Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 1999, Volume 6, #1
Written by John Metzger
When guitarist Jon Langford isn't busy working with the Mekons or the Waco Brothers, he's probably conspiring to create another tribute to one of country music's greatest legends. In 1994, Langford formed the Pine Valley Cosmonauts for a tribute to Johnny Cash that was released by Chicago's Bloodshot Records. This past October, Langford expanded the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, which now includes Bottle Rockets' bassist Tom Ray, the horn section from Poi Dog Pondering, and the Waco Brothers' Steve Goulding on drums and Mark Durante on pedal steel. He also brought along an all-star cast that includes Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Alejandro Escovedo. Together, the collective produced The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, its second tribute outing.
James Robert Wills was born in rural Texas on March 6, 1905. He began playing the fiddle on a dare at the age of ten, and by 1929, he was regularly performing in Fort Worth with guitarist Herman Arnspiger as the Wills Fiddle Band. The group's popularity grew rapidly and changed its name first to the Aladdin Laddies and then, after assuming a sponsorship from the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company, to the Light Crust Doughboys.
But in 1933, Wills was tossed out of the band due to his excessive drinking habits, and he relocated to Waco, Texas. By 1935, Wills had moved again — this time to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he formed Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and secured a record deal with Brunswick Records. The group had an undeniably fiddle-based sound, but it also combined a vast array of influences that included Big Band, swing, bluegrass, blues, mariachi, and New Orleans jazz. Indeed, Wills and the Playboys had created something new and different — western swing.
The group expanded to thirteen members that included horns and reeds, which was unprecedented for a country and western band. Consequently, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys was initially rebuked by fellow musicians when it moved back to Fort Worth. With the advent of electric guitars, the group grew even larger — swelling to eighteen members, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the ensemble disbanded to serve its country.
After the war, Wills formed a smaller incarnation of the Playboys, and it began to tour and develop a national audience — bringing its unique brand of music to the masses in New York and Chicago. However, after a second heart attack in 1964, Wills hung up his hat and sank into legend.
Wills may have died in 1975, but his spirit certainly lives on in everything from Lyle Lovett's big band to the David Nelson Band's unique blend of western swing and groove rock to just about every group in Bloodshot Records' insurgent-country arsenal. With the exponential growth of both the alt-country and swing markets, there's certainly never been a better time for this exceptional tribute album.
Throughout this disc, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts successfully cooks up a vibrant stew of western swing that floats effortlessly between the music of the '30s and the '90s. Texas Playboy Rag develops into a wonderful musical conversation between Durante's pedal steel guitar, John Rice's mandolin, and Dave Max Crawford's trumpet and keyboard. The band conjures the sound of a mariachi band to back Robbie Fulks on Across the Alley from the Alamo, and it pairs perfectly with Jimmie Dale Gilmore for the laid-back, country-blues of Trouble in Mind. Other highlights (and there are quite a few) include singer Kelly Hogan's soulful rendition of Drunkard's Blues, and the old-fashioned hoedown of Stay a Little Longer, featuring vocals by Neko Case and Bob Boyd.
Where many tribute records fall flat, this one succeeds brilliantly. It's consistently strong from start to finish. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts not only captures the spirit of Bob Wills and his music, but it fills the material with its own passion, substance, and excellent musicianship.
Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box