SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF BOB WILLS: KING OF WESTERN SWING, PIONEER, TRADITIONALIST, AVANT-GARDIST, MAGICIAN
PINE VALLEY COSMONAUTS
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Home in San Antone
Trouble in mind
Texas playboy rag
Across the alley from the Alamo
Sweet kind of love
Time changes everything
Hang your head in shame
Steel guitar rag
Brain cloudy blues
Right or wrong
Pan handle rag
Bubbles in my beer
Stay a little longer
My window faces the south
San Antonio Rose
Take me back to Tulsa
Waco Brothers Jon Langford, Steve Goulding, and Mark Durante
Tom Ray (Bottle Rockets) on stand up bass
John Rice on guitar and fiddle
Dave Crawford and Paul Mertens (both from Poi Dog) on horns and piano
Guest singers: Jane Baxter Miller (Texas Rubies)
Brett Sparks (Handsome Family)
Cherilyn and Jo (TMP)
Bob Boyd (Sundowners)
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
LP out on September 8th. CD out October 6th.
LPs are hand numbered, limited edition double records with a poster insert of Langford artwork)
"One of the brightest homages I've heard in a long time...not a bad or boring track to be found"
Bob Townsend Stomp and Stammer
"Somewhere beyond the pearly gates, Bob Wills is streched out in a rocking chair, a cigar in his left hand, a glass of Jack Daniel's in the other, tapping his foot and grinnin' from ear to ear. With all the crap on the airwaves that tries to pass itself as country music these days, this new recording is blessed relief...19 songs all told, each executed with the wild abandon and excellent musicianship that characterized Wills and the Playboys."
David Bennett San Antonio Current
"Damn, it's good. [One highlight is] badass goofball Robbie Fulks, who knows better than most that country music needs a touch of Viet Cong attitude: Sometimes you've got to burn the village in order to save it. Good times are assured."
Steve Dollar playboy.com
"The Cosmonauts play like it's the last hoe-down and mentor Bob is just waiting in the wings, tapping his bow, ready to step in if needed. Just when country music is getting all serious about itself, a waft of bob Wills is just what the doctor ordered. the dance floor is swinging once again."
John Sekerka Thrust Quarterly
"This disc stands alone as a new benchmark for a mcuh neglected genre. Each song is a testament, and the whole disc is a wonderful induction for the uninitiated. With 19 outstanding cuts, it's hard to pick a favorite."
Robert Gabella In The Mix
The indefatigable Jon Langford (of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers) started the Pine Valley Cosmonauts as a temporary outfit to pay tribute to country & western icon Johnny Cash, but the project has taken on a life of its own. He's just one of eighteen singers (along with Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Brett Sparks, and Jane Baster Miller) on the group's second record, a nineteen-song revue that celebrates the music of Texas bandleader Bob Wills. In the 1930s and '40s Wills was the undisputed king of western swing, an amalgam of hillbilly fiddle tunes and big band music. The Cosmonauts' simulations aren't quite as brilliant as Wills' best efforts, but they do capture the irrepressible joy and easy-going swing that make this music so irresistible.
Bill Meyer metromix
This RAYGUN review is by Natalie Nichols:
"Maybe all you modern swing-lovers out there have heard of Bob Wills?
Along with his band the Texas Playboys, he was probably the most
popular purveyor of Western swing, the 1930s-40s pop style that fused
the down-home twang of Western string groups with the jazzy horns of
Dixieland and big bands for a nigh-on-irresistible, high-spirited
So who better to revive this earthy-sophisticated stuff than those
roots-loving alt-rockers from the Mekons and the Waco Brothers? On
19 Wills compositions, frontman Jon Langford, drummer Steve Goulding,
standup bassist Tom Ray (Bottle Rockets), and the band deftly mingle
cheeky brass charts with banjos, guitars, pedal-steel, and fiddles,
enlisting an array of [mostly] qualified vocalists to wring out every
celebratory, mournful, and drunken note.
The songs flow smoothly when talented crooners like Jimmie Dale
Gilmore ["Trouble In Mind"], Dean Schlabowske ["Brain Cloudy Blues"],
or Mekon Sally Timms ["Right Or Wrong"] are at the mike, and the band
conjures up an almost magical aura of easy authenticity, never letting
their deep respect for Wills get in the way of having a grand time.
It might be that very sense of fun, however, that lets them under-
estimate the importance of using the finest vocals, which are key in
limning the proper emotions--especially since it's challenging to
essay the more anachronistic numbers, like the absurd "Across The
Alley From The Alamo," without inadvertently turning them into parody.
While such lesser singing talents as Langford ["Sweet Kind Of Love"]
and Chris Mills ["Home In San Antone"] don't exactly ruin the tunes,
they do dilute the illusion."
Here's a review from the San Francisco
Chronicle. They gave it 4 stars ("excellent").
"Yet another side project spearheaded by the Mekons' country-loving punk
veteran Jon Langford, this tribute to "the king of Western swing" features
guest vocals from some of insurgent country's brightest talents. Robbie
Fulks leads the band through the rousing skirt-twirler "Across the Alley
>From the Alamo"; Austin's Jimmie Dale Gilmore lends his distinctive nasal
twang to "Trouble in Mind"; brooding Brooklyn chanteuse Edith Frost perks
up for "My Window Faces the South."
The Brit-accented Langford takes the lead twice, including a duet on the
Wills signature "San Antonio Rose" with Alejandro Escovedo. There's
plenty here to offer: It's punk in spirit and faithful in arrangement to
the fiddlin' bandleader Wills, and Paul Mertens' frisky clarinet and
saxophone solos help emphasize the "swing" element of this classic music."
And here's the review from the Sept/Oct issue of NO DEPRESSION,
written by David Menconi:
"The problem with tribute records--well, one problem with tribute
records--is consistency. You get a bunch of different acts and maybe
they mesh (with the material as well as with each other), but more
often they don't.
This drop-dead fabulous tribute to the late king of Western swing gets
around that problem by having the same core group on every track.
Mekons/Waco Brothers guitarist Jon Langford is master of ceremonies,
augmented by his regular drummer Steve Goulding, ex-Bottle Rocket Tom
Ray and a horn section of Poi Dog Pondering Members Paul Mertens and
Dave Crawford. The variety comes from the different singers,
including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, Edith Frost and
SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF BOB WILLS works because the consistent backup
group creates a more unified feel than on most such tribute records,
and also because there's no deference paid and no one is afraid to let
themselves go. It's difficult to imagine just what Wills would think
of Robbie Fulks' over-the-top braying on "Across The Alley From The
Alamo" (on which he sounds as if he's coming unglued, one verse at a
time), but that doesn't seem to concern any of the participants in the
least. Everybody's too busy pumpin' away to worry.
Other highlights in clude Gilmore's smooth takedown of "Trouble In
Mind," Sally Timms' sultry "Right Or Wrong," and the damn near
heartstopping Langford/Escovedo duet on "San Antonio Rose." Since
Escovedo is a San Antonio native, that song is as fitting as it is
perfect--guaranteed to get the joint hoppin' at your next house party.
Really, though, there isn't a bum moment anywhere. Loose-limbed where
it has to be yet tight in all the right places, SALUTE THE MAJESTY OF
BOB WILLS is more a conjuring than mere homage. And now that swing
music is suddenly hot again, the time is ripe for a Bob Wills
resurgence. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts seem like just the folks to
take Wills to the people."
Country and Midwestern
The best of the alt-country lot salute the majesty of the
past — while
defining the future
By Mark Athitakis
Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut No Depression was a lousy way to start
a musical revolution. Taking everything they'd learned from their
beloved Gram Parsons and Replacements records, Jay Farrar and
Jeff Tweedy strived to create a country-rock synthesis and wound up
just making a mess. For all its youthful exuberance, the record was
sick with sloppy hooks, clichés, and tentative vocals. The first-album
mistakes were forgivable; by 1993's swan song Anodyne, the St. Louis
band had molded its sound into something richer and truer to both
honky-tonk and post-punk. Despite obvious shortcomings, No Depression
deserves a bit of slack. Not even its makers could have known that it
would become a talisman for a genre that would grow from an AOL
discussion folder to a magazine to a cult to a full-blown culture.
Not that Uncle Tupelo invented country-rock; the relationship was there
ever since Buck Owens and Merle Haggard started playing electric guitar.
But Uncle Tupelo was one of the first modern bands to proudly
acknowledge the interrelationship. Until then, country's presence in
rock was limited to the one-off experiment (Elvis Costello's Almost
Blue, Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, R.E.M.'s "[Don't Go Back to]
Rockville"), the great album ignored in its own time (The Byrds'
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace
of Sin), or anesthetized adult-contemporary pop with a slight twang (the
entire Eagles catalog). No Depression, if nothing else, was an admission
of how much rock and country owed each other. The record opened the
floodgates for alt-country true believers who were weaned on post-punk.
They didn't grow up in Nashville, Texas, or Bakersfield, but in Uncle
Tupelo's urban and suburban Midwest. That the bands found a haven in
Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis isn't that surprising, really. They
were some of the last urban centers left that were unburdened by a deep
country history. There were no Buck Owenses or Lefty Frizzells lurking
in the past; most musicians in the late '80s just wanted to avoid
playing like yet another damned Hüsker Dü knockoff. There was no
ossified country music establishment either: "Fuck this town," Chicagoan
Robbie Fulks sang of Nashville on last year's South Mouth, proclaiming
it the center of a "moron market" concerned more with moving units than
preserving the traditions of honky-tonk or Western swing.
Fulks has earned his right to complain. Across two albums on the
Chicago "insurgent country" label Bloodshot, he's proved himself a
brilliant songwriter, a master of both the genre's irony and dark humor.
Employing a brash, resonant voice that hearkens back to flattop-era
George Jones, songs such as "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" and
"The Buck Starts Here" are carefully crafted tales of loss and
frustration. It's a talent that even a blind and deaf music
establishment couldn't ignore forever, so it's a sort of poetic justice
that his third album, Let's Kill Saturday Night, was recorded in
Nashville for a major label. And, as if to thwart the assumptions of the
company men who contracted him, it's also his first album to step away
from the stylistic conventions he'd used earlier in his career; his
songs now employ volume feedback nearly as much as the twang and lyrical
craft he got hired for.
It's a balance he's comfortable striking. The excellent title track, so
powerful a response to Jones' "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday
Night" that New York's Five Chinese Brothers covered it a year before
Fulks recorded it himself, blasts out its broke-but-fun-loving
frustrations passionately. And Fulks' amplified songs, such as "Little
King" and "She Must Think I Like Poetry," are dense, punkish howls. His
genius is still in the slow, acoustic lament, exemplified by the tale of
religious conflict in "God Isn't Real" or the bluesy stomp of "Pretty
Little Poison," a duet with Lucinda Williams, another songwriter who
clawed her way to Nashville. The sense of doom and foreboding reaches
its peak in "Night Accident," where Fulks takes on the role of a car
crash survivor: Sitting in the passenger side of a vehicle flipped onto
the railroad tracks, he speaks to his dead friend in the driver's seat.
With just enough time before the train comes, he confesses sleeping with
his friend's wife, his agony looming "as vengeful as hands on a crippled
man's throat, silently tightening their hold / As sure as the path of
the 5:19, as down through the valley it rolls."
If Fulks' own album is shot through with a chilly feeling of dread, his
vocals on Bob Wills' "Across the Alley From the Alamo" are beautifully
carefree; that howl of his that's usually in the service of death and
misery works just as well when singing guileless hidey-hos. The song
appears on Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills by the Pine Valley
Cosmonauts, a country-tribute group founded by Chicago-based
Mekon Jon Langford, who since 1985's alt-country touchstone Fear
and Whiskey has moved further away from his British punk roots into a
country-music re-education program. The Cosmonauts are his attempt
to recover Wills & His Texas Playboys from the dustbin of history, with
a core group built on members drawn from fellow Mekons, Langford's
cowpunk side project the Waco Brothers, and groove-rockers Poi
The vocals are handled by a wide array of singers, who function as
object lessons in the commingling of punk and country: Alejandro
Escovedo, former guitarist in Austin's True Believers ("San Antonio
Rose"), Lubbock-bred Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore ("Trouble in
Mind"), and the Handsome Family's Brett Sparks, whose joking vocal
tone works perfectly on "Roly-Poly." Unlike the Cosmonauts' highly
interpretive album of Johnny Cash covers released last year, the Wills
record stays close to the sound and spirit of the originals; the
musicians seem so in awe of Wills that very little is embellished, and
none of the vocalists dares to try one of his trademark "Ahh-haa!"
introductions. It's an honorable record, its songs covered humbly and
honestly, capturing the joy and enthusiasm that pervade Wills' music.
Wills himself makes for an interesting alt-country figurehead. A sort of
country radical during his band's World War II-era heyday (and
onetime owner of the Longhorn Ballroom on Industrial Boulevard),
Wills was a relentless experimenter who drew heavily from the brass
horns of jazz and Texas border-radio mariachi, and he was the first
country act who dared to place a drum kit at the Grand Ole Opry. If a
lust for rewriting the genre's rules is the hallmark of alt-country,
then you couldn't ask for a better mentor. Fooling around with tradition
too much is a dangerous thing, though, and Son Volt's third album, Wide
Swing Tremolo, falls victim to it; frontman Jay Farrar is now flailing
away at tradition so randomly, he's making the same mistakes he did
early on with Uncle Tupelo, trying on so many influences at once, he's
having trouble corralling them.
On Son Volt's 1995 debut masterpiece Trace, the quartet jumped into the
dark truths and soulfulness of country and came up with a blissful,
hooky, and deeply sincere record. Last year's Straightaways started
showing some creative cracks, which become patently obvious on Tremolo:
The band's stabs at Southern rock ("Straightface," "Flow") and
bluegrass-styled muttering ("Carry You Down") sound forced and
unconvincing, while odd, nearly psychedelic instrumental throwaways such
as "Jodel" (nearly atonal harmonica) and "Chanty" (processed acoustic
guitar, played backward at points) only add to the confusion. There are
moments that come close to the strengths of Trace, particularly the
gentle feedback fuzz that graces "Strands," or the quietly dramatic
lament "Streets That Time Walks," but where once Farrar sounded
tragically worn, now he simply sounds sleepy. Worse, Farrar's greatest
asset was as a storyteller, singing about the fears and passions of
modern living, but he's now become nearly inscrutable. "Say hello to the
blue side hanging around / Didn't think it'd matter, just force of
habit," he sings. Well, um, howdy.
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman and Farrar's foil in Uncle Tupelo, has no
such concerns. As part of Golden Smog, his occasional side-project
collaboration with Gary Louris and Marc Perlman of Minneapolis'
Jayhawks, he finds a place to kick his feet up and relax, having focused
his serious work with Wilco and his magnificent collaboration with Billy
Bragg and Woody Guthrie's ghost on Mermaid Avenue. A sort of Midwestern
country-rock supergroup that once featured the Replacements' Tommy
Stinson and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, the lineup now includes Big Star
drummer Jody Stephens, and the music they make on Weird Tales is the
very definition of repose.
Tweedy's own contributions are the charming, breezy rock of "I Can't
Keep From Talking" and the folk-tinged epistle "Please Tell My Brother,"
but Louris is the only one who seems to have saved truly great songs for
the sessions, particularly the lonesome plea of "Jane" and the
heartbreaking, piano-laced closer "Jennifer Save Me"; sounding
precariously close in phrasing to the Replacements' "Here Comes a
Regular," "Jennifer" is also the moment where the band's punk influences
become apparent. That's traditional for alt-country, though: It's about
bands coming to terms with their youth, looking at what came well before
them, and trying to make it mean something in the present, even if they
fall flat on their face in the process. It's a story of successes and
failures, but always a constant searching. Precisely the kind of story
you can wrap a country song around.
Those winter nights get long and lonely, and there's only so many times
you can paint your toenails watching that tape of Brad Pitt on Oprah. So
why not pop in this tribute to Western swing pioneer Bob Wills and blast
your seasonal affective disorder out the chimney. The ringmaster is the
Mekons' Jon Langford, with his band the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and an
elite corps of country-punk rowdies taking turns on the mike. Bob Wills
was one of country's all-time classic songwriters, mixing up Texas jive
and jazz, and his tunes inspire festive, rocking performances all round.
Top-shelf indie songbirds like Edith Frost, Neko Case and Kelly Hogan ride
their blazing saddles through the Wills songbook, while Mekon punk-marm
Sally Timms teaches us all a lesson in "Right or Wrong." No irony or
art-slumming here, just great tunes roughed up in the liquor-store parking
lot. If you can't get your guests shaking ass to The Majesty of Bob Wills,
consider joining a monastery.
(RS 804) ROB SHEFFIELD (3 1/2 stars)
Chicago Sun-Times December 13, 1998
The songs of the late, great Bob Wills are brought to glorious life on this musical roundup by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Another side project of the ubiquitous Jon Langford (Mekons/Waco Brothers/Skull Orchard), the Cosmonauts gather a group of guest vocalists (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks, Neko Case, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, et al.), who add their own personal touches to Wills' magical songbook of country and western swing. The 19 songs here not only showcase Wills' eloquent skills but also those of his modern-day counterparts, who each bring fresh interpretations to songs such as "Drunkard's Blues" (Hogan), "Across the Alley from the Alamo" (Fulks), "Stay a Little Longer" (Case and Bob Boyd) and "Take Me Back to Tulsa" (the Meat Purveyors).
It's not often that you can point to a single figure in any field and
say that's the starting point. Bob Wills is such a person - ground
zero for western swing. Armed with his fiddle, a white Stetson and a
good cigar, Wills listened to the sounds echoing in his head, jazz and
blues mixed with old-time fiddle tunes and formed the Lightcrust
Doughboys and later the renowned Texas Playboys and played what he
called jazz. And jazz it was- just with a fiddle and pedal steel
instead of a horn section. The sound became known as "western swing",
and it was music formed and forged in the dancehalls and honky-tonks
of Texas. It was music for working people, who would fill a roadhouse
on a Saturday night looking to dance, cry and fight- and Bob Wills
reigned supreme over the scene until his death after a coma in 1975.
The body of work he left behind is firmly engraved in our musical
souls- as much as any by Presley or Hank Williams. "Faded Love", "Stay
all Night (Stay a Little Longer)", or "San Antonio Rose" will be in
the jukeboxes of our hearts forever.
But Wills' music wasn't an overnight sensation- far from it. The
first steps of pioneers are generally jeered and ignored, and Wills
certainly took his lumps. Arriving in Tulsa in the mid-1930's, his
band having grown to contain a horn section and definitely playing
"swing music", the group applied for and were denied entrance to the
musicians union, because, to the union's way of thinking "What they
played wasn't music, thus they weren't musicians". To punk pioneer
turned insurgent country artist Jon Langford this must have sounded
familiar. A founding member of the Mekons and now additionally the
leader of The Waco Brothers, I'm sure Langford has faced the blank
stares and cool indifference of those who couldn't understand his
passion. It's in this spirit, I suspect, that he recruited the
alternative country scene's finest to pay homage to one of America's
original punks, Bob Wills.
Langford has taken to his breast the championing of real, roots
country music, the lost American art form. In fact the first Pine
Valley Cosmonauts release celebrated the original Man in Black with
"Misery Loves Company- JonBoy Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts
explore the dark and lonely world of Johnny Cash". Langford and crew
feel that America has lost sight of the true genius that is country
music- the Wills', the Cashes and others that our culture has tossed
away as dated and stale. Of course he's correct- five minutes trapped
in front of the CMA awards would convince you of that, but unlike
others would only carp instead of acting, Langford does something
about it, on this Bloodshot release.
From Jimmie Dale Gilmore's take on "Trouble in Mind", where his nasal
twang sounds born to sing the song to Robbie Fulks honky tonk and horn
raveup on "Across the Alley from the Alamo", this record shines,
mainly because the assembled crew have an evident love for the
material- they all have a pint of Texas flowing in their veins.
Standouts include Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Langford on "San Antonio
Rose", the new cowgirl and the old hoss pairing of Neko Case and Bob
Boyd on "Stay all Night". Kelly Hogan uses a smattering of the old
Jody Grind sound to good use on "Drunkards Blues", a sadly swinging
next morning lament. This lady could sing the yellow off a lemon.
Every track's a keeper with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts (actually the
Waco Brothers) providing an easy, swaying bed of accompaniment for the
singers to do their particular magic over.
All in all, this is a fine salute to a man whose greatest tribute was
knowing that somewhere, from a barroom in Texas to the stage of the
Grand Old Opry, people took his music as their own, and used it as the
soundtrack to their loves and heartbreaks. Jon Langford and his gang
clearly have. So why not pour yourself a Lone Star, put on this
record, and with a nod of the Stetson Texas way, "Stay all Night (Stay
a Little Longer)".
The writing of Charles Townsend was invaluable to this piece.
©1998 James Mann
Originally appeared in Miles of Music, Ink19
Thanks to Lori Wiemer for sending me reviews!