Merle Haggard called him “The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World” on a tribute album. Waylon Jennings opined that it didn’t matter who roamed the halls of state governmental power in Austin, because he was “Still the King.” And his influence is evident on acolytes ranging from Asleep at the Wheel to the Hot Club of Cowtown to the Quebe Sisters (recently profiled by our own Jesse Sendejas).
The nine-man unit is under the direction of band leader/vocalist/fiddle player Jason Roberts and will play two shows at Main Street Crossing in Tomball on March 19.
“It’s daunting because Bob Wills left some big boot prints. And boot prints that can’t really be filled,” Roberts says from his home in Austin. “Our goal is to just try to do it with the respect and authenticity that would make him proud.”
Roberts certainly has his bona fides. He grew up in a family with professional musicians and before he was even a teenager was playing fiddle onstage. It also helped that he had a relative-by-marriage in the late Johnny Gimble, who was himself a former Playboy and Willie Nelson’s go-to fiddler.
Roberts also spent two decades with Western Swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel. Not only did they include Wills tunes in their regular sets and on tribute albums. Roberts himself was tapped to “play” Wills in the band’s concert/stageplay A Ride with Bob. What was supposed to be a one-weekend show in 2005 to commemorate his 100th birthday eventually had an eight-year lifespan.
“It was a good way to tell Bob Wills’ story and it included Texas history. But I had never done any theater acting!” Roberts laughs. “So, I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first! But when we got into costume and people got into it, it came to life. And I could emulate him a little bit. I did have to study his mannerisms and what he was like onstage.”
He also notes that spending all those years with Asleep at the Wheel was a real education. “I got to travel the world. We weren’t the only ones playing Western Swing, but we did all sorts of venues. I always say from the outhouse to the White House!” he says. “It was a Rhodes education in music. It made me a better player.”
Bob Wills was born in Kosse, Texas, forming the first edition of the Texas Playboys in 1933. He had previously played in the Light Crust Doughboys but broke away to form his own group away from radio host, performer and manager W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
Wills helped create the genre of Western Swing by adding blues and jazz influences and arrangements—plus horns and drums—to traditional country music. And it was definitely danceable in the honky tonks.
So strong was his Texas identity that he even kept the state’s name in the band after they had relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma to get gigs. The scorned O’Daniel, who would eventually become both Governor of Texas and a U.S. Senator (defeating a young Lyndon Johnson), wielded wide influence in the Lone Star State. In 2011, the Texas Legislature deemed Western Swing “the Official State Music of Texas.”
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys would be enormously popular on stage, records, and even in films throughout the 1940s. Though not a vocalist, his unmistakable high-pitched voice could be heard repeating a lyric, exhorting his band (“Sing it, Tommy!, Pick it, Leon!”), or—most noticeably—adding an “aah-haaa!” to the proceedings.
Other bandleaders like Spade Cooley, Milton Brown, Cliff Bruner, and Pee Wee King would also spread the gospel of Western Swing. But changing tastes to the more pop/string-laden “Nashville Sound” and the decrease in popularity of large bands (and the cost) meant the glory days were over by the early ‘50s. And a paralyzing stroke in 1969 ended Bob Wills’ performing career.
As to what made Bob Wills’ music distinctive from his contemporaries, Roberts says a lot of it had to do with the beat. “The rhythm section. It’s just really driving. I remember [Playboy vocalist] Leon Rausch once said to the bass player ‘I don’t care what notes you play, just give me the beat!” Roberts laughs.
“And Bob himself. Johnny Gimble told me that Bob had a way of getting things out of his musicians that even they didn’t think was possible. He’d inspire people. And those hollers of his when he’d call out their names! They’re almost like another instrument.”
After Wills’ death, some band members revived the group, which lasted on and off for years. Roberts joined and took the helm in 2018 at the behest of Rausch and the Wills estate.
“I was probably more prepared and more able to step into [the role] than anybody else in the world by that point!” Roberts says. “And having Leon’s blessing meant a lot. It was a humbling thing to have him sign off on us and tell us we were the right ones to do this.”
In addition to Roberts on lead vocals, fiddle and mandolin, the current lineup of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys includes Dave Biller (steel & standard guitar), Larry Reed (sax), Mike Bennett (trumpet), Steve Ham (trombone), Shawn Howe (fiddle, mandolin), Tony Ramsey (drums), Albert Quaid (bass) and Wayne Glasson (piano).
But back to Merle Haggard. In 2007, Roberts had what he says was “the absolute honor” of playing with Asleep at the Wheel during the “Last of the Breed” tour headlined by the country music royalty troika of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price (who Roberts calls “all so kind and generous”). And again, Bob Wills helped to create a magical moment.
Roberts recalls one day when he was first to arrive early at sound check and began playing Bob Wills tune. He looked over his shoulder and saw Haggard, and the pair got to talking about Wills.
“Merle said ‘Let me go get my fiddle!’ And we played Bob Wills fiddle tunes for about 20 or 30 minutes, just the two of us. Nobody else was in the building,” Roberts says. “Just to do that with a musical hero of mine was something special. I don’t even know how to put it into words!”
Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys play on Sunday, March 19 at 4 p.m. & 8 p.m. (two shows) at Main Street Crossing, 111 W. Main in Tomball. For information, call 281-290-0431 or visit MainStreetCrossing.com. $68 and $114.
For more on Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, visit BobWillsTexasPlayboys.com