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Lone Star Swing Paperback – April 17, 1998
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Duncan McLean has a dilemma. He's head over heels for a music that's not only going out of style, but is found most prevalently in Texas--a long way from his home in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. After exhausting Scotland's supply of western swing, in 1995 McLean travels to America, rents a Chevy Cavalier, and heads west to explore the birthplace, meet the makers, and dig up the roots of the sounds with which he's fallen in love. As he describes it:
"This is the hottering chili-pot of New Orleans Jazz, old country fiddling, big-band swing, ragtime, blues, pop, mariachi and conjunto that dominated Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and beyond--all the way to San Francisco in the west, Memphis in the east--from the mid-Thirties till mid-Elvis. This is western swing."
Lone Star Swing is both musical pilgrimage and witty travelogue. As McLean trails his favorite music over the back roads of Texas, his adventures make for interesting reading. He has a way of making you feel you're riding along in the passenger seat as he finds the top 10 things to do in Turkey, Texas, on Bob Wills Day (Bob is McLean's western-swing hero), learns how to nibble an onion cooked up sunflower style at the Presidio Onion Festival, gets lectured for cussing in front of ladies after his Chevy gets its doors rehung by a hit-and-run driver, and suffers the wrath of Gulf Coast prawns eaten too far from their home waters. And although he's far away from the Orkney Islands, McLean has a way of making himself at home in just about every place the music takes him.
Touring Scotsman McLean focuses on the underappreciated western part of what used to be called country-and-western music. As he searched for the roots of the western swing music of, most notably, Bob Wills and his band, he also took in other manifestations of the glorious cultural wonderland known as Texas. His initial encounter with Texan fried cuisine leaves him confused as to which platter deposit is the catfish and which the hush puppies, and that sets the stage for bemused commentary on the cultural landscape displayed on the Lone Star's seemingly endless highways. Of a Pink Panther mural at the Roy Orbison museum in Wink, McLean ventures, "Why the Pink Panther? . . . Why the pink 100 lb. weight at his feet? Why the pink three of clubs?" Haunting questions, indeed. Much to his consternation, McLean found precious little contemporary interest in classic western swing. The style reached its zenith in the 1940s and is periodically revived, without much effect. Oh, well. McLean's rollicking journal is immensely good fun, anyway. Mike Tribby
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Top Customer Reviews
A friend recommended that I read this book before I set out for my 2nd or 3rd Rt. 66 road trip. I made a mix tape based on the book to accompany me on that journey, and it was the perfect soundtrack.
A real gem.
Duncan Maclean wrote a very good first novel whose last few pages were a bit ropey - never mind, says I, the good ideas were there, the beautiful imagery: this lad could well turn in the goods one day. So I bought Lone Star Swing, and then kept it on the shelf for a year and a half. Having run out of things to read, I took it down one day and was entranced.
Yes, it's very, very "boy obsessed with music" with it's ridiculous lists and obsession with detail (anyone who has any doubts only has to to read the Nick Hornby Book, "High Fidelity" to know just how obsessive some blokes can be - er, and women, but this is not the place to discuss my A-Z'd old vinyl collection). But here is a man passionately in love with this music, enthusiastically staying in touch with ancient DJ's who live their last years in shacks filled with old tape recordings, who goes all the way from Orkney to Texas on the longest journey of his life to taste such alien and delicious treats as the Texas Rose and stand, in awe, like a small boy, at the feet of the elderly Texas Playboys as they stomp their way through their old standards....
Then came amazon. Then came the opportunity for this English girl living in London to find out just what on earth this Maclean guy found so alluring about some old Texan fiddler and his bluesy, jazzy, folksy playmates. More Cd's than I could possibly buy and they're brilliant. all of them.
Respect. Thank you Duncan. This book has more pure love and tender, respectful energy in it than any other music book I've read. Hurrah for decent music not being pigeonholed in to history and obscurity, but celebrated! Well done, well done. Read it - particularly if you're not sure.
The part where McLean attempts a phone interview with an absolutely befuddled Floyd Tillman is fabulous. Tillman's importance to country music is huge, but the peak of his career is several decades past. Tillman can't seem to wrap his head around the idea that some guy from Scotland would even want to interview him - told the title of the book, Tillman thinks it's "Lone Star Swig", which he assumes will be a book about beer!
The question isn't asked too directly, but the book really does make one wonder about how much we appreciate the heroes of our past and the innovators and originators of our cultural history. That the book is written by a Scottish guy looking for the answers to questions most of the "native" people in his book seem to care not a whit about really drives the concept home.
It's a well-written book with a lot of cool tales and McLean comes across as the sort of guy you wouldn't mind joining on a road trip. On that basis, this book works for me.
A caveat or two. Texans may find his jaundiced view of Texas grating, and lovers of Bob Wills and western swing may find the book something of a hodgepodge on those two subjects. Onion festivals, scary encounters with border patrol, and his opinion of Rush Limbaugh will seem beside the point. Likewise, readers not into western swing will find his enthusiasms, knowledge of music trivia, and references to musicians and songs a bit of a yawn.
But if you've read Charles Townsend's biography of Bob Wills and love the music, this slaphappy mix of travel writing and musicology can put a big smile on your face. Also, McLean's difficulties in finding and interviewing the old-timers who once played with Wills will give you an appreciation for the monumental effort of research that went into the writing of the biography. Best advice: Read Townsend first, then pick up McLean and be prepared to laugh.