About the author
Coming from a musical family, Mark Rubin is a well known and respected multi-instrumentalist. He played double bass with The Bad Livers. He now leads his own pre-war western swing band, The Ridgetop Syncopators, for which he sings and plays tenor National, tenor banjo, acoustic guitar, occasional 2nd fiddle, plays with Rubinchik's Yiddish Ensemble, plays tuba and sometimes works as a musical supervisor for movies, notably The Newton Boys. This is of course a partial list. Learn more about him on his website.

  Sweet Fiddle Blues - The Tune Wranglers

«I didn't really know much about Texas swing when I came across this dusty old 78 in a wooden box, stuffed in the way back of a very crowded antique store in Lawrence Kansas. It was about 1991 and I was killing time before an inevitably bad sound check at yet another awful little bar. My only hobby at the time was the accumulation of funky old music on 78's and here in this former bank building just off the main drag of a midwestern college town I felt like I hit the mother lode. From that old wine box I scored several life-changing recordings: a Greek language pressing by Gypsy accordionist Mishka Ziganoff, Yiddish Dance Band clarinetist Dave Tarras blowing wild in a rare session with the Bobriker Kapelye from Chicago, a couple of Big Bill Broonzy's amazing hot jazz tunes with full band and even more Bob Wills Columbia releases, hoping to find alternate solos and the 4 different sets of lyrics to «Take Me Back to Tulsa» Didn't pay too much attention to the old Bluebird disc with the hokey band name, until I got home a month later an actually put it on the old Victrola.

At the time I shared a rickety old house with a much more famous (and in my opinion altogether more well rounded) bassist named Kevin Smith. His band at the time, High Noon, was pumping out the purest, sweetest and most raucous old rock and roll anyone is likely to encounter. He had a perfectly operating RCA Victor record player about the size of a washing machine set up in the corner of our front room, like a little shrine to recorded music. The low end of this 8 watt mono player could rattle the rafters of our flimsy pier-and-beam construction 100 year old house and we both took great joy in finding new discs to out rattle each other. As it turned out he was out on the road when I got back home, so I had the player all to myself for a few days. I carefully unpacked my discs and set them up on the player.
I don't know why I picked out the Tune Wranglers first, but I guess I thought the name was kind of dumb and I wanted to see if the track was worth a damn before I consigned it to the skeet shooting pile. You know the stuff : all those Kay Keyser and Guy Lombardo 78's you have to buy when the shop owner says "you have to buy the whole box" just so you get the one Ocie Stockard disc you found in it. Well anyway, I let the record fall on the player and heard the clunk of the stylus locking into the groove.

First you hear a fiddle intro, confident and bluesy in a left-handed Joe Venuti sort of way. He's soon joined by piano, bass, guitar and banjo rhythm section in a moderate fox-trot. A lazy clarinet struggles to play a harmony in it's lowest register and out of the blue some yells out "Al ha!" The groove hasn't even settled in and the exhortations commence over the fiddle solo, and from several quarters; "yes, yes!..that's right!" By the second chorus the clarinet heads for the sweeter spot of his range and quotes the head, this time wailing like he really means it. He passes off his B section to an as yet unheard lap steel man, doing what sounds like his best Bob Dunn impersonation; just a behind the beat, open 5ths all over the place and drunkenly as possible. Behind him the piano plays little falling cascades swirling around the open spaces of his phrasing, the sort of symbiotic playing that only comes from knowing each other for a long time. The fiddle peeks back for 8 bars still solidly in a Venuti mold until the steel gives a final swooping chime at the end of the bar.

Meekly, a vocalist speaks up "I got the sweet fiddle blues.." and he's not convincing me one bit, his voice none too strong and wavering just a tad in a key not well suited for him anyway. The lyrics are pretty strange and even racy for the time, equating listening to a particularly gifted fiddler with an addiction to drugs: "Now some people dip, and some take a trip into the arms of weed and snow. But my only vice, is perfectly nice: It's listening to that sweet man go!" It's not Shakespeare or anything but I can relate immediately. The piano player has blessedly grabbed my attention with a rich lattice work of arpeggio phrases and after one chorus it's all over.

Not for me though. I played that damn record over and over again. Truthfully, I flipped it over, but to this day I can't tell you what the B side was as it made little impression. I still can't properly describe what it was that drew me to this throw away session from a San Antonio based radio band better know for it's singular hit "Texas Sands" in the late 1930's. They sound like they really like their jobs, and are genuinely happy to be in the studio this day. They are conformable with their craft and with each other and it translates across the years and through the recording. The words are conversely stupid and deeply profound, a dichotomy I've learned to seek in all things. Some one told me it's a musical homage to Joe Venuti, who was monstrously popular with Texas fiddlers in the 30's, which makes sense given the fiddler's affectations. But I prefer to hold on to my emotional response to the first time I put needle to shellac. I wish I made records that communicate like that. God knows I've tried.

I used to keep it on an an honored nail on the living room wall along with several other musical oddities that have shaped my artistic outlook over the years. One bleak day long after Kevin had moved out to live with his girlfriend, taking his record player with him, the old Bluebird 78 fell off the hook after a mean spirited girlfriend slammed the door on her way out for the last time. The old record fell straight down, hit the baseboard and fell forward, not shattering as I would have expected, but causing a deep crack all through one side. It still played but, now with a pronounced "thunk" at a regular interval, not one bit congruous to the beat of the performance. Even after that, from time to time I pulled out the wounded shellac disc and put it on whatever player I had available, reveling in the subtle rhythm of a Texas string band in an uncomplicated groove, blowing over a silly little tune of no real importance.

In fact, if you'll excuse me... «Forgive me if I ball, when they say ‘that’s all’… I got those sweet fiddle blues…»

Mark Rubin
Austin, TX USA
December 11, 2004