There are multiple potential kings of country music, with Roy Acuff, George Strait and even Elvis Presley among the possible wearers of the crown. Yet of the artists lauded as royalty, none ruled over their chosen sound quite like the king of Western swing, Bob Wills.
From the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Wills and his band the Texas Playboys blended western music with jazz and Big Band instrumentation; what Wills called “Texas fiddle music” became known as western swing. As the leader of a sub-genre, Wills kept fiddle at the forefront of country music while fronting a band inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wills’ music inspired fellow legends (Merle Haggard) and future torchbearers (Asleep at the Wheel) with a sound that transcends genres and helped secure Texas’ spot on the country music map. In the process, he proved that straying from his hillbilly roots and embracing outside influences could equal both short-term chart success and a future as a multi-genre tastemaker.
With such royal accolades in mind, here are five game-changing cuts from Wills’ legendary career:
"New Spanish Two Step"1946
This instrumental exemplifies Wills and his multi-piece band’s blend of country and western sounds with jazz, Big Band music and the blues. Plus, its title acknowledges Texas country’s South of the Border influence.
Any discussion of a musician popular in the ‘40s should address topical songs straight from World War II headlines. This composition by cowboy music legend Zeke Clements became a country hit, first for Red Foley in 1944 and a year later for Wills and his Texas Playboys.
“Ida Red Likes the Boogie”1949
This follow-up to Wills’ interpretation of the fiddle tune “Ida Red” encourages something less old-fashioned than buck dancing with its hip-shaking bass line and its proto-rock themes. It’s a good example of why Wills and his Texas Playboys reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as early influencers.
Those massive Texas dancehalls hosted slow dances whenever Wills led the band through this gorgeous slice of country music sentimentality. It sounds as powerful in Wills’ catalog as it did later as a Top 10 single for another jazz-influenced country legend, Patsy Cline.
"New San Antonio Rose"1938
“New San Antonio Rose” reached far beyond the western swing scene. It was covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to Clint Eastwood, and even got broadcast during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969 by the third man to walk on the moon, Pete Conrad.