The Pine Valley Cosmonauts
Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills
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. As 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 Willses, 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 who 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. Bloodshot Records, 912 W. Addison St., Chicago, IL 60613