Bob Wills's 100th Birthday barn dance hosted by the Bebop Cowboys featuring Tom Wilson , Danny Marks , col. TOm Parker , CHuck Jackson , OH Susanna , Alex Pangman , Michael Kaeshammer and others at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Sunday (March 6), 7:30 pm. $10. 416-588-0307. www.bebopcowboys.com Rating: NNNNN
When it occurred to Bebop Cowboy Steve Briggs that the 100th birthday of western swing king Bob Wills deserved to be celebrated, he wasn't sure how the idea of staging a multi-artist barn dance party would fly within Toronto's diverse roots music community.
The vibrant scene has many talented singers and players, but it can be highly competitive and even a little bit cliquish.
So assembling a cast of country, blues, folk, bluegrass, country-rock and jazz artists to salute the Texas-born musical iconoclast whose innovative use of drums and horns in a western swing format provided an early blueprint for rock 'n' roll had the makings of a Herculean task. Or at least it would've been for anyone but the irrepressible Briggs, with whom everyone in town seems to get along.
"As soon I put the word out that we were thinking of doing a Bob Wills tribute concert to celebrate what would've been his 100th birthday, I started getting calls from pals and even some musicians I didn't really know," chuckles Briggs from his Riverdale home. "They all said, 'I love Bob Wills - put me down for it. '"
Along with the usual suspects, like Col. Tom Parker from the Backstabbers, there are also artists you might not expect to be into Bob Wills, like Oh Susanna. She wants to do Bring It On Down To My House Honey, but said, "It can't be too fast - I only do slow songs."
According to Briggs, many of the artists signed on already had a favourite Wills song in mind. And considering the many classic numbers in the Texas Playboys song book - Take Me Back To Tulsa, San Antonio Rose, Roly Poly, Milk Cow Blues (covered by Elvis Presley), Bubbles In My Beer, Time Changes Everything, Ida Red (which Chuck Berry rewrote as Maybeline), Right Or Wrong (a hit for George Strait), Faded Love, etc - the typical tribute concert dilemma of everyone wanting to do the same tune isn't an issue here.
"Each artist had a different personal favourite - except for a couple of people who asked to do Yearning, which Marianne Girard claimed first - and they all seemed to have an interesting story about how they first encountered the music of Bob Wills.
"Some people recalled their dad playing his records, one told me about finding an LP at a garage sale, and Andrew Collins remembered how he used to go over to his high school buddy Chris Coole's house after class and listen to Bob Wills and Poco."
Although Briggs's own childhood memories of Wills stretch back to a time before he'd even heard western swing music - his father was fond of using Wills's signature 'Ahh-haa' in conversation - it was a concert tour last year with Prairie Oyster's Russell de Carle opening shows for Merle Haggard that got him rethinking Wills's real legacy.
"The first show was in Vancouver, and because we weren't sure of the protocol for listening to the sound check, we snuck in and sat quietly toward the back of the hall.
"Merle's band started warming up, and then Merle called out Wills's Boot Heel Drag and they just tore into it. Maybe it was because (Lefty Frizzell sideman) Norm Stevens was on guitar, but for a second it seemed like Bob Wills was right there with them.
"We moved up closer for the next sound check, and eventually we were sitting in the front row while they were going through Ida Red, Fat Boy Rag and all these other Wills tunes that weren't in their sets. And when they went into Merle's songs, they didn't just play them, they were trying to reinvent them. To see those guys being so creative and having so much fun doing it at their age was really very inspiring."