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LONE STAR SWING.\o7 By Duncan McLean (W. W. Norton: 306 pp., $14 paper)\f7

July 26, 1998|SEAN WILSEY | Sean Wilsey works in the fiction department at the New Yorker. He has just completed his first novel

In 1993 a young Scot named Duncan McLean won the Somerset Maugham prize for his first collection of short stories and was faced with a predicament: The prize stipulates that its recipients must use their award money to travel abroad, and McLean--quite happily--had never so much as traveled outside of Scotland. But he did have one powerful draw: the music called western swing. Western swing is a combination of jazz, oom-pah, Dixieland, big band, back porch, mariachi and conjunto music that was first played by itinerant musicians often to equally itinerant farm workers in dance halls all over the American Southwest. It thrived from the '30s to the '60s, and after discovering an old LP by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in an Edinburgh junk shop, McLean began a one-man revival of "the stuff that has been sending jolts of musical electricity through me ever since." So in the summer of 1995 he learned to drive and headed off to Texas on "one Scotsman's odyssey in search of the true meaning of Texas Swing." "Lone Star Swing" is the strange and wonderful book about what he found there.

McLean describes western swing as "music that picks up your feet and puts them back down again." It's dance music with its origins in cornball cowboy bands like Snuffy Smith and His Feather Merchants. Its finest recordings were laid down by sophisticated dance orchestras often with corporate sponsorships: the Light Crust Doughboys (sponsored by Light Crust Flour), Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, Adolph Hofner and His Texans (he cannily changed his name to Dolph during the war) and McLean's idol and grail, the breakdown fiddler Wills. The music had swagger and charm and, as McLean puts it, is "in essence only differentiated from the boosterism and bragging of modern rap groups by relative gentility of expression." The Texas Playboys, fronted by Wills, started as a "territory band," working an area mapped out partly by their local radio station's signal strength and partly by their own stamina. "All musicians active at this time have similar tales," McLean tells us, "of broadcasting daily--for 30 minutes at noon, say--playing requests, advertising sponsors' products, reading out listeners' dedications, plugging forthcoming dances, before jumping into the band bus and driving 10 or 50 or 200 miles to set up for that night's dance. How far away they traveled was determined by the distance they could drive and still get back in time for the next day's show." Western swing began to fade out mid-Elvis, and its practitioners are now few and often infirm (in one instance McLean visits an old folks' home to hear a performance: "Apart from me--and the staff, who weren't paying much attention--there weren't any members of the future generations present.")

"Lone Star Swing" is scrupulously researched, and McLean's approach is part exuberant music criticism, part anthropology, part history and part road diary. While educating himself (and us) about his favorite music, McLean tussles with border officials; drops perfect literary references--"I suddenly had the feeling that I'd walked into a Charles Bukowski short story: the fleabit motel, the bottles of cheap wine, the broken-nosed old drunk pissed on winnings from the dog track"; joins a parade at the Presidio Onion Festival; gets hazed by rowdy participants in "The National Narcotic Detector Dog Assn. Annual Convention"; and checks out museums devoted to barbed wire, Satan and minimalist art. It's an unprecedented combination, and just when you've had enough of one bent, McLean shifts into another and so keeps it all fresh, in much the same way a good western swing bandleader would keep it fast and varied to ensure his audience stayed out on the floor (at 10 cents a dance).

The book is structured as a straightforward chronicle of McLean's journey, starting in the Louisiana border town of Jefferson, Texas, the birthplace of Vernon Dalhart, the first country performer to achieve national recognition--and ending up in the Texas panhandle town of Turkey, where the Wills family settled after walking halfway across Texas in search of work picking cotton. Each chapter feels like an invitation to a new dance. They all begin with a reproduction of an invitation, calling card or a promotional flier from a bygone western swing band. "Howdy Cousin, Howdy!" says one. "This is a Complimentary Pass to Our FANCLUB DANCE . . . Wear Your Boots, Hat and Overalls . . . If You Are Not of Age Give This Pass to Someone Who Can Use It."

Wills and McLean are the only fixed points in this book's white line fever. McLean scours the state for people who knew Wills, who died in 1974. "Bob Wills? Couldn't play to save himself. A showman is all he was," says one white-bearded drummer.

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