As singer, fiddler, and bandleader of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills played the same fatherly role to western swing that Bill Monroe did to bluegrass. No one is sure if he invented the music itself, but it's clear that the recordings of his Texas Playboys have since come to define the genre. As a musical hybrid, western swing introduced blues and country music to big band jazz and swing, polishing the results to achieve an urban sophistication necessary for broad appeal.
The King of Western Swing is a fine overview of Wills' first decade as a recording artist. It begins (after an introductory "New San Antonio Rose") at his first session in 1935 with "Osage Stomp" and ends in 1945 with the dates that produced "Roly Poly," "Stay a Little Longer," and "New Spanish Two-Step." In between, Wills and his 13- to 18-piece band swing through some of their most popular songs. Early recordings drew most heavily from country and blues. In the tradition that brought this rural music into the city in refined form, the Texas Playboys recorded sweet-coated material like "Never No More Hard Times Blues," "Fan It," and "Sugar Blues." As the group grew in size, it developed a fuller big band sound that embraced both popular material (Leon Huff's quivering croon on "We Might as Well Forget") and conventional swing ("Whoa Baby," "Big Beaver").
The atmosphere they create on these early recordings is contagiously carefree. Steel guitars and fiddle solo over hopping, swing tempos alongside trumpets and slide trombones. The smooth voice of Tommy Duncan (one of Wills' vocal mainstays) delivers the dry humor of "Roly Poly" ("daddy's little fatty") and the melancholy of the sublime "Dusty Skies" with the same straight face. Overseeing all of this is Wills himself. When not lending his golden fiddle to a song, he's shouting encouragement, commentary, and praise ("Aaaaah ha! Swing it on out, boys!"). The King of Western Swing is one of the most satisfying single-disc collections of Bob Wills and his band in their prime. Blending the worlds of country, blues, and jazz, the 25 cuts bring together stomping instrumentals, novelty numbers, and the Playboys' biggest hits from the period.