Unlike the Jimmie Rodgers tribute which celebrated a long dead and distant figure, this 1970 album was a tribute to a man still alive, and only about ten years removed from having been a viable recording artist.
Even so, by 1970 Western Swing was largely dead as a chart force, the only such artist still charting hit records being Hank Thompson, who had adapted his small-band swing sound into a more contemporary sound with some swing overtones. Spade Cooley was dead (after a stretch in prison for the murder of his wife) in prison, Tex Williams had become a Las Vegas lounge act, and Bob Wills himself had been traveling with a vocalist and using whatever house bands were available, few of whom had any real feel for western swing.
Meanwhile, hot on the heels of “Okie From Muskogee” (and a long string of other major hits), Merle Haggard had emerged as the biggest name in country music, releasing three albums (plus an album featuring his band) between the Jimmie Rodgers tribute and this album.
There would seem to be little to connect the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Jimmie’s music was that of the Great Depression, hard times and scraping by. Bob Wills’ music was, first and foremost, music for dancing and most of Bob Wills’ venues were dance halls. Both, however, were largely based in the blues. Moreover the two musical forces connected in Haggard’s music, probably because Wills was based in California for many years and his music was the music of the dance halls that Haggard heard growing up.
Emboldened by the success of the Rodgers tribute, Haggard set about working on a tribute to Bob Wills, producing three very commercially successful albums (two of them live albums) before pushing producer Ken Nelson into letting him produce another commercially questionable album. To prepare himself for the project, Haggard learned how to play fiddle, and, within a month of doing so, he started planning the album.
Unlike Same Train, A Different Time, Merle’s Tribute to Bob Wills proved immensely influential in helping to revive a musical subgenre that was nearly moribund. Bands such as Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen and Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys all took inspiration from Merle’s album and changed musical direction. Meanwhile a seventeen year old George Strait was finding his muse in the songs of Bob Wills. As Ray Benson noted:
“When we started Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard put out that album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In the World. That was 1970, and we had just started the band. That record, because it was Merle Haggard, and because you could hear all the parts – on the 78s it was hard to pick out some of them – this was basically one of our learning tools.”
In recording the album Haggard realized that his band, The Strangers, was a tight honky-tonk unit, but it really didn’t quite have the feel for western swing. To get that feel Haggard thought that he needed musicians who had played with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. At the time the album was recorded, Bob Wills was unavailable, having suffered a stroke which ended his fiddling days. Johnnie Lee Wills, Bob’s younger brother, a former Texas Playboy and a former band leader himself, was available and recruited to play banjo. Eldon Shamblin, who played lead guitar for Wills from 1938 to the mid-1950s, came aboard, as did the great mandolin player Tiny Moore. Trumpet player Alex Brashear, who played both with Wills and with the legendary jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden was recruited, and to round out the group fiddle players Joe Holley and Johnny Gimble were added. Some of these men came aboard as permanent additions to Haggard’s band, greatly expanding the range of music that Merle could tackle in live performance.
There are two problems with A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World. The first is that Merle’s vocals don’t quite have the swinging feel of Tommy Duncan, who was the best vocalist Bob Wills would ever have and was the vocalist on Bob’s biggest hits (this is a minor quibble, somewhat akin to saying Vince Gill is no Frank Sinatra). The second problem is that the album is too short – eleven songs (the first track is an instrumental background with narration) which could have easily been forty-eight songs with no discernable drop in quality.
The album starts with an instrumental rendition of “Brown Skinned Gal” over which Haggard gives an introductory narrative about Bob Wills. From there the album moves to one of Bob’s most famous numbers, “Right or Wrong”, an old jazz tune from the 1920s, which has been recorded by many singers.
Right or wrong, I’ll always love you.
Tho’ you’re gone, I can’t forget.
Right or wrong, I’ll keep on dreaming,
Tho’ I wake with that same old regret
In 1984 George Strait took “Right or Wrong” to #1, which is the biggest hit version of the song, there being no country music charts when Wills recorded the song in the 1930s.
Next up is “Brain Cloudy Blues” a Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan-penned lament that Merle sings to perfection. Wills and Duncan also collaborated on “Stay All Night”
Stay all night, stay a little longer,
Dance all night, dance a little longer,
Pull off your coat, throw it in the corner,
Don’t see why you can’t stay a little longer.
Bob Wills took this song to #3 in 1946 and Willie Nelson (1973) and Mel Tillis (1982) also charted with the song.
“Misery” is another slow blues, this one penned by Wills, Duncan and Tiny Moore, again sung to perfection by Haggard. In my opinion, on this album Haggard does better with the slower blues numbers than with the uptempo numbers. In live performance over the next few years his feel for swing, both vocally and with his fiddle, improved exponentially:
Went to bed last night wasn’t sleeping
Wondering what’s happening to me
You took my heart and left me lonely
Now I’ve got nothing left but misery.
Tommy Duncan’s biggest solo writing credit was “Time Changes Everything” a song recorded by Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Mel Tillis, George Jones, Roy Rogers, big band leader Woody Herman and countless others.
You can change the name of an old song
Rearrange it and make it swing
I thought nothing could stop me from loving you
But time changes everything
I guess it would be unthinkable to have a Bob Wills tribute album without including Bob’s biggest hit, both as a writer and as a recording artist, “San Antonio Rose” (technically the song here is “New San Antonio Rose”; the original 1938 Bob Wills hit was an instrumental and the vocal hit from 1940 was tagged as “New San Antonio Rose”). There were no country charts in 1940 but Bob charted on the various pop charts of the time, as did a cover version by Bing Crosby. Bob’s recording was estimated to have sold well over a million copies. While I wonder if newer listeners are familiar with the song, anyone born before 1970 will remember the song. Supposedly, this was the first song played on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to feature drums and horns – this in December 1944. The song has downbeat lyrics but an upbeat tempo – Hag sings this song well, but it is a song that everyone of Haggard’s generation knew and knew well.
Moon in all your splendor know only my heart,
Call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone,
Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart,
Speak once again of my love, my own
Oh broken song, empty words I know,
Still live in my heart all alone
For that moonlit path by the Alamo,
and Rose, my Rose of San Antone
Fans of the late John Denver may remember John’s take on the song from his 1976 album Spirit.
“I Knew The Moment I Lost You” is another Bob Wills-Tommy Duncan lament that Haggard excels in singing.
“Roly Poly” is a humorous and upbeat tune written by Fred Rose, the mentor of Hank Williams. Bob took this song to #3 in 1946. Roly Poly is about a very active little boy who eats continuously to keep his strength up. Every verse ends with the tag line,
Roly Poly, daddy’s little fatty,
Bet he’s gonna be a man someday
Jim Reeves had a nice recording of this song during the 1950s and Asleep At The Wheel (with the Dixie Chicks) had a chart hit in 2000.
“Old Fashioned Love” was written by the great stride piano player James P. Johnson. Bob Wills, like Jimmie Rodgers before him, took inspiration from a wide variety of sources and always cited the blues as a primary source of inspiration.
“Corrine, Corrina” is credited to Bob Chatman, who was first to record the song in 1928, but it may be much older than that – the song, in some form or another was played by jazz bands and blues artists for many years. In 1940 Bob Wills created the standard version used by country and western swing performers to this day
Corrine, Corrina; Where’d you stay last night?
Corrine, Corrina; Where’d you stay last night?
Came home this mornin’; Sun was shinin’ bright.
The album closes with an up-tempo Bob Wills-Tommy Duncan composition “Take Me Back To Tulsa”. The lyrics to the song don’t make a lot of sense but it is a fun song to perform and one that always get the audience charged up. Just ask George Strait who recorded it on his For The Last Time: Live At The Astrodome album
The big bee sucks the blossom
And the little bee makes the honey
Poor man picks the cotton
And the rich man makes the money
Take me back to Tulsa, I’m too young to marry
Take me back to Tulsa, I’m too young to marry
A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World initially was a not a huge commercial success, reaching #2 on the Billboard album chart for one week. Although a respectable showing, it was a relative failure compared to other Haggard albums of the period. The album yielded no chart singles; however, its influence on other musicians was enormous. It also revived interest in Bob’s old band, The Texas Playboys, and they reorganized and performed for a number of years thereafter. The project also affected Haggard’s music, particularly his live shows as Hag expanded his band.
In my case, although I had some familiarity with Wills (my Dad had a couple of the Kapp albums from the 1960s), this album spurred me into hitting the used record shops to find albums on Columbia and MGM where Bob’s best years were spent. As for A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World, I wore out my first two vinyl copies playing it in my college dorm room on inferior turntables – I am on my third vinyl copy and have picked up the CD for play in my car. It is not Hag’s best album, but one I will forever love for improving my musical education.
There was a third mostly non-commercial Haggard album released in 1973 titled I Love Dixie Blues, a live album which was Merle’s salute to New Orleans jazz; however, Merle did include a viable single on the album in “Everybody’s Had The Blues” and a live recording of “Carolyn”. Both songs went to #1 (“Carolyn” as a studio version in 1972), ensuring that the album would sell well.