In the late 1920s, Western swing hit the Texas music scene. By the 1930s, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were a household name and Western swing was a staple of radio stations and dance halls across the Great Plains. The style offered the danceability and fun of the jazz big bands, but with a twist.
“I always joke that it’s jazz with a cowboy hat,” says Gerard Egan, guitarist for local outfit the Carolyn Sills Combo. “Those guys were as sophisticated as anybody else playing in Benny Goodman’s band or Duke Ellington’s band, but they grew up in Texas or Arkansas and wore cowboy shirts and cowboy boots.”
Western swing, which pulls together elements of country, jazz, blues, polkas and Hawaiian steel guitar, represents an American melting pot. But it remains something of a throwback genre; bands like Asleep at the Wheel and the Hot Club of Cowtown are top-of-mind among contemporary Western swing bands, but the list is short.
Egan believes that the reason the style hasn’t been widely adopted is because it’s hard to play well. Bandleader Carolyn Sills points out that Western swing doesn’t fit into the singer-songwriter focus of folk and country.
“A lot of today’s country is focused on one person singing a song with a guitar,” says Sills. “Western swing is much more of a group dynamic.”
Sills and her combo—comprising Egan, Charlie Joe Wallace on steel guitar, Jim Norris on drums, and Sunshine Jackson on harmony vocals and percussion—isn’t strictly a Western swing band. But the Western swing community recognizes a good thing when they see it. The band was recently nominated for Best Western Swing Group and Best Western Swing Female at the Ameripolitan Awards in Austin for its new album, Dime Stories Vol. 2, which was recorded by Andy Zenczak at Gadgetbox Studios in Santa Cruz.
They didn’t win, but the band members had an unforgettable experience in Austin. They opened for West Texas honkytonk legend James Hand and were called onto the stage at the Continental Club by country icon Dale Watson, who coined the phrase “Ameripolitan” and is the mastermind behind the awards. There were also late-night jams at the local Holiday Inn, where many of the out-of-town bands stayed.
Sills and Egan have been making music together since 1999, when they met at college in Connecticut. As the three of us sit out on the Crepe Place patio, they share stories of bonding over Stevie Ray Vaughan bootlegs and old music. When Egan wanted to attend the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, he proposed to Sills, and the two moved from New York City for the six-month program. Egan was offered a job at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company and, three weeks later, Sills was hired to help run the office.
As newcomers to Santa Cruz, the two played small gigs until local promoter Tom Miller took a chance on them, and booked them to play a Patsy Cline tribute show. One hundred or so people attended, and a rising star of the Santa Cruz music scene was born.
Sills and Egan have profound respect for their bandmates. Egan says that at any time on the bandstand he can call out a tune that’s “a Johnny Cash beat, in this key.”
“That’s really magical right there,” he says.
“I have absolute confidence that we can do that to all of them at any time,” agrees Sills.
When asked about being a bass-playing, singing frontwoman in a country band, Sills laughs and admits it’s “like a squirrel wearing clothes.”
“You don’t meet a ton of female bass players, and there are definitely some that can kick my ass,” she says. “But it’s fun. I get respect from people—dudes, as well.”
As Egan sees it, Sills has the hardest role in the band.
“If someone misses a note in a solo, it’s not big deal,” he says. “But bass is rhythm and melody at the same time. If you miss that one note, it’s so obvious. For Carolyn to do that, and sing, and lead the band, she’s taking on many roles at once.”
Even though the Carolyn Sills Combo isn’t strictly Western swing, the members take their role as torchbearers for the genre seriously.
“We’ve gotten that Western swing tag and we love it,” says Egan. “It’s an honor to represent that form of music, the musicians that made it well-known, and how it shaped so much that came after it.
The Carolyn Sills Combo will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 1 at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/gen, $32/gold. 427-222