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Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

Boot Heel Drag: The MGM Years – 2001 (Mercury)

Reviewed by Jon Johnson

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CDs by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

Although Bob Wills' years with Columbia (1935-47) are justifiably regarded as his most fruitful years from a commercial standpoint, he and his band were arguably at their musical peak during the immediate post-war period, hampered only by vocalist Tommy Duncan's abrupt departure from the band in 1948.

And though Wills' MGM period (1947-54) has been somewhat haphazardly represented on CD until now, this fine 50-song 2-CD collection - representing about half of Wills' total output for the label - more than makes up for that lack of attention.

Even after Duncan's departure the Texas Playboys were still a marvel, at various times including the great rhythm guitarist Eldon Shamblin, Johnny Gimble and Tiny Moore on fiddle and mandolin, steel guitarist Herb Remington, drummer Johnny Cuviello, and Bob's younger siblings Billy Jack and Luke Wills on drums and bass respectively. And though none of the group's other vocalists could match the charisma and delivery of Duncan (who would briefly reunite with Wills in the early '60's), the band was never less than competently served in the vocal department.

Highlights include songwriter Cindy Walker's only known lead vocal with the Texas Playboys on "Three Little Kittens," Jack Loyd's fine rendition of Emmett Miller's "I Ain't Got Nobody" and the pounding proto-rock 'n' roll of 1953's "Bottle Baby Boogie," featuring a rare lead guitar performance from Shamblin and some terrific steel guitar work from Billy Bowman and teenage wunderkind Vance Terry (who passed away earlier this year under decidedly tragic circumstances).

Long after the great swing bandleaders were put out to pasture in the wake of the Second World War, Bob Wills was still a top draw at ballrooms around the country, as this collection demonstrates. An excellent companion to any collection of Wills' better-known Columbia period.