American Songcatcher: Bob Wills

Back in the day, I discovered the music of Bob Wills when I was a fresh faced college DJ at WXYC Chapel Hill. It was like hearing songs from an alternate universe to me, a kid who grew up listening to FM and AM radio’s menu of pop, rock and rap of the day, sprinkled with music bought from cassette clubs and record stores that ventured as far back as Buddy Holly and what we called beach music (which is its own cultural rabbit hole). Being the future audio producer that I was, our apartment’s answering machine messages were dominated by yours truly, and the soundtracks to these boisterous salutes were often songs that I drew from the ever-expanding roster of gonzo artists I found in the radio station’s album library. It was Will’s trademark, drawn out interjection “Ah ha!” — which so often punctuated his music —that grabbed me, an exclamation which record executives first regarded as something from out of this world. Luckily for all of us, they were quickly proven wrong in their assessment that audiences would be turned off by this refrain. That part of the legendary Bob Will’s story, as part of a compelling overview of his life and music, is detailed in this special collaborative podcast episode, thanks to Nicholas Edward Williams.

Welcome to this episode of American Songcatcher, with the story behind the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills. One of the most influential and iconic bandleaders and musicians of the 1930’s-1950’s, Bob came from a humble life of a poor sharecropping family, and was deeply influenced by old time and breakdown fiddle through his Texas state champion family of fiddlers in his father and uncle. Bob also loved all the turn of the century and 1920’s black music, and this confluence of cultures would help him create the craze that became Western swing, and the details of his journey to get there will surprise you. 

Bob Wills publicity photo circa 1946

American Songcatcher is one of my favorite podcasts, and it is also part of the programming lineup at public radio station WNCW. Tracing the roots of American music from its cultured past to artists playing it forward, folk musician, musicologist and host Nicholas Edward Williams takes listeners on a unique documentary-style podcast experience. Dive into the stories of centuries-old Traditional songs and migrants who carried their musical heritage here, and uncover the lives of pioneers and integral musicians who created and shaped styles such as Bluegrass, Ragtime, Jazz and Swing, Country, Gospel, Blues, Old-Time, and the Folk music that’s derived from it all. Here’s to the songs of old, may they live on forever.

Thank you for visiting us and giving this special episode a listen! This series is a part of the lineup of both public radio WNCW and Osiris Media, with all of the Osiris shows available here. You can also hear new episodes on Bluegrass Planet Radio here. Thanks to Corrie Askew for producing the radio adaptations of this series on public radio WNCW, and to Joshua Meng, who wrote and performed out theme songs.

This is Southern Songs and Stories: the music of the South and the artists who make it. – Joe Kendrick