What Is Western Music
“The Spirit of the West Sings in Every Soul.”
- Maynard Dixon
North American Western music is the folk music of the western life style. Its influence reaches from the Badlands of North Dakota, down to the Black Hills, across the plains of Kansas, up and over the Rocky Mountains, through the Mohave Desert, to the shores of California. It stretches from Alaska to Northern Canada and down to South Texas. However, the audience for western music is not necessarily regional, as western artist Maynard Dixon declared, “The spirit of the west sings in every soul.” Western music has a broad appeal and covers a diverse spectrum of elements, emotions, regions, and people that spreads far and wide (Western Music Association).
Perhaps the key event in the dissemination of western music, also referred to as cowboy music, was the 1908 publication by N. Howard "Jack" Thorp; a collection of cowboy songs aptly called, Songs of the Cowboys, introducing the American public to cowboy music and its lore. The book is a compilation of songs - mostly from real cowboys - that had been collected during his travels in Texas and New Mexico during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the introduction to the 1927 edition Alice Corbin Henderson writes: "The hundred songs that make up this book are typical and genuine cowboy songs; the river and hobo and outlaw songs that are also a part of a cowboy's repertory having been omitted. A number of songs that belong more specifically to the Central States have also been omitted" (Will Merritt).
Somewhere during the editing process of Songs of the Cowboys, the genesis of western music occurs; the author not only distinguishes a collection of songs particular to the unique experiences of the American cowboy but further refines the collection down to songs (and poems) of cowboys in the American Southwest. As many before Mr. Thorp knew and countless others to follow also discovered, there is something very special about the American cowboy and the land that has come to be known as the American West. It is the place and the history of its inhabitants that continues to inspire songs that can be separately and simultaneously fantastic and true (Will Merritt).
In addition, a collection of folk music by John A. Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, also played an important role in introducing America to the music of the cowboy and the West. In the 1940s, a radio show made for the Library of Congress recorded Lomax talking about his earliest memories of cowboys. He had seen firsthand the great trail drives after the Civil War. "I couldn't have been more than 4 years old when I first heard a cowboy yodel and sing to his cattle. I was sleeping in my father's cabin in Texas," Lomax said. "As the cowboys drove the cattle along, they sang, called and yodeled to them. ... They made up songs about trail life" (Hal Cannon, npr.org).
Traditional cowboy songs were directly influenced by the folk music of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Many early nineteenth century cowboy songs, such as "Streets of Laredo," can be traced back to these European folk songs. Musical influences from the other European countries of the immigrants who “Went West” can also be found as influences in western music as well as the songs of the Mexican vaquero who preceded the American cowboy, and the African American Cattle-drivers who were not a few. Typical western song themes looked at the cowboy's life, cattle drives, good horses, outlaws, the trail itself, western woman, and other elements of the West.
Don Edwards, a respected traditional cowboy singer, plays many of the songs first popularized by Thorp and Lomax. The first edition of Lomax's book contained 112 songs and a forward by Theodore Roosevelt. In his notes, Lomax credits the spirit of the ancient Anglo-Saxon ballad for inspiring the cowboy song. But when Edwards hears some of these songs, he says it's not ballads he's hearing. "You take a song like, 'I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, I'm a long long way from my home.' Is that a blues form? It's the earliest blues form there is — three lines and a tag line," Edwards says (Hal Cannon, npr.org).
From this very straightforward "folk" tradition, by the 1930's, the sound of western music was transformed by jazz and the popular music of the day. This new style was exemplified by The Sons of the Pioneers, with sophisticated vocal harmony structures (derived from Mexican mariachis), rich and tightly constructed lyrics and bolstered by the "Hot Club" jazz virtuosity of their violin and guitar duo. By the mid-1930's, a new sound for Western music had emerged from The Sons of the Pioneers and it continues to be a standard emulated and aspired to by many Western musical acts today (Will Merritt).
Despite this transformation Western music could still very much be considered "Cowboy Music" which continues to be an important part of the genre'. However, the stories and lifestyles of the larger populations of Western culture are equally important. These include songs about miners, settlers, farmers, ranchers, horsemen, soldiers, opportunists, gamblers, preachers, saloon keepers, school teachers, and other town folk who populated the west.
They are all subjects of modern day western music which is alive and well. It is performed throughout the West, and beyond, at festivals, gatherings, opera houses, fairs, rodeos, and concert halls by men and woman troubadours, duets, trios, quartets, larger performing groups, and even symphonies. Western music performers, past and present, which the “main stream” is most likely familiar with include Gene Autry, The Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Marty Robbins, Patsy Montana, Eddie Arnold, Johnny Western, Michael Martin Murphy, Rider’s in the Sky, and Ian Tyson.
However, unknown to many music fans are the many popular recording artists with western material. This includes the Eagles’ 1973 Desperado concept album, based on the Dalton gang and the Old West. Well known songs from this album include “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise” which have become part of the American fabric. In addition, a major contemporary western artist that is often overlooked is Chris LeDoux. His music is well loved in the West by both young and old. One song he covered, “Life is a Highway,” was later recorded by Rascal Flatts, their version appearing on the popular animated movie, Cars, and is now a theme ride at Disney Land.
Another recording artist with western material is Garth Brooks, the top selling country music artist of all time. Brooks is credited for exposing the world to LaDoux with the song lyrics, "a worn out tape of Chris LaDoux." Brooks has included at least one western song on each of his albums, the best known being “Wolves” written by western singer-songwriter Stephanie Davis. Other western songs Brooks has recorded include "The Cowboy Song," "Cowboy Bill," and "Cowboys and Angels." Even Elvis recorded some western music. In 1968 RCA issued the album Elvis Singing Flaming Star which also included “Yellow Rose of Texas.” The album cover has Elvis sporting a cowboy hat and is in this author's collection.
A favorite, and perhaps the all time best selling western album, is Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger issued on Columbia Records in 1975. This concept album is about a preacher on the run after murdering his departed wife and her lover. It contains another American fabric tune, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose, which has been covered innumerable times by artists from all genres but here masterfully westernized by Nelson. In the words of Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide, “It was a phenomenal blockbuster…selling millions of copies, establishing Nelson as a superstar recording artist... For all its success…it's old-fashioned, sounding like a tale told around a cowboy campfire.” "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", released as a single previous to the album's full release became Nelson's first number one hit.
An obscure western concept album by a well known contemporary recording artist is "The Ballad of Sally Rose" by Emmy Lou Harris. Released in May 1985, it marked a significant departure for Harris and is loosely based on her relationship with the late Gram Parsons. The album tells the story of western character Sally Rose, a singer, whose hard-living, hard-drinking lover is killed while on the road. Yet another well known singer-songwriter who has recorded western music is Jewel who wrote the beautiful song " The Cowboy's Lament," not to be confused with "Cowboy's Lament" which is also known as "Streets of Laredo."
An even bigger surprise is the album, Tumbleweed Connection, the third album by the legendary English singer-songwriter Elton John. It is a concept album based on country and western themes and was released October 30th, 1970 on Mercury Records. Elton John grew up on a healthy diet of Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, and other singing cowboys. It is his tribute to the music he loved as a kid. Who would have guessed? Another recent discovery is the 1972 concept album recorded by Kenny Rogers with all the songs written by Michael Martin Murphey called The Ballad of Calico, about the Mojave Desert ghost town of the same name. Of course who could forget Roger's 1978 smash western hit, "The Gambler."
Yet another album that could be considered western is the 2005 recording, Devils & Dust by the "Boss," Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan also is known for his western material. His 1973 album Pat Garret & Billy the Kid (soundtrack to the movie) is very much western. Dylan also has recorded the traditional cowboy song, "Diamond Joe" and has been known to play "Buffalo Skinners" in concerts since his very early days. He also mentions learning to play "Doney Gal" in his autobiography. Also a major contemporary influence in western music is Ramblin' Jack Elliott who influenced Bob Dylan. Ramblin' Jack was signing cowboy songs all over Europe in the 1950s and was inspiring everyone from Dylan to Mick Jagger to Johnny Cash (Andy Hedges). Consequently, Johnny Cash recorded his first western album, Ballads of the True West, released on Columbia Records in 1965. Cash also had two well known western hits from later albums, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and "The Ballad of Ira Hays."
A major influence to contemporary western music is Michael Martin Murphey's 1990 release of the album Cowboy Songs. The album contained classics such as "I Ride an Old Paint', "The Old Chisholm Trail", and "The Streets of Laredo;" as well as Murphey's own "Cowboy Logic." Cowboy Songs earned widespread praise from country and folk music critics, such as Jack Hurst from the Chicago Tribune who wrote, "[This is] not only one of the finest albums of [the] year but also one of the finest of the last decade. Its 22 riveting cuts represent a labor of not only love but also scholarship; it raises a cult musical genre to the level of mainstream art." Cowboy Songs went on to achieve Gold status, the first western album to do so since Marty Robbins' No. 1 Cowboy in 1980 (Wikipedia).
Someone once said, “I wasn’t born in the West, but I got here as fast as I could.” Western music speaks to those who have the spirit of the West firmly rooted in their heart and soul. It is real and raw like the people who are drawn to it and to the West and seems to be the last great frontier in American Roots music. It is yet a largely undiscovered treasure that has been overshadowed by its Nashville cousin (Mary Kaye). The music industry of the mid-20th century lumped western music together with country music under the banner of "Country-Western," later amalgamating into modern day country music. However, today you hear very little of what could be considered western music played on the radio. It is as if Nashville has turned their back on the western half of the United States. However, contemporary western music is growing in popularity being referred to by some as Western Americana, Western Folk, or Western Roots music. Many fans and radio stations have discovered that, for them, the music of the West is replacing contemporary country music. As stated on Wikipedia, "Many Westerners prefer familiar music about themselves and their environment."
Here are some contemporary western songs by popular recording artists:
- "God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart" - Dan Seals (1984, Rebel Heart)
- "Everything That Glitters" - Dan Seals (1986, Won't Be Blue Anymore)
- "Desperado" - The Eagles (1973, Desperado)
- "Tequila Sunrise" - The Eagles (1973, Desperado)
- "Doolin-Dalton" - The Eagles (1973, Desperado)
- "The Gambler" - Kenny Rogers (1978, The Gambler) #1 Country Hit, #16 Pop Hit, 1980 Grammy for best male country vocal performance
- "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" - Willie Nelson (1979, The Electric Horseman)
- "Red Headed Stranger" - Willie Nelson (1975, Red Headed Stranger)
- "Midnight Rider" - Willie Nelson (1979, The Electric Horseman)
- "So You Think You're a Cowboy - Willie Nelson (1979, The Electric Horseman)
- "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" - Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (1978, Waylon & Willie)
- "Ballad of a Runaway Horse" - EmmyLou Harris (1993, Cowgirl's Prayer, written by Leonard Cohen)
- "Pancho and Lefty" - EmmyLou Harris (1976, Luxury Liner, written by Townes Van Zandt)
- "Tulsa Queen" - EmmyLou Harris (1976, Luxury Liner)
- "The Ballad of Sally Rose" - EmmyLou Harris (1985, The Ballad of Sally Rose)
- "I'd Rather Be a Cowboy" - John Denver (1973, Farewell Andromeda)
- "Song of Wyoming" - John Denver (1975, Windsong)
- "Cowboy's Delight" - John Denver (1975, Windsong)
- "Wild Montana Skies" - John Denver (1983, It's About Time)
- "Ponies" - John Denver (1991, Different Directions)
- "The Last Cowboy Song" - Ed Bruce (1980, Ed Bruce)
- "Geronimo's Cadillac" - Michael Martin Murphey (1972, Geronimo's Cadillac)
- "Cowboy Logic" - Michael Martin Murphey (1990, Cowboy Songs)
- "Night Rider's Lament" - Suzy Bogguss (1989, Somewhere Between)
- "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" - Suzy Bogguss (1989, Somewhere Between)
- "Someday Soon" - Suzy Bogguss (1991, Aces)
- "Git Along Little Doggies" - Suzy Bogguss (2011, American Folk Songbook)
- "Desperado" - Linda Ronstadt (1973, Don't Cry Now)
- "I Ride an Ole' Paint" - Linda Ronstadt (1977, Simple Dreams)
- "Cowboy Take Me Away" - Dixie Chicks (1999, Fly)
- "Silver Palomino" - Bruce Springsteen (2005, Devils & Dust)
- "Outlaw Pete" - Bruce Springsteen (2009, Working On A Dream)
- "Ride'em Cowboy" - Juice Newton (1981 Juice, written by Paul Davis)
- "Night Rider's Lament" - Nancy Griffith w/ Don Edwards (1993, Other Voices, Other Room) Grammy Award Winning Album
- "The Cowboy's Lament" - Jewel (2009, Lullaby)
- "A Horse with No Name" - America (1971, America) neatorama.com/2013/10/03/A-Horse-With-No-Name-What-Does-That-Mean
- "Sweet Baby James" - James Taylor (1970, Sweet Baby James)
- "Cowboy Bill" - Garth Brooks (1989, Garth Brooks)
- "Wolves" - Garth Brooks (1990, No Fences)
- "Wild Horses" - Garth Brooks (1990, No Fences)
- "Rodeo" - Garth Brooks (1991, Ropin' The Wind)
- "In Lonesome Dove" - Garth Brooks (1991, Ropin' The Wind)
- "Night Rider's Lament" - Garth Brooks (1992, The Chase)
- "The Cowboy Song" - Garth Brooks (1993, In Pieces)
- "Cowboys and Angels" - Garth Brooks (1995 Fresh Horses)
- "Cowboy Cadillac" - Garth Brooks (1997, Sevens)
- "Rodeo or Mexico" - Garth Brooks (1999, Scarecrow)
- "Cowboys Forever" - Garth Brooks (2014, Man Against Machine)
- "Should've Been a Cowboy" - Toby Keith (1993, Toby Keith) #1 Country Hit
- "A Few More Cowboys" - Toby Keith (2016, single)
- "Cowboy Town" - Brooks & Dunn (2007, Cowboy Town)
- "Cowboy Boogie" - Randy Travis (1993, Wind in the Wire)
- "The Old Chisholm Trail" - Randy Travis (1993, Wind in the Wire)
- "Desert Skies" - The Marshall Tucker Band (1977, Carolina Dreams)
- "Once Upon a Time in the West" - Dire Straits (1979, Communiqué)
- "Wanted Dead or Alive" - Bon Jovi (1986, Slippery When Wet)
- "Heart of Gold" - Neil Young (1972, Harvest)
- "Roy Rogers" - Elton John (1973, Yellow Brick Road)
- "Wild West Hero" - ELO (1977, Out of the Blue)
- "Wild Wild West" - Will Smith (1999, Willennium)
- , )
- "Pancho and Lefty" - Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (1983, Pancho and Lefty) #1 Country Hit
- "Amarillo By Morning" - George Strait (1982, Strait from the Heart)
- "The Cowboy Rides Away" - George Strait (1984, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind)
- "Ace In The Hole" - George Strait (1989, Beyond the Blue Neon)
- "Tall Dark Stranger" - Buck Owens (1969, single) #1 Country Hit
- "Desperados Waiting for a Train" - Guy Clark (1975, Old No. 1)
- "This Cowboy Hat" - Porter Wagoner (1983, Viva) #35 Country Hit
- "Bandy The Rodeo Clown" - Moe Bandy (1975, Bandy The Rodeo Clown)
- "Rhinestone Cowboy" - Glen Campbell (1975, Rhinestone Cowboy) #1 Pop and Country Hit
- "Ya'll Come Back Saloon" - Oak Ridge Boys (1977, Ya'll Come Back Saloon)
- "Drifter" - Sylvia (1981, Drifter)
- "Tumbleweed" - Sylvia (1981, Drifter)
- "The Man In The Big Hat" - Jerry Jeff Walker (1989, Live at Gruene Hall)
- "Desperado Love" - Conway Twitty (1986, Fallin' For You For Years)
- "She Came From Fort Worth" - Kathy Mattea (1989, Willow in the Wind) #2 Country Hit
- "Western Girls" - Marty Stuart (1989, Hillbilly Rock) #20 Country Hit
Contemporary Western Albums by Popular Recording Artists:
- Marty Robbins, 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Columbia Records (1 Million Sold, #4 on Pop Charts
- Eddy Arnold, 1963, Cattle Call, RCA Victor Records
- Johnny Cash, 1965, Ballads of the True West, Columbia Records
- Elton John, 1970, Tumbleweed Connection, DJM Records (1 Million Sold, #24 on Pop Charts)
- Michael Martin Murphey, 1972, Geronimo's Cadillac, A&M Records
- Kenny Rogers, 1972, The Ballad of Calico, Reprise Records
- The Eagles, 1973, Desperado, Asylum Records (2 Million Sold, #41 on Pop Charts)
- Bob Dylan, 1973, Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, Columbia Records (#16 on Pop Charts)
- Willie Nelson, 1975, Red Headed Stranger, Columbia Records (3 Million Sold, #28 on Pop Charts)
- Charlie Daniels, 1976, High Lonesome, Epic Records
- Willie Nelson, 1979, The Electric Horseman, CBS Records
- Sylvia, 1981, Drifter, RCA Records
- Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, 1983, Pancho and Lefty, Epic Records (1 Million Sold, Title Track #1 Country Hit)
- EmmyLou Harris, 1985, The Ballad of Sally Rose, Warner Bros. Records
- Dixie Chicks, 1990, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, Crystal Clear Sound
- Michael Martin Murphey, 1990, Cowboy Songs, Warner Bros. Records (#25 Top Country Album)
- EmmyLou Harris, 1993, Cowgirl's Prayer, Warner Bros. Records
- Randy Travis, 1993, Wind in the Wire, Warner Bros. Records
- Don McLean, 2003, The Western Album, Don McLean Records
- Bruce Springsteen, 2005, Devils and Dust, Columbia Records (#10 Top Country Album)
- Charlie Daniels, 2016, Night Hawk, CDC Records
(Compiled by Brad Knaphus ~ Sources: All Music Guide, Andy Hedges, Hal Cannon on NPR.org, Mary Kaye, Will Merritt, Western Music Association, Wikipedia, and YouTube)
Mary Kaye's Prayer for Western Music and the West
My prayer on the National Day of the Cowboy 2013: "Dear God, I'm sitting in Nashville at the Grand Ol' Opry and feeling inspired by what country music has done to bless peoples lives. However, I love the West. Please give the music of the West a voice and help us "Cowboy Up" and let our music and our Western heritage shine."
Western Music by Will Merritt 2012
Long before the famous Carter Family traveled from Maces Spring, Virginia to Bristal, Tennessee in 1927 to make the first recordings of what would come to be known as country music, N. Howard ("Jack") Thorp had already published a collection of cowboy songs aptly called, Songs of the Cowboys in 1908. The book is a compilation of songs - mostly from real cowboys - that had been collected during his travels in Texas and New Mexico during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the introduction to the 1927 edition, the author of the introduction, Alice Corbin Henderson, writes:
"The hundred songs that make up this book are typical and genuine cowboy songs; the river and hobo and outlaw songs that are also a part of a cowboy's repertory having been omitted. A number of songs that belong more specifically to the Central States have also been omitted."
Somewhere during the editing process of Songs of the Cowboys, the genesis of western music occurs: the author not only distinguishes a collection of songs particular to the unique experiences of the American cowboy but further refines the collection down to songs (and poems) of cowboys in the American Southwest.
As many before Mr. Thorp knew and countless others to follow also discovered, there is something very special about the American cowboy and the land that has come to be known as the American West. It is the place and the history of its inhabitants that continues to inspire songs that can be separately and simultaneously fantastic and true.
Western music has grown since the late 1800's and like many other genres of music, the new branches of western music styles are as important as the roots. Early on, Western songs may have been sung with no other instrumentation but accompaniment by acoustic instruments is now most common. It is not unheard of for Western music to be augmented by orchestral arrangements or possibly accented with electric instruments.
From a very straightforward "folk" tradition, by the 1930's the sound of western music was transformed by jazz and the popular music of the day. This fresh style was exemplified by The Sons of the Pioneers, with sophisticated vocal harmony structures (derived from Mexican mariachis), rich and tightly constructed lyrics and bolstered by the "Hot Club" jazz virtuosity of their violin and guitar duo. By the mid-1930's, a new sound for Western music had emerged from The Sons of the Pioneers and it continues to be a standard emulated and aspired to by many Western musical acts today.
Western Swing @ Wikipedia.com
Western swing music is a subgenre of American country music that originated in the late 1920s in the West and South among the region's Western string bands. It is dance music, often with an up-tempo beat, which attracted huge crowds to dance halls and clubs in Texas, Oklahoma and California during the 1930s and 40s. In post-war America, folk songs and cowboy songs (also known, in those days, as hillbilly music) were beginning to be more popular with a wider audience. A subculture of rural jazz and blues fans had mixed elements of jazz and blues into traditional cowboy and folk song styles to produce a crossover called western swing.
Thanks to the prevalence of radio, this music spread across the United States in the 1940s. Radio was the first almost instantaneous mass media with the power to create large subcultures by spreading the ideas of small subcultures across a wide area. A federal war-time nightclub tax in 1944 led to its decline [except for in Texas and some of the surrounding areas where it is referred to by many today as Texas Swing].
The movement was an outgrowth of jazz, and similarities with Gypsy jazz are often noted. The music is an amalgamation of rural, cowboy, polka, folk, Dixieland jazz and blues blended with swing; and played by a hot string band often augmented with drums, saxophones, pianos and, notably, the steel guitar. The electrically amplified stringed instruments, especially the steel guitar, give the music a distinctive sound. Later incarnations have also included overtones of bebop.
Western swing differs in several ways from the music played by the nationally popular horn-driven big swing bands of the same era. In Western bands—even the fully orchestrated bands—vocals and other instruments followed the fiddle's lead. Additionally, although popular horn bands tended to arrange and score their music, most Western bands improvised freely, either by soloists or collectively.
Prominent groups during the peak of Western swing's popularity included The Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and Spade Cooley and His Orchestra. Contemporary groups include Asleep at the Wheel and The Hot Club of Cowtown.
According to legendary guitarist Merle Travis, "Western swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing."
Western Swing by Guy Logsdon © Oklahoma Historical Society
The term "Western swing" may have been used occasionally before the early 1940s, but after that time the term spread widely because of Spade Cooley's promotional campaign for Venice Pier dances in California. Western swing is a difficult musical genre to define, as it contains elements from many other musical styles, including pop, blues, jazz, Dixieland, traditional folk and fiddle, ragtime, and even occasionally classical. In the 1930s bands performing at dances in the Southwest attempted to emulate big dance band sounds, but primarily with stringed instruments.
Western swing has been defined as a form of (equally hard to define) jazz music. Rudi Blesh in Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz describes jazz as "spontaneous, improvised though systematic music, composed in the playing," and, indeed, most Western swing musicians excelled at musical improvisation. However, the Spade Cooley orchestra, one of the renowned Western-swing ensembles, always used arrangements and rarely improvised. However, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and other great Western-swing bands almost always improvised as they played dances. At recording sessions they usually attempted to play earlier-agreed-upon musical arrangements that had developed from shows and dances.
When used in a musical context, the word "swing" generally implies that a dance band improvises. The word's popular usage grew in the mid-1930s and required a few years of evolution before being applied to Western dance music. The earlier descriptive terms that recording companies used on their Western dance band recording labels were "hot" and "sweet." Hot dance music referred to some improvisation even in recording sessions, while sweet dance music indicated the use of arrangements. For instance, the record label of a Western-swing pioneer such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys often described the group as a "hot dance band."
Easier to describe than to define, Western swing is ballroom dance music with a Western flair, played primarily on stringed instruments. However, horns were and are used in many Western-swing bands. Other characteristics are an emphasis on a heavy rhythm sound for dancing, and the aforementioned improvisation. In its early stages of development Western-swing music was played primarily by Texas and Oklahoma musicians under the leadership of Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Leon McAuliffe, and others and could more accurately be called Southwestern swing. The genre may have started in Texas, but it gained a voice and grew to maturity in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bob Wills and Western swing are native to Texas, but the overwhelming influence of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys band drove Bob Wills and his ensemble across the Red River into Oklahoma.
A short definition would be that Western swing is dance music, and Oklahoma was a dancing state. At one time, small dance halls or just places where couples could dance to music played by local bands, were found everywhere across the Sooner State. However, television in the late 1950s slowly killed the dance culture in Oklahoma and across the nation. It also caused many good musicians to change occupations. There were other bands that did not play dances but nevertheless called themselves "Western swing." These were not Western swing but Western-string bands.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). Guy Logsdon, Mary Rogers, and William Jacobson, Saddle Serenaders (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1995). William W. Savage, Jr., Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).