The quintessential story of America’s most joyous dance music, western swing got its start “where the west begins” in a ramshackle dancehall in Fort Worth, Texas during the depths of the Great Depression. It evolved with a spongelike ability to absorb a myriad of styles from black, white, rural and urban influences to create an intoxicating musical gumbo. This groundbreaking documentary film traces its origins, development and legacy utilizing original and contemporary voices.
The Birth & History of Western Swing is an ambitious film project that seeks to document an important development in 20th century popular music that has yet to be examined in a feature-length study. The reasons why such a project hasn’t yet been done, after 90 years since its birth in a ramshackle dancehall on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Texas, are what make it uniquely important in American music. Western swing combined elements of black, white, and ethnic music styles in a way that historians have never known where to place it. Is it jazz? Is it country? Is it folk? The answer to all of these questions is yes, it is all of these things, but western swing’s marginality to each of those genres has been such that it has always been put on documentarians’ back burner.
In a 1997 review of “The Complete Recordings of Milton Brown & his Musical Brownies,” the late journalist Robert Palmer said, “Their music has proved too jazzy and swinging to win them a prominent place in the annals of country music, too “hillbilly” to be taken seriously by jazz scholars, too full of regional quirks to be accepted as mainstream pop.” The absence of studies of western swing is a dereliction of duty by today’s documentarians, which The Birth & History of Western Swing endeavors to rectify.
In Ken Burns’ recent documentary on country music, western swing was mentioned as merely a sub-genre defined and disseminated by Bob Wills alone. The segments on western swing in the documentary were thorough and complete with regard to Wills’ legendary career, however, much important history was not included. Although Wills deserves the accolades bestowed upon him as the "King of Western Swing" who brought the genre to national prominence during the 1940s, research has shown that not only did he not “invent” the music, as many of his proponents still insist, but that the growth of western swing in the Southwest was much more complex and gradual, a fascinating study of how rural house dances featuring a fiddle and guitar exploded during the on-coming Swing Era of the 1930s to rival in popularity the massively successful orchestras of iconic figures like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
In The Birth & History of Western Swing, the producers will show how founding fathers Bob Wills and Milton Brown literally brought rural string instrumentation to the city, combining frontier fiddles and guitars together with urban jazz, pop, and blues tunes in the early 1930s, serving as a salve for Depression-weary Americans. With Brown’s Musical Brownies serving as their prototype model, bands sprang up like weeds throughout the Southwest, beginning in Fort Worth, and then spreading to Dallas and other Texas cities, plus more in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. The size of the audiences that came to dance to this exciting new music in the dancehalls, auditoriums, and large fraternal halls required amplification, and electric guitars were soon populating every band. Important bands such as the Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys, Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers, Bob & Joe Shelton’s Sunshine Boys, Bill Boyd & his Cowboy Ramblers, Adolph Hofner’s Texans and the Tune Wranglers each possessed singular personalities and definable sounds of their own, all tuned to their own respective territories and ethnic influences.
Western swing presided over a boon in radio broadcasts, which spread the music to the farthest reaches of stations’ signals. Jukeboxes and electrical transcriptions, both introduced in the mid-1930s, enabled the music to travel even further, and with the migration of Americans to the West Coast during World War II, western swing, with Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys leading the way, went along with it. In the 1940s, the music moved to film, and became an even more pervasive presence in theaters across America. Honky tonk would rise in the latter half of the 1940s, heavily influenced and adapted from the pioneering amplified electric sound of western swing. By the 1950s, television added another dimension to western swing, as the music’s evolving rockabilly sound helped fuel the fire that would eventually become rock ’n’ roll. A prime example of this influence was Bill Haley's Four Aces of Western Swing transforming into rock & roll’s famed Bill Haley & the Comets.
The Birth & History of Western Swing gathers voices from the genre’s past and present, including never-before-aired interviews with many of its first generation of musicians as well as founding father Milton Brown’s late brother Roy Lee, the last survivor who actually witnessed Brown’s history-making dance band in action from the bandstand. In addition, it utilizes analysis from its major scholars: Brown biographer Cary Ginell, Wills biographer Dr. Charles Townsend and the author of Jazz of the Southwest, Dr. Jean Boyd, as well as other current keepers of the flame, including Jason Roberts, leader of the current incarnation of Wills’ former group, Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, and Barbara Martin, longtime editor of Western Swing Monthly, the genre’s literary meeting place and Bible. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel also lends an insightful voice to the film with stories of the revival of the genre that he spearheaded nearly 50 years ago after the passing of Wills in 1975. Jody Nix provides emotional memories of he and his father Holye Nix recording with Wills on his final Grammy Award-winning 1973 album, For The Last Time - Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys.
To produce such a sweeping documentary that spans nearly a century of sounds, images, and artifacts, the producers are doing double-duty as preservationists. Many of the vintage interviews they have collected were recorded on obsolete media such as analog cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, and VHS videos, all of which are deteriorating and need careful restoration in order to preserve the precious memories of the genre’s informants. Many of these interviews are unique, with the performers not interviewed anywhere else. Rare photographs, advertisements, and radio broadcast transcriptions are some of the other valuable artifacts that need to be included, but also require careful restoration.
The producers of The Birth & History of Western Swing realize there is likely only one opportunity to produce such a documentary and want to ensure all of the important elements necessary to the accurate representation of western swing’s storied history are made available to the production. It is therefore critical to gain valued sponsor funding to complete this important project. Net proceeds from the film and annual festival will help our nonprofit organization create a lasting tribute to this beloved dance music, with the end-goal to establish The Birthplace of Western Swing Museum in the city where it all began 90 years ago. . . Fort Worth, Texas.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WESTERN SWING & COUNTRY MUSIC
by Curt Ryle
Western swing features country music instrumentation with fiddle and guitar; however, traditional country music on a steel guitar is always played on an E9th tuning, while western swing is typically played on a C6th tuning. The C6th tuning was created primarily for jazz music. The great steel guitarist for Ernest Tubb, Buddy Emmons, released a fabulous album in 1960 called 4 Wheel Drive that was pure jazz and featured the C6th tuning along with jazz guitarist Leon Rhodes. The difference in country fiddle versus western swing is clearly the improvised jazz solos played in swing, which would be taboo in country. Country music has very simple chords and notes on a fiddle and guitar, featuring pentatonic notes in the scale, where western swing fiddle and guitar have very influential jazz notes and chords comprised of sharps and flats heard only in swing and jazz. Only lyrically do I see western swing’s resemblance to country music. The lyrics in swing tell stories and ballads much like country music. To summarize, western swing clearly has it’s own genre and deserves to be in a league by itself. As a studio musician I have played on thousands of songs and I can tell you there are very few guitarists, bass players, or steel players in Nashville, Tennessee who have the skills or understanding to play western swing, and I’m talking about some of the best musicians Nashville has to offer. Just my two cents!
Join us at the Cowtown Birthplace of Western Swing Festival. A venerable who’s who of legendary musicians and devoted fans from across the country gather each year to celebrate the birth of western swing in Fort Worth on the second weekend of November. Our epic festival honors the three founding pillars of Western swing - the Light Crust Doughboys, the Musical Brownies and the famed Texas Playboys. In addition to nine live bands performing at historic National Hall on Thursday, Friday & Saturday, there is also a screening of our landmark documentary film and fun-filled Stockyards Tour with chic western culture shopping, HERD Cattle Drive and a western swing dance at the Longhorn Saloon. Reserved seating is limited, so click on the fiddle logo above to buy your tickets today.
sponsor our film
$25,000 Film Donors
$25,000 Film Donors will receive Prime Title Film Credit in our documentary film - The Birth & History of Western Swing, plus VIP Reserved Seating for 12 people to all 3 days of the Festival, featuring 10 famous western swing bands and free dinners provided all 3 nights. Also includes the 4-hour Stockyards Tour for 12 people with BBQ lunch. Prominent top billing advertising of company logo across all forms of Film and Festival advertising, including Social Media, Website, Event Programs, Banners, Posters and Promotional Flyers.
$10,000 Film Donors
$10,000 Film Donors will receive Title Film Credit in our documentary film - The Birth & History of Western Swing, plus VIP Reserved Seating for 8 people to all 3 days of the Festival, featuring 10 famous western swing bands with free dinners provided all 3 nights. Also includes the 4-hour Stockyards Tour for 8 people with BBQ lunch. Prominent top billing advertising of company logo across all forms of Film and Festival advertising, including Social Media, Website, Event Programs, Banners, Posters and Promo Flyers.
$5,000 Film Donors
$5,000 Film Donors will receive VIP Reserved Seating for 6 people to all 3 days of the Festival, featuring 10 famous western swing bands with free dinners provided all 3 nights. Includes the 4-hour Stockyards Tour for 6 people with BBQ lunch. Also includes prominent credit mention in our Historic Film, along with company logo placement in all Social Media, Website, Event Programs, Banners and Promotional Flyers.
$3,000 Film Donors
$3,000 Film Donors will receive VIP Reserved Seating for 4 people to all 3 days of the Festival, featuring 10 famous western swing bands with free dinners provided all 3 nights. Includes the 4-hour Stockyards Tour for 4 people with BBQ lunch. Also includes credit mention in our Historic Film, along with company logo placement in all Social Media, Website, Event Programs, Banners and Promotional Flyers.
$1,000 Film Donors
$1,000 Film Donors will receive VIP Reserved Seating for 2 people to all 3 days of the Festival, featuring 10 famous western swing bands with free dinners provided all 3 nights. Includes the 4-hour Stockyards Tour for 2 people with BBQ lunch. Also includes credit mention in our Historic Film, along with company logo placement in all Social Media, Website, Event Programs, Banners and Promotional Flyers.