Merle Haggard recorded this record not as a moneymaker that would follow Okie, but, as he says, a tribute to one of his favorite old-timers in Country-Western.
What Bob Wills did back there before the war was to take his Texas-bred taste in music and graft it with a jazz (swing, if you will) feel; sort of white country blues with a syncopated beat. It was dance music, for that was most of their gigs, traveling by their own bus to make that next dance hall. But Bob Wills made that hillbilly stuff swing!
Mr. Haggard’s good-sounding record doesn’t bother with Mr. Wills’ big band period. It concentrates (with help of some of the original Texas Playboys) on some of the not-much-smaller combo’s best tunes. As a re-creation of a band gone-by, it makes it. Not as good as the original 78s, mind you, but that wasn’t the idea. Kind of sounds like everything was rechanneled for stereo (if you’ve heard the originals, that is). Slicker, more polished. Fender instead of a regular string bass. All the notes are right. The Playboys of the Thirties and Forties left in the not-so-perfect choruses, did weird turn-around time changes, and sounded like they generally really fucking enjoyed themselves. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was just that. These guys were fonkey in their music and their scenes, it seems. The lyric content of their material lets you in on what they did on the side. Cocaine and groupies ain’t all that new.
Tommy Duncan was the Playboy’s lead singer so I guess that means Merle Haggard is supposed to be him on this recording. But Merle’s also supposed to be Wills himself. The latter did play some violin, but wasn’t the lead fiddler (twin violins, get it?). No, no — Bob Wills’ charm on those old records was his constant sparse rap through most every side. He’d give everybody in the band a bad time. Taunt, jive, jibe and joke. Sounded sort of like a white nigger running off at the mouth. Merle does a bit of this talking, but Wills was the master. “Women and children cryin’ Willie, Willie!”
A Tribute is a pretty good album to have if you like to tap your feet to Western music (the Country listeners put it on their charts long ago). It might get one interested in hearing what the original stuff was all about. Wills recorded originally for Columbia, so ask them about it. Meanwhile, let’s take off our Stetsons to Mr. Haggard and Mr. Wills and the Playboys and the Strangers.