Bob Wills occupies a distinctive niche in American fiddle annals. To many in the Southwest he is still “the king.” Otherwise knowledgeable old time fiddlers don’t even know he was an expert in that genre and grew up in the tradition. Still others think he played the swing solos on Texas Playboys recordings. (He did not.)
Wills is one of very few in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. He inspired countless imitators, from Merle Haggard to Tommy Jackson and most every Texas and Nashville fiddler in the mid-20th century. Merle Haggard’s Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddler in the World
inspired a Wills renaissance in the 1970s (and introduced Johnny Gimble to the greater fiddle world). Haggard even learned to play a credible version of Wills’ style (link #1
This article highlights the breadth of Wills’ fiddle repertoire and some characteristics of his playing style. Please refer to fiddle.com/Tune-sound-video-files.page
to listen to many examples (direct links are provided in this online excerpt).
James Robert Wills was born March 6, 1905, near Kosse, Limestone County, Texas, and died May 13, 1975. The genesis of all the peculiarities of his approach is a matter of conjecture, though much of it certainly came from his extended family. Many older relatives were fiddlers and there seem to have been many pieces that were unique to them.
Bob’s father “Uncle John” Wills (1880-1952), who was born in Oklahoma, was likely his strongest influence. Both father and grandfather insisted on his using the full bow as opposed to what was referred to as the “jiggy” bowing of the Southeast. Bob eventually developed even smoother bowing than his relatives.
Uncle John was a respected contest and dance fiddler. When challenged at the former, he sometimes would tune up as much as three half-steps to make his fiddle sound more brilliant. He reportedly would holler a fiddle-sounding harmony during his contest rounds in order to fool the judges and audience (whose reaction often figured into scoring) into thinking he was playing double stops.
Bob Wills started on mandolin, chording for his father at ranch house dances when he was as young as six. Often, after a day of picking cotton, his father would bring him along to dances that lasted well past midnight. Quoting Bob, “I’d be playing with blood running down that little mandolin.” At around 11 years of age his father didn’t show, and Bob played his first solo dance.
Traveling to dances and contests with his father, Bob heard greats like Eck Robertson and Red Steeley. This was the fiddle environment in which Bob Wills grew up.
Along with his father and brothers, Bob would often hire out to pick cotton for local farmers. Working alongside Afro-Americans, Bob heard a lot of blues in an area that was a cradle of that genre. He acknowledged that hearing his black neighbors singing during and after work had a profound effect on the way he played and the repertoire of his Texas Playboys. He considered blues to be a fundamental aspect of his fiddling and the way he handled slides to be a reflection of this. A probably apocryphal story has it that he once rode 50 miles on horseback to see Bessie Smith perform. It is true that his first recording was one of her tunes (though unissued).
When he barbered (an occupation that famously allows plenty of time to fiddle between haircuts) in New Mexico around 1927, Wills heard Mexican string bands and he played for and with Mexicans. While not as strong an influence on his fiddling as his family and local blues, it resulted in tunes he eventually recorded, like “Spanish Two Step” (and thus “San Antonio Rose”), and his penchant for multiple, harmonized fiddles.
Returning to Texas, Wills worked in medicine shows, one of which already had a “Jim” in the cast. The manager chose to use Wills’ middle name and thus he became “Bob,” which stuck. Much of his stage persona was established during this period. He learned how to grab and keep an audience’s attention.
Because his band, the Texas Playboys, was the most influential western swing group for so long, many fans assume that Wills was a jazz-type fiddler. (The term “western swing” was introduced in the late 1940s. On record labels his music was referred to as “hot string band.”) To the contrary, it seems that he always worked out his solos in advance and they were not melodically advanced or rhythmically adventurous. He never learned to improvise, though he wished he could.
However, his style is unique and recognizable within a few seconds (unless you are listening to an imitator). His tune settings are creative, delivered with smooth bowing and, often, metric crookedness. One anecdote gives evidence of the last quality. Cecil Brower, one of the greats of western swing fiddle, reportedly had a very short stint with the Texas Playboys when he had the effrontery to question Wills’ rhythmic quirkiness in front of the rest of the band. When Wills soloed, you played with him – Wills did not play with you.
His repertoire included an amazing variety of tune types. His first available recording, from 1932, was with the Fort Worth Doughboys (named for a sponsor). This quartet was a sort of proto-western swing band. Over the years, Bob’s fiddling on pop tunes like “Nancy Jane” didn’t change much from this recording with Milton Brown’s vocal and two rhythm guitars. His six(!) solos are identical and it is a stretch to find any classic swing elements. (See link #2
The first recording of the Texas Playboys was a Wills deconstruction of a Memphis Jug Band piece titled “Ruckus Juice and Chittlins” (link #3
). In 1935 Wills coined it “Osage Stomp” and changed the key from D to F. This kind of Afro-American-derived hokum was as close as Wills came to fiddling in a jazz style.
Just two days later he recorded “Smith’s Reel” as a straight hoedown accompanied only by Sleepy Johnson’s guitar. This is probably how Wills sounded at dances in his teen years; right in the rhythmic pocket, smooth, long bow strokes but few slurs. This “saw” bowing was probably typical of his southwestern peers but atypical of most of his later recorded solos. Wills played no variations to speak of (except when recovering from a mistake about two-thirds of the way through).
More typical of his bowing is one of the band’s most popular fiddle pieces, “Ida Red” (see 8:10 in link #4
). He begins his first A section with a down bow but the other sections with up bows! Even though the rhythm is laying down a swing groove, the fiddling is straight southwest old time. There are plenty of slurred passages with an occasional measure of sawing. Typically the band adds floating, often nonsense, verses and hot solos that relate to the chords, not to the melody.
Though the music on this clip was likely recorded prior to filming, Wills seldom varied his playing, so you are likely watching an accurate example of his bowing as well as his manic, hyper-jive-y and beloved stage character. His playing often involved much body language and occasional violin wiggling.
Wills seems to have employed the upper half of his bow almost exclusively. He often used (counting in cut time) multiple, consecutive bow strokes of 1/4 to dotted 1/4 note duration, including two or three notes per stroke, but with occasional strokes of longer duration. These slurs were not random. Changes of bow directions often happened on off beats, adding a subtle syncopation to the flow of notes. Occasionally there were two or three consecutive strokes of dotted 1/4 note length, the classic country hemiola. There are many passages of sawing but these long bows and their metric placement are crucial to his distinctive sound.
Check out his idiosyncratic version of “Wake Up Susan,” aka “Jack of Diamonds,” at around 6:35 in the same clip as “Ida Red” (link #4
). (Thanks to Vivian Williams and Howard Marshall for the identification.) “Wake Up Susan” segues into a double fiddle “Liberty.” Note how Joe Holley was able to synchronize his bowing with Wills’. Though eccentric, Wills is consistent. You can see that Holley is paying attention to Wills’ bow direction. Pretty cool, especially considering that Holley is playing a right-handed violin from the left-hand side!
Wills performed one of his family tunes, “Gone Indian,” in his first film appearance in 1940 and his exuberance is at its most frenzied (at 26:30 in link #5
“Gone Indian” was one of his fiddle tunes that Wills converted (probably with a lot of help from guitarist Eldon Shamblin) to a hit song, “Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer” (58:35 of the same clip: link #5
). The key is transposed from D to G but the fingering is similar to “Gone Indian,” just one string lower. (At 6:20 of this same video is a short clip of a square dance in 1930 New Mexico – an authentic glimpse into the fiddle/guitar style of Wills’ milieu.)
Then there are “cowboy blues” like “Bob Wills Special,” which exhibits some of the characteristics that were later adapted by commercial fiddlers. Where did this come from? I have only heard this sort of lonesome feel from Wills. It is not in blues form and has only a few blues notes, but it certainly is bluesy. And, boy, are his solos ever crooked!
Bob takes the first and last solos and lead on the twin fiddle section, with either Jesse Ashlock or Louis Tierney harmonizing (link #6
Through the years, Wills kicked off many Texas Playboys recordings that were otherwise in pop, blues, and country genres; always sounding like the eccentric, hip Southwest old time fiddler he was, never like a jazz fiddler. For fine examples listen to “Never No More Blues,” “Who Walks In When I Walk Out,” “Old Fashioned Love,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “What’s the Matter Mill,” “Rockin’ Alone,” “Right or Wrong,” and many more.
[For the rest of Stacy Phillips’ in-depth look at Bob Wills’ fiddling, along with several more audio/video examples and transcriptions of three tunes (“Osage Stomp,” “Smith’s Reel,” and “That Brownskin Gal”) purchase the spring 2018 issue, or subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!
[[Stacy Phillips is a Grammy-winning fiddler and dobroist. His many instructional books and downloads are available on his web site at stacyphillips.com/fiddlebooks.html and stacyphillips.com/downloads.html. On dobro he is known for his instantly recognizable style. He began to teach himself violin in his late 20s and has been struggling to catch up to his younger students ever since.]
[The Bob Wills Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 2008 to further Bob Wills’ legacy. Currently, the Heritage Foundation sanctions the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in Greenville, Texas, the Bob Wills Day Fiddle Contest in Turkey, Texas, and Bob Wills Divisions in the Colorado Old-time Fiddlers’ Association State Fiddle Championships in Denver and the Oklahoma State Fiddle Championships in Tulsa. For more information about Bob Wills and the Heritage Foundation, visit bobwills.com
Photo courtesy of OKPOP Museum & Estate of Bob Wills.