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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Swingin Down the Texas Highway One Scotsman Journey to Turkey BY KAREN OLSSON LONE STAR SWING: On The Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. By Duncan McLean. Norton. 306 pages. $14.00. ments of our culture are presumed to remain, relatively intact, available for ready viewing along with the world’s largest ball of twine and the most photographed barn in America. Unfortunately, what many highway explorers quickly discover is that the American road is much richer in Cracker Barrel restaurants than picayune mystery, and most road trips don’t yield more than thirty minutes worth of good anecdotes, much less a full-length memoir. Happily the highway \(specifically the a Scottish fiction writer with a newlyminted drivers’ license, a rental car, some grant money, and a passion for Western swing music. In Lone Star Swing, Duncan McLean’s chronicle of a swing-inspired trip across Texas, even the parking lot at Luby’s becomes something new and strange something called a “car park” where McLean finds himself on a Sunday morning, waiting for the restaurant to open. At last, “a lady in a pinnie” unlocks the door: Immediately the doors of every car in the lot swung open, and several hundred men, women and children climbed out, straightened and patted flat their Sunday best, and marched towards me. Or, to be exact, towards the door right behind me…. I found a seat in the gymnasium-sized dining area, and sat sipping and watching families, couples, gangs of teenagers, posses of old folk, all tucking in to vast platefuls of grub: roast beef mashed tatties, gravy, green beans boiled grey, fried mushrooms, buttered squash, eggplant stew, pinto beans, garlic bread, side salad, hot sauce. Plus soup and rolls to start, and peach cobbler and ice cream to finish. And beakers of iced tea all round. What was it with these folks? Had they not eaten since last Sunday? Though the book is ostensibly about western swing, some of its best passages, like this one, offer more gen eral observations on homo Texanus, as seen McLean reads the Weekly World News, spends a long night in a cheap motel, eats at a Bombay Bicycle Club restaurant, finds a gun, drives through a Border Patrol checkpoint, attends the Presidio Onion Festival and, in the meantime, pursues his interest in western swing. That interest, according to McLean, was kindled five years before the trip, when he bought an old swing record from an Edinburgh junk shop. Musically smitten, he began collecting albums and corresponding with other aficionados, and at last he traveled to Texas to “track down the spirit of Bob Wills,” the great bandleader from the Panhandle town of Turkey. One of the pleasing things about the book is how well McLean conveys his enthusiasm for Texas music of the twenties and thirties and forties, despite the obvious fact that he can’t actually play songs for his reader. Clearly, one source of swing’s appeal for McLean is its exuberant fusion of styles, of Dixieland jazz and blues and mariachi and traditional ballads; the text of Lone Star Swing is a correspondingly celebratory verbal collage of description, quoted lyrics, dialogue and headlines. At times McLean simply launches into catalogues of names one singer’s various aliases, or names of Texas territory bands which, taken together, invoke the era of radio shows and country dancehalls: Dalhart’s Texas Panhandlers, Fred Ozark’s Jug Blowers, The Regal Rascals, the Light Crust Doughboys, The Pioneer Playboys, Bill Boyd’s . Cowboy Ramblers… and so on. McLean’s accounts of his often-bewildered encounters with native Texans are themselves charming in their verbal eclecticism \(the Scotsman beginning his sentences with “Eh,” his interlocuters speakincantatory are the song lyrics, which McLean quotes liberally. I just can’t believe my old pal would leave me/ Gee, but I’m heartsick and sore. Or: If you like our song, you think it’s fine, sit right down and drop a line/ To the Texas Playboys from the Lone Star State. Or: Tessie, pull down your dressie/ Cause I was only teasing you/ Just because I waved a dollar bill in my hand/ That’s no need for you to misunderstand. Naturally, nostalgia pervades Lone Star Swing. But it isn’t the nostalgia-for-bygone-America of your average Summer Road Trip, that which’ keeps crappy old roadside diners in business. . Midway through the book, McLean explains why he so loves the music of fifty years ago: Music in America is so well niched these days… that once you know what you like, there’s little chance of ever stumbling across some new recordings…. Music doesn’t change people’s lives in the USA today, it confirms the life you’ve already chosen, or had chosen for you. The whole of American culture seems to me to be tending towards atomisation. Music has become something to separate people, to build walls between them. I love the old stuff that brought people together, that knocked down the walls. A nitpicker could quarrel with these lines or at the very least, with their sweeping generality but ultimately they say more about the author than about music history. McLean’s affection for Western swing drew him on through backwater towns, into nursing homes and tiny bars and other people’s living rooms, and it’s a pleasure to follow him there. It is not uncommon for college students and other freewheeling types to take the traditional Summer Road Trip, gassing up some worn but serviceable station wagon and heading out somewhere preferably south or west, where the more bizarre and backward ele 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 31, 1998