March-April 2007


A Legacy of Sagebrush and Song


By

Larry Wines 

There are Cowboy Junkies, a Cowboy Nation, Cowboy Celtic, even Kahuna Cowboys, and all are bands on today’s music scene. There are the enduring images of frontier primogeniture, Sons of the Pioneers and Sons of the San Joaquin. There are Riders in the Sky and Riders of the Purple Sage, all riding decades before, and still in the saddle decades beyond, the life span of the rock-era’s New Riders of the Purple Sage. And there are all those rangers, including the Lost Canyon Rangers, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Americana band with the Celtic name of Kaedmon, and their song, Still the Lone Ranger.

Autry GroupAll these and countless more conjure western images, and to varying degrees, perpetuate the legacy of western music.

Country & Western as a single musical genre hasn’t existed for decades. When mainstream country went exclusively Nashville after 1980 to pursue a sound that became a cliché, western music found itself out of the spotlight, bereft of the glittering rhinestones. Nevertheless, western and cowboy music have flourished in their liberation and diversity, happily embracing everything from Celtic-inspired cowboy songs of 150+ years ago to boot-scootin’ western swing, honky-tonk and heartfelt new ballads of big skies and open spaces.

Artists like Don Edwards breathe heart and soul into the traditional 19th century cowboy catalog. 1930s-throwback Sourdough Slim takes his Vaudeville cowboy act to the Big Apple’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, to DC’s Kennedy Center and many of Europe’s major venues.

Youthful prodigies like Ginny Mac, the even younger Carin Marie, and family bands like Burson Family Ranch play the festival circuit, have a young fan base and ensure western music’s future for years to come.

Western singer-songwriters still harmonize with the best of ‘em, writing melodies true to tradition and lyrics that conjure imagery of magnificent vistas, laughing rivers running, breathtaking sunsets, prairie moons and other things you’d like to see beyond the far horizon, ridin’ alone or with your sweetheart. And they do all of it better than anything on mainstream commercial music charts. Among the award-winning songwriters and audience favorites are Dave Stamey, R.W. Hampton, Belinda Gail and Curley Musgrave (who perform together and separately), Red Steagall, Brenn Hill, Kip Callahan, Juni Fisher, Katy Moffatt, Ronny Cox, and Les Buffam.

Many songs endure beyond the boot hill of western music stars. Recently-deceased singer-songwriter Chris LeDoux was celebrated in song during his lifetime as someone you’d like to ride trail alongside, together with Gene and Roy (Autry and Rogers, respectively, but that extra identification is never necessary). There was cowboy singer Rex Allen, also known to two generations of kids as the voice narrating classic Disney outdoor films. And there will always be Marty Robbins, the last one to keep the western tradition in mainstream country music, before country became red-state trailer-park rock.

Together with western music, cowboy poetry enjoys new popularity. Poets like national champs Baxter Black, Larry Maurice and Waddie Mitchell, and California favorites Pat Richardson, Gary Robertson and Joe Herrington have been joined by women poets like Lorraine Rawls and young up-and-comers like J.D. Seibert.

A Transcendent Appeal

Cowboy musicians and poets transport their audience to places long gone in time and place, or otherwise absent from a society unaware that ranch life still exists, or that a morning commute might follow a walk to the stable to feed and water the horses. Suburban dwellers flock to hear songs about saddle horse and cinch twine, longing to recapture the flavor of the storybook west beyond the names of vanished or imaginary “ranches” applied to their cookie-cutter housing tracts.

For some, it’s a hankering for the simpler world of childhood, wherein Gene and Roy and Matt Dillon and Ben Cartwright presided over morality plays that were quite literally black and white, and remained that way even after color TV arrived. In film, it peaked with The Magnificent Seven, the horse-opera remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samauri that gave us a classic soundtrack with a main title theme ironically hijacked by a cigarette ad.

For others, it was the ambiguity of a justice-dispensing Clint Eastwood, riding to the stampeding orchestrations of Ennio Morricone, or the enigmatic figure of Custer, once the Errol Flynn hero singing the Garry Owen, later the demented villain of Little Big Man. Now, it’s HBO’s Deadwood, decried as devoid of heroes or ethics, frontier or otherwise, but according to its producers, the first authentic western.

Good, bad, and ugly, Hollywood’s efforts contributed to western music’s hold on the popular imagination, from Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers harmonizing on Cool Water, to Gene Autry’s “song-title series” of films, to Dave Bourne’s five CDs of saloon piano tunes for Deadwood. If old western movies were a myth, so is the commercial-driven sense of today’s West as techno-rodeo circuit with omnipresent chewing tobacco sponsors surrounded by female country singers with big hair and too much makeup.

Authentic western music transcends all that, embracing an ingrained sense of something real, of the essential meaning of life in a place that’s bigger than life, and so it endures.

FolkWorks’ 2006 roundup of folk Americana music on web radio included many western-friendly shows. Even so, there’s more than meets the eye. Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion includes a satirical sketch called “The Lives of the Cowboys,” with Garrison Keillor sometimes crooning a cowboy ballad or two. Don Imus, whose morning radio show from New York City is simulcast predawn here on MSNBC cable-TV, often features live performances by Austin artists who roam beyond the western edge of pop-country, like Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson.

Dennis Jay is Washington, DC’s only cowboy singer, and his CD gets national airplay. He says, “The bluegrass people are everywhere around here, and they think I’m a real novelty.”

As we said, western music is diverse. It includes bands led by Whit Smith and Elana James (aka Elana Fremerman). Both are alums of the late cowboy-festival-circuit favorite, Austin-based Hot Club of Cowtown, a fabulous fusion of Bob Wills, Django Reinhardt, and Tin Pan Alley. Others are more obvious, like honky-tonkers Wiley and the Wild West, with Wiley Gustafson of the Yahoo internet yodel. There’s local western swing band The Lucky Stars, and Texas’ enduring band, Asleep at the Wheel. Many more have other folk credentials and comfortable crossover appeal.

Folk / Western Crossover Artists

The influence and appeal of western music is broader than you think. We’re not talking about Kenny Rogers, the 1960s rocker of First Edition fame who went country and also built a cowboy persona with western gambler film roles and songs that play better in Branson than around a campfire.

Others have ascended the saddle with greater acceptance. Folk favorite Tom Russell headlines cowboy festivals, with original songs like Tonight We Ride and Gallo del Cielo. Emmylou Harris has recorded traditional and modern western music as far back as the early 1970s, culminating in her 1994 CD, Songs of the West. Distinguished character actor and folk singer Ronny Cox writes songs from the open range of his New Mexico upbringing, including a CD called Cowboy Savant. Austin’s Tish Hinojosa, though mostly playing Europe these days, has headlined both folk and cowboy festivals nationwide. Longtime folk star Katy Moffatt has a huge catalogue of western originals and countless cowgirl music bookings. Bluegrasser Rodney Crowell has written cowboy songs including a co-write with Emmylou Harris. Blues harmonica virtuoso Gary Allegretto plays cowboy festivals where audiences delight in the other side of his musical personality. Michael Martin Murphey, known in the 1970s for his then-rock, now retrospect-Americana hits, Carolina in the Pines and Wildfire, has exclusively pursued a western music career for three decades, taking his WestFest in Colorado into its 21st year, and proclaiming himself “America’s favorite cowboy singer.”

Notable local artists crossover to western audiences. Former Denver Opera diva Christina Ortega left the classical scene first for bluegrass, then for western / southwestern music in English and Spanish. Ken Graydon is both a western singer-songwriter and cowboy poet, as well as a folk artist accomplished in sea chanteys and other genres. Amilia Spicer, Dennis Roger Reed and Tom Corbett are known primarily in other folk genres, but all have original cowboy songs that are popular with their concert audiences and played on radio.

Western Music’s Tangled Roots

Western music has multiple heritage, some from cross-border (and pre-border) influences, some from Scottish and Irish ballads. For example, The Streets of Laredo derives from The Bard of Armaugh, which explains the incongruous lyrics about beating the drum slowly and playing the fife lowly in the “dead march,” all remnants from the Celtic original, as Don Edwards often says when performing both versions.

Tucson’s Santa Cruz River Band tours the world doing bilingual acoustic music they call “southwestern folk.” Like Dave Stamey, Don Edwards and cowboy poet Larry Maurice, they entertain and educate audiences about the Mexican and Californio vaqueros as the first real “American” cowboys and a source of the music’s roots and traditions.

Local band Border Radio calls their music “prairie swing,” but they’re an annual favorite at the Bluegrass Association of Southern California (BASC) monthly concert series. Why not? Bluegrass and western music share some taproots.

African-American influences have always been present in western music, given that perhaps 40% of the cowboys on the great cattle drives were freed slaves. Blues, spirituals and old working songs with adapted lyrics easily found their way into the saddle. Poet and historian Larry Maurice notes, “Cowboys on the trail didn’t have guitars. The instruments were too bulky and too fragile. The cowboy piano was the harmonica, pocket size, durable and portable. You could keep yourself company and entertain others with it. And you sure didn’t want any loud instruments that could cause a stampede.”

In the 20th century, with the West fenced and trail drives over, western music centered around dancing, first as ranch life, ultimately as music in town. Western swing arose, molded by big-band arrangements, and Oklahoma’s Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys remain its best-known early proponents. Performed on acoustic instruments, the new genre eventually embraced steel and resonator, then pedal steel and electric guitars. Other roots were always there, emerging vigorously in western dance, including blues, Dixieland, ragtime, Tex-Mex, and the later influences of jazz, big-band swing, and even ballroom dancing.

Still, western music has maintained a roughly equal emphasis on instrumental and vocal music and group harmony. Outside western swing, the rich variety of guitars, banjo, mandolin, and the original primacy of harmonica were joined by accordion from both Mexican ranchera and New Orleans jazz traditions. Finally came drums, adopted slowly by vocal groups that use standup bass for rhythm.

21st Century Cowboys and Western Music

It’s a singularly unromantic time of feedlot cows injected with massive doses of antibiotics to prevent infection from belly-deep excrement. There’s imported beef from clear-cut rainforests. Add to that, beef’s bad name from fast food super-sizing. And, with relentless US government roundups of the West’s last wild mustangs and a lack of a coherent conservation and grazing policy for BLM-administered lands, it would be easy to think the American cowboy is as dead as the dodo, or at least as anachronistic as the horse and buggy. Indeed, cowboy songwriters and poets lament all these aberrations.

It’s a contradictory age. The 2007 Rose Parade celebrated both our own green planet and Star Wars creator George Lucas. Still, it included western music stars Belinda Gail and Curly Musgrave riding their own horses.

Fortunately, the cowboy and cowgirl still ride through today’s reality and in myth and legend, and happily, there’s resurgent interest in cowboy and other western music. The companion story lists 2007’s local western & cowboy music and poetry festivals that you can attend, some concerts known at press time, and resources to find more.

As Southern Californians, we are in an exceptional place where real cattle ranches still exist just up the coast, horse culture abounds all around us, and the Old West keeps a grip on the film studios. Hollywood celebrated its 118th Birthday on February 1, 2005, by dedicating the intersection of Hollywood and Highland Boulevards as “Gene Autry Square.” Mrs. Gene Autry and Johnny Grant lauded the late cowboy actor / singer-songwriter / philanthropist’s many contributions to Tinseltown, while the Riders of the Purple Sage performed Gene’s most popular songs.

An unrelated dedication had previously named the I-5 / 101 Freeway interchange for Autry, near the museum made possible by his generosity. The Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, was absorbed by a 2005 merger with the Southwest Museum, creating the Museum of the American West. The name change has not been popular with cowboy and western artists, but the museum’s exhibits continue to pay homage to the western music and influence of Gene and Roy and others.

Cowboys on L.A. Radio

Western music on the air is resurgent. Sure, there have been setbacks, like the 2002 cancellation here of the long running “Riders Radio Theater,” with Riders in the Sky, and the 2004 demise of a 6-7 am Saturday show, “Cowboys ’Round the Campfire.”

But the 2006 demise of LA’s commercial country radio station KZLA has had interesting effects. That station played no western music, only Nashville pop-country of very recent vintage, so country music fans who sought only pop-country soon bought satellite radio.

Other former KZLA listeners embraced roots music programming on public radio. Many gravitated to Cowboy Nick’s pair of Saturday shows that play “classic country music,” mostly pre-1980 vintage from before the great schism between country and western and before the pop-country Nashville sound took over. Nick’s shows are “Twang” on KCSN 88.5 FM (simulcast at www.kcsn.org) from 10am-2pm, and “Toe Tappin’ Music” on KXLU 88.9 FM (simulcast at www.kxlu.com) from 9-10:30pm. There, Asleep at the Wheel, Jimmy Wakely, Bob Wills, Marty Robbins and others can be heard along with everyone who ever scored a country hit in the good ol’ days of real C&W.

The weekly radio edition of “Tied to the Tracks,” my acoustic Americana radio broadcast, has always featured acoustic western music, including every artist named in this story. Many western and cowboy musicians have been guests on the show’s weekly live performance-interviews. Katy Moffatt, R.W. Hampton, Don Edwards, Belinda Gail, Curly Musgrave, Juni Fisher, Kip Callahan, the Santa Cruz River Band, Buck Corbett & the Boys from the Double J, the Lonesome Spurs, Michael Tcherkassky, folk artists with solid cowboy songs Amilia Spicer, Dennis Roger Reed and Tom Corbett, and cowboy poets Larry Maurice, Joe Herrington and J.D. Seibert have all done the show. The radio broadcast airs Saturdays, 6-10am, on KCSN 88.5 FM (simulcast at www.kcsn.org).

Once this music has you lasso’d, you’ll want to round-up CDs at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, April 25-29 at the Melody Ranch™ Motion Picture Studio There’s a fine selection in the mercantile and available on-line at www.cowboyfestival.org where you can also find the list of performers and events and other information.