The Wills Way

To music historians and fans, the late Bob Wills was the "King of Western Swing," one of America's greatest music pioneers. To Nick Forster -- a Colorado music legend and the founder and host of the e-town radio show -- Wills and his Texas Playboys were much more.

"He had this wonderful combination of music," Forster says. "Bluegrass, blues from the Delta, the jazz tradition from New Orleans that ricocheted back from New York City. It was this joyful collection of all these things -- white, black, German, Mexican, New Orleans Creole -- all rolled up into one free-rolling sound."

Across five decades (starting with the 1920s), during which the West's demographic groups often butted heads, Wills's tunes were a source of serious harmony among Westerners. It also highlighted America's songbook.

Forster will discuss these impressive historical feats on Tuesday, March 29, when he presents "100 Years With the King of Western Swing: How Bob Wills Connected the Dots of American Music," part of the Distinguished Lecture Series at the CU-Boulder-based Center of the American West. The center, says Patricia Nelson Limerick, its chief, "has always tried to be a showcase for the important values and traditions of the American West." Forster's talk offers a break from the usual focus on public policy and legislative matters. "We're reminding ourselves and our audiences that these dimensions of art and music are important to the West," explains Limerick

Born in 1905 in Texas, Wills played his first music at ten, scratching the fiddle at a barn dance; by the early '30s he was fronting his Texas Playboys; in the '40s, he was the era's Elvis, releasing oodles of recordings, starring in movies and performing for huge crowds and elected officials. ("He could've run for office if he'd stayed sober," Forster says of the fiddler.) Wills reportedly made over $300,000 in 1945, and he enjoyed massive success through the 1960s as well. A pair of heart attacks and then a stroke in 1969 brought an end to his performing career. He died in 1975, at the age of seventy.

Since arriving in Colorado thirty years ago from New York, Forster has enjoyed his own successful career. His first in-state job as guitar repairman at Harry Tuft's Denver Folklore Center put him in touch with the state's best pickers. He was a founding member of celebrated Colorado newgrassers Hot Rize (with Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick and the late Charles Sawtelle), and the Grammy-winning act enjoyed a twelve-year run and produced ten recordings. Since 1991, Forster has been cementing his hometown-hero status with e-town, recorded live at the Boulder Theater. The program airs weekly on NPR and other stations across the U.S.; it features discussions of community and environmental issues, coupled with live performances by some of the globe's best musicians.

In Wills's day, he and the Playboys would barnstorm across the West playing to crowds who had a visceral appreciation of song. It's not the same today, Foster notes: "Music has become more of a spectator sport than a participatory one." But he's happy about the resurgence of roots tunes in his adopted region and jamgrass, alt-country and Americana acts who understand the power of banjos, pedal-steel guitars and Wills's trademark fiddle.

"The West," Forster says, "has always had this pioneering spirit, where traditions are used as a point of departure, rather than a guardrail. I think that continues still."

So does another tradition that Wills embraced, and Forster agrees: "A music career built on getting your ego stroked isn't going to last a long time. But a music career built on the joy of hanging out with people you care about and making music? Bob Wills proved that can last for sixty years."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marty Jones

Latest Stories