Western Swing Rules
Web series by Robert Huston is about keeping that all-American music alive
If Robert Huston has his way, Western Swing music will never die. Fortunately, he’s among friends – this uniquely American musical style popularized by Bob Wills in the 1930s still has millions of fans. Locally, packed houses for modern-day Western Swing orchestra, Asleep at the Wheel, prove that a new generation of fans is listening.
Huston, known in this region for his 35 years in television as a journalist, anchor, on-air host and producer is now reaching a national and international audience of Western Swing enthusiasts in a web series called Western Swing Rules. It currently boasts over 250,000 views and almost 2000 subscribers worldwide.
He and the program have been appreciated this year by two music societies. He was honored as Cowtown Society of Western Music's Promoter of the Year by that Fort Worth, Texas group. He is also a nominee to the Northwest Western Swing Musical Society’s (of Washington state) Hall of Fame for his promotion of the genre through the web program.
As he is a well-raised boy from Waldron, Ark., Huston is quick to say that the success of Western Swing Rules is about the music, not himself. But he is grateful for evidence that more people are enjoying the program, he said.
“I’ve always thought as a genre, Western Swing has never been given its rightful due in the mainstream music world,” Huston said. “Now that I own my own video production company and with the internet as a delivery source, Western Swing Rules is my chance, in my own small way, to help change that.”
To view the episodes online, go to youtube.com and search for Robert Huston Productions or Western Swing Rules. Since 2012, he has produced 26 episodes.
Some are performances of a tune or two – by young performers such as the Quebe Sisters from their appearance at the Alma Performing Arts Center. Other rising young artists such as Texans Mikki Daniel and Kristyn Harris were taped on visits to festivals Huston attended.
There are also “Lick of the Week” music lessons by outstanding Western Swing musicians that are of great interest to players. In video tutorials Huston produces, guitar players, lap steel guitar players, fiddlers and drummers can follow along step-by-step to learn techniques.
“Once the professional musicians know why I do this, they are more than generous with their time and talents.” Huston said. Western Swing is jazz music, requiring the player to play tight arrangements and also have the ability to improvise. The standard of musicianship is quite high.
“I am so proud that Western Swing rules is helping to heighten the public’s awareness of the genre and familiarize them with many artists to help educate them musically,” Huston said. “The ‘artist’s lick’ segments have been extremely popular which help amateur, and even professional musicians, learn to play Western Swing and illustrate how it differs from other genres.”
Other Western Swing Rules episodes, and there are more to come, are historically significant interviews Huston made with legends such as Texas Playboys singer Leon Rausch, which is available online.
The world of Western Swing is broader than Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but no artist stands taller than Wills.
“Bob was Elvis before Elvis,” Huston offered as an analogy. Starting in 1934, broadcasting daily at noon from the Cain’s Ballroom, over the powerful Tulsa radio station KVOO, Wills and the Playboys were not only famous but familiar. The program aired for 24 years. On Saturday nights, throngs of fans traveled to Cain’s to dance to the live band.
KVOO and records reached Fort Smith, as did the band for regular local dances recalled fondly by many people here.
Huston’s first exposure to Western Swing came after buying a Bob Wills album for his mother, who had listened to Wills over KVOO as a teenager. Upon hearing it Huston knew he had found his musical home because Western Swing “had it all,” in his opinion.
He hid a Bob Wills Greatest Hits eight-track tape under his car seat in high school because he thought his friends wouldn’t understand. “It was the 1970s after all,” Huston laughs. He plays piano and has put together Western Swing bands when possible. He credits Playboys fiddler Gene Gasaway for leading him to a breakthrough in his ability to play, something that he hopes these videos can do for others musicians learning this unique style.
Western Swing Rules generates a lot of interest and views but no revenue. Huston produces it out of his own pocket. He travels on his own time to Texas and Oklahoma festivals with a friend who is also retired from television, Rusty Black, as crew. They’ll be trying to get to the Bob Wills Birthday Bash at Cain’s March 1.
So far, enjoyment of the music is all the reward they are gaining, but Huston intends to continue producing Western Swing Rules.
“There is so much more I want to do,” Huston saids, “and time is my enemy when it comes to capturing some of the legendary performers that remain before they’re gone.”
By Lynn Wasson
This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.