In our current book, Twentieth-Century Honky-Tonk, co-writer Brett Bingham and I devote a good number of pages to the role Tulsa played in the development and popularization of the music that came to be known as western swing. The Oklahoma part of the story started after bandleader Bob Wills brought his group, the Playboys, across the Red River, changing its name to the Texas Playboys and, after a short stint in Oklahoma City, hooking up with the powerful Tulsa radio station KVOO. A year or so afterwards, in 1935, the third leg of the three-legged stool was added: the Cain’s Ballroom, which became the band’s home base and the site of the famed noon shows and dance broadcasts.
The Cain’s was the kitchen where Wills concocted his musical stew, adding ingredients as he went along. Building on a base of Southwestern fiddle music, he threw in dollops of big-band swing, pop, Dixieland jazz, blues, country and Mexican music. His experimental nature led him to try just about anything – as long as people could dance to it. As a result, the western-swing sound cooked up from his ever-changing recipe became wide open and fluid.
Others added and subtracted to the formula, coming up with their own variations. One of the most successful was a singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader named Hank Thompson.
Born 20 years after Wills, Thompson not only played many of the same venues with his Brazos Valley Boys; he also maintained his predecessor’s keen sense of experimentation. Thompson’s lengthy recorded oeuvre includes such outside-the-lines albums as 1972’s Cab Driver (A Salute to the Mills Brothers) and 1975’s Hank Thompson Sings The Hits of Nat King Cole – both tributes to pop artists – and one from 1967 called The Countrypolitan Sound of Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys, a disc with symphonic leanings. (Thompson’s longtime manager, Jim Halsey, has told me the Countrypolitan LP was an effort to expand the band’s audience outside the boundaries of western-swing and country.)
Thompson passed away in 2007, having spent some five decades as a recording artist and live attraction. His Brazos Valley Boys, however, have continued under the direction of bassist and vocalist Morey Sullivan, playing jobs on their own and occasionally releasing new discs. And, just as that experimental musical spirit passed from Bob Wills to Hank Thompson, Thompson’s willingness to work other genres into his music extends to the current version of the Brazos Valley Boys.
For evidence, check out the band’s new disc – its first since 2006. Called Swingin’ Our Way, it features a couple of tunes that’ll be familiar to western-swing fans, “Blues for Dixie” and “Brain Cloudy Blues,” along with 11 others taken from genres ranging from country (the Red Foley hit “Midnight”) to big-band jazz (Johnny Hodges’ “Blues O’Mighty”) to hard bop (Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”) to ’70s rock (“This Masquerade” by Leon Russell). Plenty of classic pop music and a dash of R&B (courtesy of the Ray Charles composition “Hallelujah I Love Her So”) complete the package.
It’s an adventurous collection, and it makes perfect sense to Sullivan. Swingin’ Our Way, he says, “contains material from each genre of music that, together, form western swing: country, Dixieland, big-band swing, jazz and blues. I feel it’s a western-swing ‘roots’ album from the Great American Songbook.
“I took seriously what Hank told me many times: ‘Be yourself; don’t copy anyone,’” he adds. “This CD is exactly that. We are doing our own thing, while honoring the BVB who were before us, and whose shoulders we are on.”
The Brazos Valley Boys have long had strong Oklahoma connections. Not only did Hank Thompson work out of both Oklahoma City and the Tulsa area during various stages of his life; many of his band members – a couple of great ones, fiddler Curly Lewis and drummer Paul McGhee come immediately to mind – hailed from northeastern Oklahoma. Of the current group, steel-guitarist J.D. Walters and trumpeter Mike Moore come from the Tulsa area, as does Gary Sullivan, who not only played drums but also recorded the group in his Broken Arrow studio. Longtime western-swing and jazz guitarist Joe Settlemires, who turns in particularly nice work on “Blues O’Mighty,” is from Oklahoma City. And while Sullivan himself currently resides outside of Kansas City, he spent a good decade, from about 1975 through ’85, in Tulsa. He lived there, in fact, when he started with the Brazos Valley Boys in ’79 – and, like many musical Tulsans in the ’70s, he became acquainted with hometown hero Leon Russell, which might have something to do with the inclusion of “This Masquerade” on Swingin’ Our Way.
“He wasn’t a buddy, but I knew him, and I loved that song and thought it was just so insightful and emotional – just a gut-wrenching song,” says Sullivan. “I thought it ought to be a duet, because it takes two people, in this case, to have a masquerade. So to have both a male singer and a female singer was the obvious thing to do.”
On Swingin’ Our Way, Sullivan’s daughter Elizabeth sings “This Masquerade” with her father. It’s one of the most powerful, and most adventurous, tracks on the album. In fact, Sullivan feels that it’s the most adventurous. And that’s just fine with him.
“We went out and tried to do an album like this because I’m very concerned that western-swing music is just going to flutter off and die someday,” he explains. “I don’t know of a lot of young people who are getting involved in it, or want to be involved in it. There are some, I know, but not a lot. I go to these western-swing festivals, and it’s a bunch of old people like me.” He laughs.
“Three or four years ago,” he adds, “we played with [former Texas Playboys vocalist] Leon Rausch at the western-swing festival in Snyder, Texas. Leon wanted to open the show, so we opened and then I listened to two or three bands after us, and we all played just about the same songs, you know? I love that music, but it struck me that we’re doing the same old stuff, over and over again, without including new tunes. And we’ve got to include them to get the attention of younger people, who would love western swing if they were exposed to it.”
Sullivan knows that this approach doesn’t come without risks. He remembers his former boss telling him about what happened when the Thompson album of Mills Brothers covers came out.
“Hank told me himself that he was lambasted by the purists, the western-swing purists,” recalls Sullivan. “He was out of the boundaries of his caste.”
The same thing, Sullivan notes, happened to his own band at another western-swing festival south of the Red River.
“One of the instrumentals we were doing was a song by [jazz great] Miles Davis, ‘Kinda Blue,’” he remembers. “And we heard that we were not welcome in the future because we did a Miles Davis tune. Now, we were doing all the regular old [western-swing] tunes, but when we did that, somebody just didn’t like it, didn’t like the fact that we were doing things beyond the normal catalog.”
Sullivan and the rest of the band might run into the same sort of resistance from some quarters with their new disc. That doesn’t, however, seem to concern its leader at all.
“You know, I don’t care any more if I’m in trouble, because I truly believe what we’re doing is what we ought to do,” he says. “I’m not going to just fall in line and try to sound like Bob Wills every time we play, or even try to sound like the old Brazos Valley Boys every time we play. Everything – including the tectonic plates of Earth – are moving and changing. We have to change as well. As the old saying goes, ‘if you’re sitting still, you’re going backwards.’”
Information on Swingin’ Our Way can be found at brazosvalleyboys.com.