First, let’s clear the air. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys recorded “Sittin’ On Top of the World”—track fifteen on the Oxford American’s Texas music issue CD—more than once, and in the liner notes in the magazine we ID-ed the wrong version.* We regret the error.
The song is an American classic, written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon and originally recorded by their band, the Mississippi Sheiks, in 1930. It’s been reinterpreted by everyone from Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Cream, and Dylan to Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, and Jack White—though not by Lenny Kravitz, and only kind of by Robert Johnson. Bob Wills, who likely picked the song up from Milton Brown in his days with the Light Crust Doughboys, was among the first to record a cover (he’d claim his own publishing copyright) when the freshly formed Texas Playboys cut their version on the second day of their first recording session, by invitation of the Brunswick Record Corporation, in Dallas in late September of 1935. That was the one we credited. But the song that’s included on the OA’s Texas CD was recorded sixteen years later (nearly to the day) for MGM in Hollywood on September 11, 1951.
It’s a minor oversight, but damning, since many of the musicians credited are different from the ones to be heard. (The Texas Playboys’ line-up was constantly shifting, and changed significantly after World War II.) The earlier recording showcases the core of the pre-war group—“the best Texas Playboy band he ever had,” according to Wills’s biographer Charles Townsend—and that band did more than any other to define a new kind of music called Western swing. But the later recording is a gem in its own right, and bassist Joe Ferguson, a member of both iterations, later reflected that the ’51 group was “the best musically” of them all. The correct line-up is appended to the end of this article.
I was alerted to the discrepancy by David Stricklin, the director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, whose father, Alton Stricklin (“Brother Al,” Wills called him), was the Texas Playboys’ original piano man. (As a jazz pianist by training, it was really his playing—his hands—that put the swing in what was soon to be called Western swing.) David, a historian in education and occupation, and a lifelong student of his father’s music—in other words, a true expert on this specific matter—was kindly apologetic in pointing out the error, since he loves the MGM recording (even though his father was long gone from the band by then). As he put it, “A thousand people will listen to it and not know the difference, but I had to let you know.”
Perhaps Stricklin felt an extra allegiance to the integrity of this magazine as a past contributor. He published a short piece in the Oxford American’s 2005 music issue about Johnnie Lee Wills, Bob’s younger brother. His contribution is worth noting for the opening paragraph alone, which offers an excellent definition of that new genre of music Bob Wills and his band were peddling:
Oh my, it must have been fun creating western swing, though that name wasn’t very descriptive of what most of the music actually sounded like. It should have been termed “dance music with sometimes frenzied mixtures of blues, old-time country, breakdown fiddle tunes, some jazz, and an occasional Hispanic influence, throwing in many pop tunes of day, featuring heavy use of fiddle, steel guitar, standard guitar, and a rhythm section that drives the band’s central dance-beat orientation, often employing horns as the leader sees fit, and not giving a flip whether anybody thinks any of this makes any sense, as long as you can dance to it.
The dancing, as Stricklin makes clear, was essential—not only to the identity of the genre but to the identity of the band. Wills was a professional entertainer, and he’d engineered an experience called Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, a diversion during those post-Depression years worth the price of admission, which he kept inclusively low. “Bob played the fiddle,” Stricklin wrote, “but his chief instrument was his band, which he directed with an onstage spontaneity that delighted people at dances and kept his musicians on the edges of their seats, literally.” Meaning, Wills could point his bow at any member of his band, or call out any player’s name in his signature yelp, at any time—and he was fond of breaking meter—to demand a solo, and every one of his Playboys could do it without dropping a beat. They never played the same song twice.
That fluency among the band, and Wills’s expectations as a bandleader—pressures compounded by a breakneck schedule—meant the twelve men in the group spent a lot of time together, onstage and on the road. The Playboys performed their four-hour-long shows (no breaks) on a regular circuit, driving hundreds of miles per week (more than 30,000 a year) throughout North Texas, West Arkansas, South Kansas, and Oklahoma, where they were based, and they maintained a daily noon radio show, broadcast live from the Cain’s Academy in Tulsa—so every night, wherever they happened to be, they had to drive back after performing. Stricklin estimates that they logged as many as sixteen hours out of every twenty-four in one another’s presence. This translated to coping mechanisms, road games, and an internal order within the group that included a “band judge” appointed by Wills (saxophonist Zeb McNally) who could levy fines for misbehavior.
“And God knows what they ate,” David told me.
In December, we met for a drink at the OA’s affiliate restaurant, South on Main, next door to the magazine’s offices in downtown Little Rock. David brought two books for me—Charles Townsend’s 1976 Wills biography, San Antonio Rose, and his father’s short memoir: My Years With Bob Wills by “Brother” Al Stricklin. I brought a scrap of paper and pencil, because I was after something specific, a piece of information only the offspring of an original Texas Playboy could know, which I’d heard David recite offhand, a little reluctantly, at a party a few months before. I convinced him to write it down for me—it’s a cultural artifact, in its way, and a tangible link to the life of a hard-working musician of that time. I’m calling it the Texas Playboys’ Taxonomy of Farts, and I present it here without embellishment:
It’s a grading scale, classification by—we presume—magnitude and aural shape. David indicated the three categorical sections, admitting he was extrapolating. “They were musicians; they were obsessed with sound,” he offered, by way of an explanation or defense. Though he was somewhat abashed to reveal this indelicate tidbit on the record, unveiling a distracting tangent from the music and careers of the Playboys, as a historian he appreciated the humanizing linkage. This fart stuff is good context.
It remains unknown if the musicians invented these names themselves or picked them up along the way. At least some of them—poot, buckfart, tear-ass, rattler—are in the vernacular, but the list as a whole seems unique. (Curiously, the only reference to “tatter-poot” I could find online—one of the only times I’ve encountered a Google search return with just one single result—led me to page three of a discussion on rollitup.org, “The Marijuana Source,” a community forum. On December 24, 2012, in a section of the site called “Toke N Talk,” deep into a conversation thread titled “How to Fart in Public Without Being Noticed,” a poster with the handle ilikecheetoes offered a list with seven of the nine terms from the Playboys’ taxonomy, verbatim. One has to wonder: Could ilikecheetoes be another Texas Playboys descendent?) As he finished off the list, David mused: “I think there’s only been a handful of rattlers committed in the history of the world. My father probably committed several of them.”
Brother Al Stricklin’s little book is a worthwhile read, not just for the insider’s account of life behind the king of Western swing. It’s saturated with the parlance of the times and bears plenty of quotables. (“There’s no way you can cram anyone’s feet into a pair of cowboy boots if the socks are still in there. Not even the best damn fiddle player in the world.”) In chapter nine, “Adventures on the Road,” there’s a mention of some of the games the band would play on the bus, including a variation of stud poker they invented using the numbers from the plates of passing cars. But nothing about the fart list.
Al Stricklin’s deep love for Wills is manifest on every page, and in one of the book’s best scenes he recalls the time his boss loaned him a substantial sum. In 1941, Stricklin’s first wife, Arbutus (she went by Johnnie), died of cancer after a protracted, expensive illness that left him penniless, without enough to afford a proper funeral. Johnnie was just twenty-five years old. Wills lent his employee the money and months later, back on solid footing, Al went to make good on the loan:
“I think I can start paying you that $600 back,” I said.
“Kid, what are you talking about?” he asked.
“The money I got from you after my wife died. That $600,” I said.
“I didn’t loan you $600,” said Bob.
“Yes, you did, Bob. You had Mr. Mayo write out the check. You loaned it to me.” I said.
“I gave you $600, kid. I didn’t loan you nothing. And I don’t want to hear any more about it. You’ve got a lot of necessary things to worry about. Okay?" he said.
I stumbled out of his office that day. I couldn’t talk. I walked out and the air smelled so good. There was a little wind kicking up. It felt cool on my face. It was drying my tears. That old Oklahoma sunshine looked like someone had sprinkled gold in front of me. Bob Wills had make it that way.
As a Texas Playboy, it seems, you were one of an exclusive brotherhood, and Bob Wills, the king of Western swing, was much more than a personality and a paycheck. But you had to earn your membership.
Brother Al was the final player to join before the first recordings were made down in Dallas. Early in his time with the band he was teased and tested, not least on the point of being the only college man on the bus, though in his defense he never graduated. Stricklin quickly proved a good fit. The “test went on for several weeks,” he wrote in My Years with Bob Wills, “before the guys as well as Bob decided that I was just old Al Stricklin and wore dirty socks and broke wind that I knew didn’t smell any better than anyone else’s.”
* According to Charles Townsend’s detailed discography, Wills recorded “Sittin’ On Top of the World” at least four times, over a span of thirty-six years—the last at the original Texas Playboys reunion session at Merle Haggard’s home in Bakersfield, California, in September 1971, two years after a stroke paralyzed Wills’s right side, effectively ending his professional career, and two years before he fell into a coma the night after another Haggard-organized original Playboys recording session in Fort Worth, on December 3, 1973.
Oxford American Texas Music Issue CD—Track 15
“Sittin’ On Top of the World”
by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Recorded in Hollywood, California, on September 11, 1951
Credited musicians: Skeeter Elkin (piano); Joe Ferguson (bass); Joe Holley (fiddle); Bobby Koefer (steel guitar); Paul Magee (drums); Ocie Stockard (banjo); Cotton Whittington (electric guitar); Bob Wills (fiddle, vocals)
Special thanks: David Stricklin