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No Dancing Around His Love of Swing

July 28, 1998|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a moment, let's forget the raging resurgence of that bygone swing dance era. Sure, the Derby in Los Feliz is a happening joint with its swing lessons, glamour-puss fashion and Lindy-Hop music.

But, deep in the heart of Texas, some 60 years ago, another kind of swing was jumpin' and jivin'--western swing: an all but forgotten sound, a blend of back-porch fiddling, lap steel guitars, yodeling and, yes, even mariachi.

Like a Texas tornado, Duncan McLean's witty travelogue "Lone Star Swing" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1998) takes ya there, Bubba.

McLean, a Scotsman from Orkney, journeys across 10,000 miles of Texas territory on a pilgrimage, hunting down the last remnants of western swing--popular from 1930 to 1950--and his heroes, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Passionate about the music and Wills, the undisputed king of the genre, McLean financed his Texas trip with prize money from the Somerset Maugham Award.

He writes:

"I am not from these parts. I've come a long way in search of real live western swing. I won't find real live Bob Wills, that's for sure: He's been dead 20 years. But his spirit lives on; I know it, I feel it. It lives on . . . somewhere. . . .

"I don't know exactly what it is, and I don't know exactly where I'm going to find it. But somewhere out there, further south and further west--out amongst the country dance halls, the ranch to market roads, the old musicians hunched over tin-tack pianos and tenor banjos-- somewhere in the wide, sun-struck wilds of Texas, that's where I'm going to track down the spirit of Bob Wills. That's where I'm going."

Listening to western swing tapes in his car, McLean begins his odyssey in Jefferson, home of Marion Slaughter, considered to be the first nationally recognized country music star. A month later, he eventually makes it to his destination: Turkey, home of the annual Bob Wills Memorial Weekend.

But it's the pit stops between these two towns where McLean's quest for the roots of Texas swing shifts into first-rate gear. Along the way, he drops in on the eighth annual Presidio Onion Festival with its Hotter Than Hell 5K Run, the mysterious Marfa lights and the tribute to barbed wire in the Devil's Rope Museum in . . . McLean.

To his star-struck delight, he finds surviving band members from Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, the Light Crust Doughboys and Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers--and the honky-tonk dance halls where they played.

In Turkey, he plunks down $8 for a ticket to a hometown stomp featuring the Texas Playboys. The cost of his whole trip was about 800 times that amount, but these eight bucks were the eight that really mattered to McLean.

Again, he writes:

"At last, after a month of listening to records and tapes, after weeks of modestly rewarding visits to hear live music in nursing homes, coffee bars and living rooms, here was what I'd come to the States in search of: western swing in its native habitat, performing its original, heaven-blessed function--making several hundred Texans two-step around a dance hall on a Friday night. Where more fitting than in the hometown of the King of Western Swing?"

At concert's end, while fans are getting autographs and shaking hands with the musicians, McLean blows his big chance to talk to the guys. He clams up and freezes in his shoes. He explains:

"I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't go over there and talk to the Texas Playboys! I mean, what the hell would I say to them? For me, speaking with these guys would be like speaking with, I don't know, Dostoevsky maybe, or Greta Garbo, or Gandhi." Later, McLean doesn't blow his second chance.

Eventually, he heads back home, a swing-happy guy who not only found the origins of this tub-thumping, shoe-stomping sound--and its heroes--but also its spirit.

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