BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS > The Tiffany Transcriptions

It’s impossible to get a well-rounded understanding of a musician unless you can hear the artist both in the studio and on the stage-chasing formal perfection in the one and spontaneously engaging an audience on the other. And because so few decent-sounding live recordings are available from country artists before 1960, it can be difficult to get that full perspective. But there’s a solution to this problem. Most older country acts taped live radio shows in good studios with the off-the-cuff improvisation of a live concert.











Label: COLLECTORS’ CHOICE

Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s impossible to get a well-rounded understanding of a musician unless you can hear the artist both in the studio and on the stage-chasing formal perfection in the one and spontaneously engaging an audience on the other. And because so few decent-sounding live recordings are available from country artists before 1960, it can be difficult to get that full perspective. But there’s a solution to this problem. Most older country acts taped live radio shows in good studios with the off-the-cuff improvisation of a live concert.

When Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings were released last year as a three-CD, 54-song box set, these hi-fi radio shows from 1951 revealed a whole new side of Hank-new songs and a new carefree attitude that hinted at the rock and roll just around the corner. The same revelations can be had from the new box set from another country giant, Bob Wills: The Tiffany Transcriptions. The 150 songs on these 10 CDs were recorded in a San Francisco studio in 1946-47 and sent out to radio stations in an early attempt at syndication. Because these performances were meant to be heard once on the radio and then forgotten, they were done without rehearsals and tight arrangements, as if it were just another date on the bandstand. Unveiling new songs and a proto-rock sound, these tracks are far looser and jokier than the band’s studio work.

Unlike the Williams radio shows, the Wills transcriptions had been released before-first on vinyl by Kaleidoscope Records in 1984 and then on CD by Rhino Records in 1993-but now they come in a box with a 16-page booklet featuring interviews with many of the players. And once you hear these hard-swinging, freewheeling numbers, you’ll understand why these radio transcriptions meant so much to the members of Merle Haggard & the Strangers, Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky and Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Boys, who all add their testimonies to the package.

Wills’ greatest band was the 1935-41 Texas ensemble that featured such virtuosos as fiddler Jesse Ashlock, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, guitarist Eldon Shamblin, pianist Al Stricklin, drummer Smokey Dacus and baritone singer Tommy Duncan. But after the lean years of World War II, Wills regrouped in northern California and assembled a second great band that by 1947 featured steel guitarist Herb Remington, electric mandolinist Tiny Moore, guitarist Junior Barnard, fiddler Joe Holley, a returning Shamblin and a never departed Duncan. It was Wills’ last moment of glory before alcoholism and shifting musical tastes undercut him in the ‘50s.

While Wills’ commercial releases stuck close to the cowboy imagery and sound of his earliest hits, these radio shows reveal just how broad his tastes were. Especially revealing are the adaptations of such African-American hits as Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” where the hillbilly musicians nail the syncopation and the fiddles and steel guitars function like jazz horns. No wonder Wills’ country songs sounded so different from those coming out of Nashville at the same time.

These were big bands with 11-13 musicians, but they were never cumbersome, for Wills rehearsed the rhythm section incessantly and kept everyone on their toes on stage by shouting out unexpected requests for solos and then testing his soloists and vocalists with wisecracks. You can hear this process on the transcriptions; Duncan breaks into helpless laughter more than once, but the soloists stretch out longer and more adventurously than they ever did in the studio. When they were cooking, as on “Fat Boy Rag” or “Keep Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In),” you could hear hints of the rollicking, race-mixing records soon to come from Bill Haley & the Comets and Jerry Lee Lewis.