Gordy Brown is an old friend of Hillbilly at Harvard, and has done enormous service to country music in the region as historian and keeper of memorabilia with his New England Country Music Historical Society (now defunct). But I’ve had to give him the unofficial title of Complainer-in-Chief, because the only time I hear from him is when he feels impelled to complain about something. Today’s complaint concerns the classic Bob Wills instrumental, “Big Beaver.” Gordy writes:
MA Hall of Fame DJ, Lynn Joiner played a big band jazz piece on the 10:30 AM Hillbilly At Harvard show today–not a fiddle or a guitar throughout. Could have been by Bob Crosby & the Bob Cats, or any other big band pop artist of the 40’s if you did not hear the Bob Wills intro.
You will not, however, hear any of the many country standards featuring steel guitar and 5-string banjo from any of the 70 or so albums by Mass. native, Danny Davis his Nashville Brass. Just one of many idiosyncracies and country/bluegrass disconnects Lynn suffers from.
Care to voice your opinion? Email — Hillbilly@WHRB.org
Now I wouldn’t ordinarily post a personal email on this public blog without the writer’s permission, but in this case Gordy obviously sent it to a mailing list (not individually identified), and even invites his recipients to email me with their opinions. That’s fine. I like hearing from listeners, pro and con, though I’m happy that there aren’t too many cons (and most of them are from Gordy). But as far as I’m concerned, it’s already published, and fair game.
In this case, Gordy is absolutely right: Bob Wills’s 1940 recording of “Big Beaver” is big-band, what I call ‘Eastern’, swing. Yet somehow it fits. How can that be?
It will take a bit of explanation. Back in the day, Steve Morse, then of The Boston Globe, asked us what our criteria for including songs on HAH were. “It’s got to be good, and country,” Sinc said. Obviously ‘good’ is subjective. It may surprise you to know that ‘country’ is, too. I spend a good deal of time listening to ‘Americana’ releases, many of which are touted as having country roots, recorded in Nashville with well-known country musicians and producers, and yet few tracks make the ‘country’ cut. Sometimes, even though it’s iffy, to my ear, I might try out a track on HAH, because I think it might work; it may not be very country, but it might be very good.
Obviously there is plenty of good music that is in no wise country, and plenty of country music that is no wise good. It comes down to a question of judgment. In the old days (I guess I have to call them that, now that it’s been more than a decade since we lost him) Ol’ Sinc and I agreed about 97 percent of the time (that, by the way, is a spurious statistic, the kind that junk ‘scientists’, like climate alarmists, are fond of making up). What it comes down to is this: All radio programs reflect choices. Commercial country radio plays what program directors decide to play, for reasons that may have little to do with content, and much to do with what the record labels are pushing. Specialty programs like Hillbilly at Harvard reflect the choices of their hosts. In this case, the host is me, and I play what I like—not just what I prefer, but what I enjoy.
And why not? If I didn’t enjoy the music I play, I wouldn’t bother getting up at 6:15 AM on Saturday morning and schlepping in to spend a good part of the day at WHRB. At the same time, it has to fit the show. I like classical music, but I won’t play Bach or Piston on HAH. Sinc used to like Jimmy Buffet, but he didn’t play him on HAH. I adhere to our rough-and-ready rule: if it ain’t good, and if it ain’t country, I won’t play it—except. . .
Except when I will. I make the rules, so I can break them, too. I play novelties, like “The Combine Harvester Song,” and Vast Variety Vault singles that aren’t very good (though of course, some are), because I like introducing variety, keeping the listeners on their toes (and keeping me awake). And I play singer-songwriters who aren’t very country, like Brigette DeMeyer, because they have a country feel, and are interesting, maybe even compelling. And, to get back to the ostensible topic, I will play an instrumental like “Big Beaver,” even though Bob recorded it in his big-band period (probably envious of the enormous national stature of performers like Benny Goodman), because (a) Bob wrote it, and (b) it’s become a part of the Western Swing and Country Music repertoire, and (c) it didn’t seem jarring or horrendously out-of-place at the time, and (d) I was in a hurry because I was chatting with Sheila Selby and didn’t notice the previous record ending, and (e) it was the half-hour and break time, and I needed an instrumental (part of our ancient, self-imposed format), and (f) most important of all: I like it!
A Texas historian named Sam McIlhaney writes,
. . . During the time in which Wills was at his peak of popularity, it also was the era of the Big Bands. Ballrooms and radio broadcasts across the country featured the Big Sounds of bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Bennie Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Wayne King, Harry James, Woody Herman, and of course, Glenn Miller and his Army Air Corps band.
It should come as no surprise to learn that some of the recording cuts of Wills sound as good as any of the famous Big Bands of the era. Complete with saxophones, clarinets and trumpets, Wills and his outfit WAS a big band, with anywhere from 14 to 20 instruments, and the men to play them — the Texas Playboys.
Get someone to listen to the recording of “Big Beaver” for the first time, and tell them it is from a recording of ANY of the above-mentioned Big Bands, and they should have no trouble believing you. But it would not be the truth. “Big Beaver” is a Wills recording.**
The only clue it belongs to Wills is the famous yell in the middle of the piece. When Wills felt enthusiasm for a song, he would let loose with a holler. That enthusiasm was infectious, and the fans at the dances or listening to the music on records picked up on that enthusiasm. This was the heart and soul of his success. . .
** “Big Beaver,” music and lyrics by Bob Wills, recorded April 16, 1940 with a 16-piece band by Wills and the Texas Playboys
Now you’ll note that, according to Mr. McIlhaney, there were 16 musicians in the band. There was obviously a rhythm section, and despite what Gordy says, there were probably also fiddles and guitars, maybe even a steel guitar—I can’t hear them, as the mic is on the prominent horns and winds. See for yourself:
The tune was a hit for Bob Wills, and covered by many others over the years. Here’s Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadors with Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton on guitars (no video; just click on the audio link):
Here’s Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys, string band and winds:
And a more modern revival group, The Tulsa Playboys:
Obviously all these groups think “Big Beaver” is a Western Swing tune. So what the heck. I play plenty of Eastern Swing tunes done by Western Swing musicians, but I don’t play Benny Goodman. But this is Bob Wills, and he even hollers throughout the song (not just once), to make sure you know who it is. Fair game for HAH, I say.
So why not Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass? Pretty simple, for me. They’re not very country, and to my ear, they are not very good: as far as I am concerned, they are unadulterated schlock, the Lawrence Welk of country music. If you don’t believe me, take a listen:
Of course, as they say here on the Internet, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). Or as Ol’ Sinc would say, “Tweak his own.”