Bob Wills, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tex Ritter Sets Lead Album Releases

San Antonio Rose, Mercury Smashes, High Noon reflect vital careers of musical pioneers.

It's a slow time of year for record releases, especially when it comes to country music, but the German label Bear Family Records has continued reviving the spirit of the past, while providing some obvious potential Christmas purchases.

The biggest release is this week's massive 11-CD box set comprising the complete Columbia recordings of the legendary Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Spanning 15 years of the career of the man who is credited with inventing western swing, San Antonio Rose covers Wills' music from 1932-1947.

Along with classic tracks such as "Steel Guitar Rag" (RealAudio excerpt), "Roly Poly" and "Spanish Two Step" (RealAudio excerpt) is a selection of rare and unreleased material, scattered throughout the collection, as well as a 12th disc, a DVD containing the 1940 film "Take Me Back to Oklahoma," which also featured Tex Ritter.

The release begins with Wills' recordings from 1932, as a member of the Light Crust Doughboys (their early recording with Wills was issued under the name Fort Worth Doughboys), moving on to his work with the Texas Playboys, beginning in 1935. Former Doughboy collaborator Tommy Duncan joined Wills and the Texas Playboys as lead vocalist, aiding Wills in establishing western swing as a part of America's musical heritage.

Also included in the box set is a book containing a biography of Wills, a discography, a musical analysis of his work and a variety of rare photos, with an introduction by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel.

Jerry Lee Lewis also receives the box set treatment from Bear Family, with Mercury Smashes... And Rockin' Sessions, a collection chronicling the infamous rocker's stint as a country music star.

While Lewis is best remembered these days for rock and roll hits like "Great Balls of Fire" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Chantilly Lace," there was a time, in the early '70s, when his singles regularly entered the country charts.

Charting the course of nearly a decade, this set features almost all of Lewis' work between 1970 and 1978, including over 10 original albums' worth of songs, as well as dozens of rare and unreleased recordings; the perfect choice for someone who's a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.

A third box set, focusing on Tex Ritter, isn't quite as massive as the first two, but High Noon's four CDs collect over 100 songs, including 19 that were previously unreleased.

The set includes Ritter's complete recordings from 1947-1954, and is a part of Bear Family's ongoing releases documenting the musical career of the man known as much for his stage and screen presence as his singing.

There are multiple versions of "High Noon" (RealAudio excerpt), the track for which the collection was named, and which marked the pinnacle of Ritter's career as a musician. The song was first released as the title track to the 1953 movie "High Noon." Also featured are Ritter's

covers of Hank Williams' "Wearin' Out Your Walkin' Shoes" and Johnny Horton's "Coal Smoke, Valve Oil and Steam."

Other current releases from Bear Family are part of an effort to revive and remember the work of some of the unknown heroes of the '50s. Boppin' in the Dark is a retrospective of work by '50s songwriter Dub Dickerson, who wrote Lefty Frizzell's "Look What Thoughts Will Do" and co-wrote Ricky Nelson's "Stood Up."

Bimbo is a collection of songs by Rod Morris, who is best known for writing the song for which this release is named, which was a #1 hit for Jim Reeves in 1953.

Finally, two talented but often overlooked rockabilly recording artists, Jess Willard and Jimmie Dolan, are remembered through two more Bear Family compilations, titled Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor and Juke Box Boogie, respectively.