Milestone Recordings in American Music

12/2/09

Western Swing (1935)

While people usually associate big band swing music with jazz, a similar style blossomed in country music around the same time. "Western swing" music developed in Fort Worth, Texas in the early 1930s and by the end of the decade had become one of the most popular styles of country music. (The term “western swing” would not be used to describe the style until the early 1940s, however.) Building upon the traditional, small-group string band, this music featured highly arranged string orchestras reminiscent of jazz big bands, and often featured the same kind of improvised soloing. The best western swing featured amazing musicianship, winning vocals and an incredible sense of energy. It is a style all too often overlooked by modern audiences, but its influence can be seen in honky tonk, bluegrass, and even rock and roll.

Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers
I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart (Conqueror 8575, 1935)

On their own, The Prairie Ramblers were a talented and versatile string band, but it was their work with singer Patsy Montana (real name Ruby Blevins) that is most remembered. “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was Montana’s breakout hit and would become the first record by a female country artist to sell more than a million copies. Both Montana and the Ramblers shine in this incredible performance. Montana’s singing is highly expressive and yet moderated by the melody, which follows a traditional singing cowboy approach. Every time she hits a higher note, the melody reverses and brings her back to the ground with a string of lower ones. However, her singing is only part of the story, as Montana was also an accomplished yodeler. Whenever she yodels there are no such restraints, and she adds a wonderfully addictive new dimension to the melody that explores her full range.

Meanwhile, behind her The Prairie Ramblers ignore the standard singing cowboy convention of simple guitar accompaniment and instead create a lively, full string band sound. The entertaining result falls somewhere between cowboy and old-time country music – and transcends them both. In fact, while the ensemble may be smaller than what is typically found in western swing music, it certainly captures the same energy and hints at that new style’s potential.

~ You may also like: Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, “Wah Hoo” (Bluebird B-6308, 1936)

Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers
Under The Double Eagle(Victor 5945, 1935)

“Under The Double Eagle” is a great early example of western swing. Unlike a lot of the more adventurous records in that style, the solos here are very scripted, but the melody is wonderful and the tightly choreographed band plays it to perfection. After a couple of bars of solo piano, the rhythm section jumps in and bounds through the song with relentless energy. Guitar and fiddle take turns carrying the main melody. The highlight of the song comes when the fiddle solo becomes a duet and the melody changes briefly to resemble what would later become the melody of “You Are My Sunshine.”

~ You may also like: Bill Boyd’s Cowboy Ramblers, “Goofus” (Bluebird B-6328, 1936)

Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies
Brownie’s Stomp(Bluebird B-5775, 1935)

Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies
Down By The O-H-I-O (Decca 5111, 1935)

Milton Brown was one of the forefathers and undisputed masters of western swing. He tragically died from pneumonia following a car accident in 1936 just as his career was taking off, but in his short time as bandleader he created numerous masterpieces. “Brownie’s Stomp” and “Down By The O-H-I-O” are two great examples that feature arrangements with plenty of space for soloing. In “Brownie’s Stomp,” the energy level is at a maximum and the solos come in rapid succession, occasionally punctuated by an interjection (“Yeah!”) from Brown. When the song reaches Fred Calhoun’s piano solo, you realize that the lines between jazz and country have officially been erased.

~ You may also like a somewhat slower recording by the band with more great solos as well as vocals by Brown: Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” (Decca 5201, 1936)

“Down By The O-H-I-O” is nearly as energetic, but features a tighter song structure and Brown on vocals. The lyrics wonderfully set up the solos: “Now I’m gonna take my guitar / Oh, I’m gonna play on my guitar / Oh, I’m gonna really play that thing / Oh, I’m gonna knock off a dozen strings!” Between each line, the band members sing out “Down by the Ohio!” in the background and play their hearts out. Fiddle, guitar, piano and banjo each take fine solos before Bob Dunn appears with the most unusual and best solo of all on an electrically amplified steel guitar. Dunn’s inventive playing on this and several other Brownies recordings was very influential and would help cement the steel guitar’s role in country music.

~ You may also like some more great soloing by Bob Dunn and others: Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, “Taking Off” (Decca 5149, 1935)

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