My earliest memory of western swing legend Bob Wills is from a record shop I worked at in the late 80s, where a couple of my coworkers responded to every one of the bandleader’s frequent interjections—“Well, all right,” “Aw, yeah,” “Yes,” “Yes, yes,” or “Uh huh”—with a resigned “shut up, Bob.” That response makes loads of sense after listening to Legends of Country Music, the terrific career-spanning box set that Columbia/Legacy released earlier this year. But while that particular aspect of Wills’s musical personality could be irritating, his repertoire, rhythmic sophistication, and killer band more than compensated.
While I prefer Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies—Brown was the original lead vocalist for Wills, but he was soon eclipsed by Tommy Duncan, who stuck with the band for decades—this is the body of work that most often represents the beauty and joy of western swing, one of the most crucial building blocks of honky-tonk. This four-disc, 105-song set includes all the hits--from “Steel Guitar Rag” to “New San Antonio Rose”—with plenty of hot playing from the great steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe. While Wills's sizeable oeuvre has been mercilessly excavated over the years, I had never before heard “Crippled Turkey,” a 1936 instrumental where his modal violin playing sounds like John Cale taking a stab at old-timey music . Some of the later material—from the 50s on—descends into pure hokum, but by then Wills had already cemented his importance.
Among Wills's many disciples was fellow Texan Waylon Jennings, who saluted him with “Bob Wills Is Still the King” in 1974. It’s one of 92 tracks on another Legacy box set, Waylon's own Nashville Rebel. Jennings will always be known as the progenitor of country music’s outlaw movement, and the collection features some classics from Honky Tonk Heroes, the 1973 album that announced his break with Nashville. But the first disc covers his early years, back when he didn’t have the cojones to flaut convention so brazenly. There’s a cut with Buddy Holly, who was the first to hire Jennings, and plenty more from the days before he grew out his hair and lambchop sideburns.
As a denizen of the 70s, Jennings cut his fair share of dreck, and it’s hard to know why someone thought it necessary to include his take on “MacArthur Park” here. Then again, his theme from “The Dukes of Hazzard” still sounds great. The 142-page booklet is crammed with amazing photos spanning his entire career, with everyone from Muhammad Ali to Metallica’s James Hetfield.