 'cause he's from Fort Worth.
AC: You both obviously have a great passion and love for your subject. Why do you feel this is so important to Texas and to Texans?RB: This music really started to germinate during the 1800s, when the fiddle was what I call the lead guitar. AR: The frontier fiddle, that was the main instrument when this area was settled. RB: Because you could carry it easily and there were thousands of them made. Texas fiddling is its own little genre, it's not bluegrass, it's not old-time, it's not Appalachian. Marry that with the minstrel tradition, medicine shows, Mexican corridos, mariachis, those "Ah-haas!!" That's what's called a grito, it's what the Mexicans did when they vocalized, and still do today. Then you take the New Orleans-Mississippi Delta blues and what you call field hollers. Poor white people would work with black people and be exposed to that culture every day, and that was the case with Bob. He was pickin' cotton, being exposed to this whole other culture. Add to that the popular music on the radio. You gotta think, in 1915, when Bob was 10, radio was just coming in.
Another thing about Bob is that his career follows the emergence of Texas from its rural beginnings to the industrial state it is now, based on oil-rich land. From the ranch dancing and bar dancing of an agrarian, rural economy to ballrooms. The oil started gushing and people all of a sudden had electricity, and they electrified their guitars. Bob Wills was in essence a jazz, blues, big-band leader who happened to start out in the string band tradition of Texas and then metamorphosed into this thing that is Bob Wills, this incredible form of music, which is probably the only original form of music that ever came out of Texas. When I play people video of Bob, they go, "Holy shit!" He was unbelievably dynamic. He was the Elvis Presley of his day. In an era when singers crossed their legs and sat there or just stood up and sang, he was prancing around like a peacock. Bob Wills was the antithesis of the white swing-band tightass, and here he was in a cowboy hat.
AC: So the history of Bob Wills is expressed in his music. And it's the history of Texas as well.RB: Exactly. It's my history. AR: Yours, too.
A Ride With Bob: From Austin to Tulsa runs March 3-6, Thursday-Sunday, at the State Theater, 713 Congress. For more information, call 866/443-8849 or visit www.gettix.net.