Western Swing is an enigma for people outside Texas and the Southwest, who — if they spare a thought for it at all — tend to write it off under "country" and move on. (To be fair, it is where the "western" in "country & western" comes from.) But about the only thing it shares with the Appalachian-descended music adopted by Nashville is the use of fiddle and steel guitar as primary instruments. Everything else — rhythm, phrasing, inflection, improvisation — it adopted from urban styles like jazz, blues, ragtime, swing (duh) and Tin Pan Alley, making Western swing standards like "Faded Love" or "Steel Guitar Rag" much more cosmopolitan than, say, "The Great Speckled Bird."
In 1945, Oakland, Calif., DJ Cactus Jack and songwriter/entrepreneur Clifford Sundin founded Tiffany Music, Inc. as a platform to release a series of prerecorded radio shows featuring Bob Wills, who both embodied and transcended Western Swing (and continues to more than 35 years after his death). Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded more than 150 songs for what became known as the Tiffany Transcriptions, which boutique label Collector's Choice has now released as a 10-disc box set. The discs are arranged semi-thematically — two best-ofs, songs about Texas, popular standards, one featuring Andrews-like vocalists the McKinney Sisters — and have a stylistic range as large as Wills's outsize personality. What doesn't change, though, is the players' virtuosity — the Playboys were in peak form throughout the sessions — and the little thrill that comes whenever Wills lets out one of his trademark hollers that signaled one soloist or another had just played (or sung) a lick he especially liked. Over these ten discs, there are lots of those.