These questions and others often spark controversy, and we're interested in what everyone has to say.
Hal Cannon—the founding Director of the Western Folklife Center and its National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko, Nevada and a respected expert on cowboy music—presents an eloquent, concise history of "cowboy music" in his introduction to Old-Time Cowboy Songs (Gibbs Smith, 1988) which he edited. With his kind permission and that of the publisher, Gibbs Smith Publishing, we're pleased to include an excerpt from the introduction, below.
Introduction to Old Time Cowboy Songs by Hal Cannon
"What is Western Music?" by Rick Huff
"Country Music, Cowboys, and the West" by Don Cusic
Old-Time Cowboy Songs
by Hal Cannon
To many westerners, any country music played at taverns is cowboy music. In contrast, to working cowboys and ranch people, cowboy songs are those whose stories tell the occupation of riding horses and raising cattle.
It used to be that cowboy and western music were synonymous in the minds of most Americans. But there are differences: country music is based on traditions of the rural Southeast. A new western traditionalism in music has been growing which resents the "western" being taken out of country and western. Working cowboys (and cowgirls) take seriously the mythic qualities of their lives. They still dress like cowboys, stake a good percentage of their earnings on fancy saddles and hand-crafted fear, many recite poems and sing cowboy songs. They risk all to cultivate the immense amount of skill it takes to be a good hand, taking seriously values such as valor, gentlemanliness, and honest work in the open lands of the West.
People of the West came to this part of the country from all over the world. They brought their old traditions with them, adapting and keeping some, discarding others. Just as western settlement was at its peak, means of communication in the world changed dramatically; telephones, phonographs, film, and radio brought popular culture to a new height of importance in people's lives.
Westerners needed some basis for identity in a rapidly changing technological world. Simultaneously, Americans became fascinated with cowboys. A handful of artists, writers, folklorists, and poets began to record the music, craft, and work skills. Recording artists of western songs in the twenties were primarily working cowboys who sang the folk music of their occupation. Often these boys put a simple melody to any old cowboy poem, making a song. (Many of those narrative songs are better suited for recitation, but a couple with good melodies are included here.)
As western movies became popular, many of their songs were composed in New York, performed in four-part harmony and fully orchestrated—a far cry from the cowboy folk music which preceded. The best of this new music, however, still responded to the heartfelt romance for cowboy lifestyle, and was therefore claimed by westerners. Over the last half century the power of popular culture is unmistakable. In some sense, applying the technologies of popular culture to folk expression is like putting a jet engine in a model T Ford. With the cowboy song, sometimes the wheels flew off the old fliver, but sometimes the supercharged cowboy song with overtones of jazz and pop styling worked quite nicely and was embraced by the folks of the West.
Many cowboys and western music enthusiasts are now looking back to early recordings made by working cowboys and western musicians to find a sense of tradition which responds to the unique land, sky, climate, and settlement of the West. Thanks to a few pioneering folklorists there is a good record of the text of cowboy music, and regional record companies captured the spirit of early cowboy singers....
© 1988, Gibbs Smith Publishing
Reprinted with the express permission of the author and the publisher.
This article appeared previously in our feature here, where is it posted in its original entirety.
Hal Cannon is the founding Director of the Western Folklife Center and its National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko, Nevada, a respected musician and music historian, and the author and editor of numerous books and films.
What Is Western Music?
by Rick Huff
Ok, I’ll bite! What is Western Music? Today that one just may be harder to answer than ever!
Once on NBC’s Today, I saw a performance by Big & Rich, the self-billed “kick-hop” Hot Country duo (whom host Meredith Viera interestingly referred to as “a Country/Western band”) They performed their hit song “Save A Horse, Saddle A Cowboy.” Irreverent Rock? You betcha. EXCEPT…don’t we keep saying Western Music is largely defined by its lyric content? The lyrics of their song are loaded with specific Cowboy references and imagery. Is it “Western?”
Easy, you say? Let’s raise the toughness quotient.
A while back a group called The Reg Keyworth Band put out a regional hit called “Dead Man’s Wash.” It was all about a cowboy’s bleached bones lying on the desert, his boots still on and his six shooter at his side. The cover of the CD single showed a hot sunset glow and silhouettes of a saguaro cactus, a cow skull and an Eastwood-type gunfighter with gun drawn. “Western” enough for you? From the tempo to the vocal delivery and most of the instrumentation, nothing would keep it off the stage at a Western Music Association event…EXCEPT…growling along, underneath but still there, was a low Rock guitar power chord pattern. Still “Western” enough for you??
Or let’s approach it through the other door.
My mentor in the Western Music business was Western Music Association Hall of Famer Hi Busse, a member of Jack Dalton’s original Riders Of The Purple Sage from 1933 (who obtained the first and only permission to use the name directly from Zane Grey face to face). In 1938 Hi founded the Western group The Frontiersmen, and won the job accompanying his good friend Len Slye when he made his first “live” appearance using the name “Roy Rogers!” Later Hi Busse and The Frontiersmen frequently accompanied Roy & Dale when the Sons of the Pioneers weren’t available. Four-part Western harmony was Hi’s specialty, and he knew a “Western” song when he heard it. If you had any doubt, you had but to ask him. EXCEPT…among the standards he might rattle off for you were some songs he staunchly maintained qualified as Western. Three of those songs were “I Believe,” “This Time You Gave Me A Mountain” and “That Lucky Old Sun”…songs that contain not one specific Cowboy lyric or Western image.
And while we’re in The Golden Age…who would argue against the songs of Gene Autry, Roy & Dale or Bob Nolan & The Sons of the Pioneers being authentic Western?! Only a slew of the “authentic” Western writers of the time, who railed against the music, all that showy fringe, the wild Western shirts and the Hollywood distortions as being demeaning to the true image of the Cowboy.
So…what IS Western Music?
Here’s the deal. Because no one ever took on the commercialization of Western Music, or should we say shaping it into an easily reproduced stamp as was done with Country, it has been allowed to grow wild and flower like some kind of prairie weed. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly creating a hard to pin down thing. To use more Western symbolism, the gates have stayed open and the animals are out of the corral. Due to that, we may wind up having to accept a much wider variety of music into the recognized spectrum of “Western” than we ever imagined we would, or become old and bitter in the attempt to pen it. But it never was what you could call a “pure” genre, now was it? With influences coming from everywhere those pesky Irish, Black, Mexican, Indian and other cowboys drifted in from, there’s a nearly 300 year old tradition of blending and inclusion in Western Music! So it’s a weee-mite late to start talking about “pure” now.
In case you thought I knew any more than you do…I figured I had a good definition in mind, as I introduced WMA Female Vocalist of the Year Juni Fisher at one of the house concerts she’s held in our performance space. To the audience I confidently said “Western Music covers the life, loves, lore or locale of the Cowboy or Cowgirl!” First song out of her mouth was about life as a mule.
© 2008, Rick Huff, All rights reserved
This article should not be reprinted without the author's explicit permission
Rick Huff is a writer, reviewer, radio and television host and producer, and a board member of the Western Music Association (WMA). His regular column about Western radio, Western Air, is a regular feature of CowboyPoetry.com, the WMA's quarterly magazine, The Western Way,and other publications.
Rick is a tireless reviewer of cowboy poetry and Western music releases, and his Best of the West Reviews are a feature at CowboyPoetry.com and included in The Western Way, Rope Burns, I.M. Cowgirl, and other publications.
Country Music, Cowboys and The West
By Don Cusic
The cowboy is deeply imbedded in country music; in fact, the most enduring symbols of country music are the cowboy and the west. The first image of country music was the hillbilly or mountaineer but with the introduction of the singing cowboy movies in the 1930s country music received its first positive image and national exposure. Since that time cowboys and country music have been linked, although the primary link through the years has been clothes more than songs.
The cowboy first became a figure in show business during Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows when Buck Taylor was promoted as a cowboy hero. Although the “real” cowboy is a manual laborer, looking after cattle and doing ranch chores, the creation of the cowboy as a mythic, heroic figure meant that he had to leave the ranch and cows. This happened through dime novels during the 19th century, stage shows, western novels and songs where the cowboy is both a performer and subject of an idealized, romantic west.
Throughout the 20th century country music grew to become part of America’s musical mainstream. To do this it had to shed the image of a “hillbilly,” which was a term applied to the early music and performers. During the 1930s the image of the cowboy replaced the mountaineers as country performers, led by the singing cowboys in the movies, increasingly wore western outfits on stage.
As country music grew from a pastime of amateurs into a national industry, its performers, recordings and business has been documented by trade magazines such as Billboard. In June, 1949 Billboard re-named two of its record charts; “Race” was changed to “Rhythm and Blues” and “Folk” was changed to “Country and Western.” At that time the charts reflected juke box airplay, sales and radio airplay. “Country and Western” was replaced by “C&W” in 1956. In October, 1958 “Hot C&W Sides” was the name of the singles chart until November, 1962 when it became the “Hot Country Singles” chart. So the period when the music was officially called “Country and “Western” or “C&W” was 1949-1962.
In 1949, the year “Folk” became “Country and Western,” there were some very big “western” records: “Mule Train” and “Riders In The Sky” were hits on both the “Pop” and “Country and Western” charts. There were five different versions of “Mule Train” that charted and four different versions of “Riders In The Sky.” Bing Crosby and Vaughn Monroe had hits with both songs.
In 1944, the first year of the “Folk” charts the western songs charted were “You’re From Texas,” “Mexican Joe,” “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” “Rosalita,” and “Texas Blues” while “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Down In The Valley,” “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” “Rosalita,” “San Fernando Valley,” “Texas Polka,” and “You’re From Texas” were all on the Pop charts.
In 1945 “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Gonna Build a Big Fence Around Texas,” “Oklahoma Hills,” and “Sioux City Sue” were on the “Folk” chart while on the Pop charts that year were “Along the Navajo Trail,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Northwest Passage,” “On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe,” “Sioux City Sue” and “Three Caballeros.”
The trend of more “western” songs being on the Pop charts than on the Folk charts continued through 1949. Major western hits included “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” “(Oh Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave) Wyoming,” “Cool Water,” “My Adobe Hacienda,” “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “That’s What I Like About the West,” “Blue Shadows On The Trail,” “Buttons and Bows,” “Pecos Bill,” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
During the 1950s, there really wasn’t much “western” in “Country and Western” music as reflected by radio airplay.
In 1950 Roy Rogers had a chart record with “Stampede,” in 1951 there was “Cherokee Boogie” by Moon Mullican, in 1952 there was “The Gold Rush is Over” by Hank Snow and “Indian Love Call” by Slim Whitman; in 1953 there was “Mexican Joe” by Jim Reeves; in 1954 there was “The Singing Hills” by Slim Whitman, in 1955 there was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by both Mac Wiseman and Tennessee Ernie Ford (and on the pop charts by Bill Hayes and Fess Parker), “Cattle Call” by both Eddy Arnold and Slim Whitman and “Yellow Rose of Texas” by Ernest Tubb; in 1956 and 1957 there were no western themed records on the country charts; in 1958 there was “Squaws Along the Yukon” by Hank Thompson. In 1959 there were five western themed songs on the chart: “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” by Johnny Cash, “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, “Half-Breed” by Marvin Rainwater, “Hanging Tree” by Marty Robbins, and “John Wesley Hardin” by Jimmie Skinner. Both “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and “El Paso” became number one on the charts and “El Paso” won the second Grammy Award for “Country Song of the Year.”
In 1960 there was “Amigo’s Guitar” by Kitty Wells, “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins and “Riverboat Gambler” by Jimmie Skinner; in 1961 there was “Oklahoma Hills” by Hank Thompson, “The Rebel: Johnny Yuma” by Johnny Cash and “San Antonio Rose” by Floyd Cramer; in 1962 there was “Adios Amigo” by Jim Reeves, “Cow Town” by Webb Pierce, “The Comancheros” by Claude King and “Where The Old Red River Flows” by Jimmie Davis.
During the period of 1949-1962 when “Country” was labeled “Country and Western,” many argue that country was dominated by “western” or at least held a prominent spot in country music; however, that cannot be proven by the Billboard charts. Where “western” music was dominant was on television. In 1949 “Hopalong Cassidy” and“The Lone Ranger” became regular network programs (although Hopalong Cassidy’s old movies were shown regularly on TV the previous year). These were the first two regularly scheduled network westerns. “The William Tell Overture” is neither “country” nor “western” but for most of those who grew up during this period it has a strong western connotation because it was the theme song of “The Lone Ranger.”
In 1951 “Gene Autry” began his regular network TV series and generally sang a song on each show. “The Roy Rogers Show,” 1951-1957, always ended with Roy and Dale singing “Happy Trails,” a song that became one of the most popular western songs of all time and yet was never a chart record from radio airplay. It became a western standard primarily through exposure on television.
Other TV shows with recognizable western theme songs were “Gunsmoke,” “Cheyenne,” and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” which all debuted in 1955; “Wagon Train,” “Sugarfoot,” “Maverick,” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” debuted in 1957 (the latter show introduced the “Paladin” theme); and “Rawhide” and “Bonanza” debuted in 1959. The theme for “Bonanza” was on the pop chart in 1961 (#19) by Al Caiola and His Orchestra. Caiola also had a pop chart record in 1960 with “The Magnificent Seven” (#35). In 1968 two movie themes were on the pop charts by Hugo Montenegro and His Orchestra and Chorus: “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” (#2) and “Hang ‘Em High” (#82). These last four songs were all instrumentals.
The period 1955-1963 was the era of the TV western and western shows were plentiful and popular; this period also coincides with the era when “Country and Western” was the term applied to what is now called “Country” music. The 1962-1963 season marked the end of the heyday for the TV western although “Bonanza” remained a popular TV show (often ranked number one with viewers) throughout the 1960s.
Many of those who count western music as an important part of their formative years were born during the 1920-1944 period when the Singing Cowboys were still in the movies (the last singing western was produced in 1954). For those born in 1945 or later,the TV western was generally more influential than singing cowboy movies, although Roy Rogers and Gene Autry continued to influence TV audiences after their movie careers were finished.
Television and the movies were more influential in exposing western music—and the idea of the cowboy as a heroic figure—to a broad, general audience than radio airplay during these years, although radio was certainly important. But those who claim that country music used to be dominated by “western” songs—or at least that country music on the radio contained a significant amount of “western” music—are confusing the music they heard on TV with what was on the radio.
Radio was going through major changes during the 1948-1960 period as television became part of American homes. When the networks dominated radio programming, country music was heard on “barn dances” or live variety shows aimed at a rural audience. “Country” music dominated these shows but there were also comedians, square dances and smooth pop-type groups. After World War II there were more radio stations licensed and these shows were dominated by disc jockeys with their shows. Radio featured “block programming” with a country show perhaps several hours a day while a pop music show was on several hours a day. As the 1950s progressed there were an increasing number of shows featuring rhythm and blues. When “Top 40” programming was introduced in the mid-1950s, where a radio station programmed only one type of music, playing the top hits, country music saw a dramatic decrease in airplay as rock’n’roll became the dominant radio format. It was not until the 1970s that country stations gained a significant portion of radio formats.
During the 1940s the top ten “country” artists who received most airplay (on jukeboxes or radio) were Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Al Dexter, Red Foley, Gene Autry, Jimmy Wakely, Tex Ritter, Tex Williams and Merle Travis. Of the top 50 artists during the 1940s there were some who have been labeled “western” artists such as the Sons of the Pioneers (#12), Spade Cooley (#18), Johnny Bond (#26), Wesley Tuttle (#27), Roy Rogers (#35), Bob Atcher (#40) and Carson Robison (#50). However, the artists labeled “western” recorded a wide variety of material. For example, Gene Autry’s biggest hits were Christmas songs (“Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), the Sons of the Pioneers biggest chart records included “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima,” “Baby Doll,” “Cigarettes, Whusky, and Wild Wild Women” and “Room Full of Roses.” Roy Rogers’ biggest chart record was “A Little White Cross On The Hill” and Tex Ritter’s number one records during the 1940s were “I’m Wastin’ My Tears On You,” “You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often” and “You Will Have To Pay.”
During the 1950s the top ten country artists, based on radio airplay reflected by the Billboard charts, were (in descending order) Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Carl Smith, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Kitty Wells. Marty Robbins—who recorded a wide variety of songs—and Gene Autry (at #41) are the only artists who could be remotely considered “western” but Autry’s radio hits in the 1950s were “Rudolph,” “Peter Cottontail,” and “Frosty The Snow Man.”
The most popular country music show on television during the 1950s was “The Ozark Jubilee,” hosted by Red Foley. Tennessee Ernie Ford and Jimmy Dean also had popular television shows during the 1950s but none could be considered “western.” It was only in southern California that TV programs such as “Hometown Jamboree,” “Hollywood Barn Dance, and “Town Hall Party” featured a “western” image.
Looking back at the musical landscape in the early 1960s it seems logical that “Country and Western” would drop the “western” from its label simply because that label did not fit what was being played on the radio. The theme songs for TV westerns were generally written by “pop” writers who worked in TV and the movies in Los Angeles and not released on records to radio. It would not be until the 1970s that cowboys and the west would be a significant part of country music recordings.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in America; there was a social and cultural revolution, dominated by the issues of the Cold War, the atomic bomb, Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The earliest Baby Boomers, born roughly 1943-1954, grew up watching TV when westerns dominated that media; however, the second group of Baby Boomers, born roughly 1955-1964, did not grow up watching Roy and Dale on TV. Instead, the westerns that dominated TV land were “adult” westerns like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” Musically, the first group was impacted by Elvis and the Beatles while the second group’s musical heroes tended to be those rock artists like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and others who emerged from the mid-1960s on. It was not an era of “Happy Trails.”
In country music, Roger Miller became a major star in the mid-1960s at the same time that the Nashville Sound, led by Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Ray Price featured a smooth, pop oriented style of country music. None of them wore cowboy hats; some of them wore tuxedoes.
In 1969 the biggest country hits that had anything “west” or “western” in them were “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell and “Your Squaw is On the Warpath” by Loretta Lynn; in 1969 it was “Okie From Muskogee” by Merle Haggard and “Running Bear” by Sonny James. The early 1970s continued this trend with “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” by Charley Pride in 1970 and “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico” by Johnny Rodriguez in 1973.
Then, in 1974, there were a number of country songs that featured the term “cowboy” or talked about the western life. Some of these include “All Around Cowboy of 1964” by Buddy Alan, “Amarillo By Morning,” by Terry Stafford, “Counterfeit Cowboy” by Dave Dudley, “Last of the Sunshine Cowboys” by Eddy Raven, “She’s In Love With a Rodeo Man” by Johnny Russell and “Whatever Happened To Randolph Scott” by The Statler Brothers.
In 1975 the cowboy was back in the saddle in country music, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and the “Outlaw Movement.” Willie Nelson moved back to Texas in the early 1970s and found a thriving musical scene in Austin where young long-haired hippies wore cowboy hats and drank beer next to rednecks who also wore cowboy hats and drank beer. In fact, many Texans never took off their cowboy hats during the 1960s and early 1970s. Willie Nelson had a number one hit with “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” in 1975 while Waylon Jennings, who embraced his Texas roots in the 1970s by putting on a cowboy hat, had released an album in 1972 titled Ladies Love Outlaws.
During 1975 Waylon had hits with “Bob Wills Is Still the King” and “Let’s All Help the Cowboy (Sing the Blues).” Other hit country songs that embraced cowboys and the west were “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell (#1) “Bandy the Rodeo Clown” by Moe Bandy (#7), “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” by Paul Davis (#47 country and #23 pop).
In 1976 the seminal album The Outlaws, featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser was released and cowboys were riding high in country music. Hit singles that year included “El Paso City” by Marty Robbins (#1), “Cherokee Maiden” by Merle Haggard (#1), “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” by Tom T. Hall (#1), “Can You Hear Those Pioneers” by Rex Allen Jr (#17), “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music” by Red Steagall (#11), “Vaya Con Dios” by Freddy Fender (#7), and the first version of “Mamas Don’t Let your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” by its writer, Ed Bruce (#15).
In 1977 there was “Cowboys Ain’t Supposed to Cry” by Moe Bandy, “Desperado” by Johnny Rodriguez, “I Got the Hoss” by Mel Tillis, “Luckenback, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” by Waylon Jennings and “Adios Amigo” by Marty Robbins. In 1978 there was Waylon and Willie’s version of “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Cowboys Don’t Get Lucky All the Time” by Gene Watson and “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” by Waylon Jennings; in 1979 there was “Coca Cola Cowboy” by Mel Tillis, “Down On The Rio Grande” by Johnny Rodriguez, “Riders In The Sky” by Johnny Cash, “Send Me Down To Tucson” by Mel Tillis and “Tulsa Time” by Don Williams. In each of these years there were a number of other songs that talked about “cowboys” or embraced the west.
The trend continued through the early 1980s, helped along by the movie Urban Cowboy that made cowboys fashionable all over the United States. You would think that fans of cowboys and the west would rejoice; instead, many of them were mad. This wasn’t the same cowboy they’d grown up with, the cowboys with white hats who lived cleanly and always did the just and honorable thing. Instead, these cowboys were outlaws and renegades, intent on doing their own thing and going their own way. If they played hard rock music they were still a cowboy because they had the cowboy attitude which tended towards free living, free loving, hard drinking, some toking and above all full independence while discarding social graces and an in-your-face rejection of polite society while driving a pick up truck and flaunting their non-conformist lifestyles.
At the end of 1977 the group Riders In The Sky was formed when three young men came together on a Monday night and sang cowboy songs to a nearly empty bar. They enjoyed it so much they decided to try singing cowboy songs for a living. It was barely a living those first few years but in 1983 Riders In The Sky landed on The Nashville Network (TNN) a cable channel out of Nashville. By this time the Riders had recorded several albums, were members of the Grand Ole Opry and had made several significant television appearances. As hosts of “Tumbleweed Theater” they re-introduced western movies to the nation. As their career progressed they starred in “Riders Radio Theater,” a show on National Public Radio (NPR) and toured constantly. Aside from the Sons of the Pioneers and a few groups performing at chuckwagons, there was no western music to be heard by audiences anywhere.
The success of the Riders coincided with a renewed interest in the west from Michael Martin Murphey, who had a number of country hits in addition to his pop hits “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines.” In 1970 Murphey moved to Austin, Texas and in 1972 his song “Geronimo’s Cadillac” was on the charts; his follow-up album was Cosmic Cowboy, a term that seemed to fit the Austin movement. In 1986 he started “West Fest,” the first of the big western festivals which featured cowboy culture and western music. In 1988 and 1989 a number of western festivals, patterned roughly after “West Fest” were started.
In 1989 country music saw the introduction of artists such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Alan Jackson. George Strait, Ricky Van Shelton and Reba McEntire were going strong and all of the guys wore cowboy hats. Known as the “Hat Acts” they embraced the western image. The cowboy was firmly back in country music. That same year the Western Music Association, which was formed in Las Vegas the previous year as an outgrowth of a gathering of fans of the Sons of the Pioneers, held its first festival in Tucson.
The formation of the Western Music Association in 1988 was the first time that western music was defined as a separate genre. Prior to that time the music had some fans but no trade organization and no voice that united those fans. The formation of the WMA was instigated by Ken Griffis, leader of The Sons of the Pioneers Historical Society, and was organized by Bill Wiley as a gathering of fans, friends and former members of the Sons of Pioneers.
Western music is a sub-genre of what is now known as country music. The same is true of Bluegrass. The roots of all these musics are the same; musically they are descended from British folk ballads which came across the Atlantic to the Appalachian region. There were many “folk” songs or songs with no known authorship which were passed down through the years with singers making changes in the lyrics or fiddlers making changes in the melodies.
Another source is songs written for the stage, originally minstrel shows but later everything from the Broadway stage in New York to traveling performers. As this music progressed it was generally handed down from performer to performer until the recording industry developed in the late 19th century. Although there were songs recorded that originated in the folk tradition, the music now known as “country music” was not recorded until the 1920s. The first commercially successful recording was “Little Old Log Cabin Down the Lane” by Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta in 1923. The first commercially successful recording of a western song was “When The Work’s All Done This Fall” by Carl Sprague in 1925.
What became known as “country” music was originally labeled “Old Familiar Tunes,” “Old Favorites” and “Folk” music. Originally a music performed by string bands comprised of a fiddle, banjo and guitar, the music evolved into a genre where professionals dominated the field. During the 1930s the music grew because of its exposure on radio “barn dances” and its exposure in the movies via the singing cowboys. After World War II there were essentially five different directions where the music was headed: (1) western swing, which was based on the West Coast and was the most commercially successful in terms of record sales; (2) the singing cowboys, who continued to star in movies; (3) the acoustic string band sound that would evolve into bluegrass through the efforts of Bill Monroe and banjo player Earl Scruggs, who gave the music it’s defining sound; (4) honky tonk music, which came out of the bars in Texas; and (5) the smooth, pop oriented sound that played down the “twang” and sought to reach the largest possible audience.
As the 1940s ended and the 1950s began, western swing virtually died out, there were no longer any singing cowboy movies, the string band sound became firmly established as a subgenre of country music called bluegrass, and the “honky tonk” and “smooth” sound competed for commercial acceptance. Country music is the music that articulates the white working class and as that group moved into the cities and suburbs and became part of the middle class, the country music industry became part of mainstream American music balancing between the “honky tonk” or “traditional” sound that appealed to the working class and the “smooth, pop-oriented” sound that appealed to a broader cross-section of middle Americans.
The formation of the Western Music Association essentially created another sub-genre of country music called “western music.” It had a lot in common with bluegrass because both bluegrass and western music remained true to their heritage while country music reflected the market. In that sense, both western and bluegrass are more “static” in their music, preferring to stick with the old than venture into the “new” while country music has constantly evolved, absorbing musical trends from pop, rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues and show tunes.
Each new generation wants a music of their own; this is generally reflected in the pop/rock world where teenagers of the day flock to a new group of stars. Musically, the sounds tend to be more adventuresome, stretching the boundaries of the previous generation.
The teenager is a key factor in studying the commercial music industry. Generally, when someone is around the age of 15, music becomes an incredibly important part of their life, leading them to bond with friends of similar taste. This important period generally covers the ages of approximately 15-24 and for the rest of their lives people will measure current music against the music they loved and became attached to during this period. Needless to say, no music will quite measure up to the music of their youth.
Country music tends to attract those over 30 years of age after they no longer relate to the pop music of the day. These “converts” want a music that reminds them of the music of their youth so if country music can somehow incorporate the sounds of pop and rock music 15-20 years earlier then it will continue to attract new followers. For this reason, the sounds of contemporary country music tend to embrace and reflect the pop-rock world 15-20 years earlier.
For those who grow up listening to country music a similar pattern emerges; however, they tend to grow disgruntled with contemporary country music because the sound has evolved from the time they first became attached to it.
This is both a blessing and curse for those who listen to country music. On one hand, it is a growing, vibrant music that continues to be commercially successful, attracting the largest age span of fans of any genre (18-65 plus although the 30-65 demographic dominates). On the other hand, it leaves the long time fans forever frustrated because the music doesn’t sound like it used to when they first became attached to it.
This factor is a key reason for the emergence of the Western Music Association and “western music” from the 1980s. Country music brought the cowboy back into mainstream America during the 1970s but it wasn’t the sound of the earlier western music done by the Sons of the Pioneers and the original singing cowboys.
Country music has welcomed cowboys and the west into their camp; many country artists wear cowboy hats and the themes of “cowboys” and the west resonate through country songs. Western music aficionados have not been as welcoming; they insist on stressing the differences between “western” and “country music.” This has been a problem when trying to explain the differences between “country” and “western” to an audience that lumps them together.
The essential difference lies in the lyrics. In a set of liner notes O.J. Sikes focused on the lyrics as the key difference and notes that the lyrics in western songs “describe rural, outdoor scenes or events found West of the Mississippi: a cowboy and his horse on the trail or herding cattle, rodeos, Western wildlife, desert sunsets, rolling prairies, deep canyons, tumbleweeds and cactus.” Sikes further states that “country music lyrics usually describe events that occur indoors, interpersonal relationships like family ties, lost love and such.” Musically, western music tends to be an acoustic music while country music is electric, or at least has an electric lead and steel guitar, bass and drums. Although in terms of melody and harmony country and western are almost identical, contemporary country absorbs the influence of pop music while western remains rooted in the sounds of country music of the 1930s and 1940s. (NOTE: A major factor which makes the Sons of the Pioneers sound different from other harmony groups is that they trade leads and harmonies within a song, with a member singing lead on one line and then harmony on another so each member is always within his comfortable range.)
Some apologists for the western genre insist that country music is full of “cheating and drinking” songs and musically “too much like rock.” There is a bit of truth there; the terms “horse,” “ride,” “saddle,” “gun” and “rodeo” sometimes have sexual overtones in country songs. However, country music is seen by many of its adherents as a music that embraces family values through positive love songs and recordings that emphasize families, children and a positive life style.
The “cowboy” in contemporary country music tends to be an individual living in today’s world while the “cowboy” in western songs tends to either be a historical figure living in the past or a current individual living far away from the contemporary world of cities, suburbs, traffic and Wal-Marts.
The major sticking point that the advocates of “western” have against country music is parked at the intersection of “art” and “commerce.” Those in the world of country music also wrestle with this every day and also feel frustrations. Basically, the music industry does not judge music on aesthetic grounds; instead it judges music with a commercial criteria: If it sells it’s good, if it don’t it ain’t. There are a lot of wonderful artists, songs, etc. who do not sell in large numbers so the major entertainment corporations must move on to what is commercial on a national scale. This frustrates those in a genre such as western music who argue for the intrinsic beauty of the music rather than face the commercial limitations.
There is the undying belief in the western music community that millions of people would love western music if only they had the opportunity to hear this music, but that opportunity is blocked by the major record labels who control access to radio and television. There is an antipathy towards “Nashville,” which tends to be a catch-all term of all they dislike, are frustrated with, and abhor about the music business and country music in particular. And so they intensify their efforts to distance themselves from country music and the country music industry.
In truth, a music is defined by the audience and the audience for western music is also, to a large extent, the audience for country music. That’s the reason that, while those inside the world of western music see a huge difference between country and western those outside this inner circle see the two as parts of the whole spectrum of country music.
The die-hard fans and aficionados of western music will never accept that western music is part of the world of country music or be satisfied when audiences confuse the differences or continue to see a world of “country and western” music instead of a world of “country” and “western” music. Either way, the image of the cowboy and the west will continue play a key role in shaping the image of both country and western music.
© 2008, Don Cusic, All rights reserved
This article should not be reprinted without the author's explicit permission
This article appeared in the Summer, 2008 edition of The Western Way from the Western Music Association. Don Cusic is the editor of The Western Way.
Don Cusic is also professor of music business at Belmont University and the author of numerous books, including Discovering Country Music; Gene Autry, His Life and Career; It's the Cowboy Way!: The Amazing True Adventures of Riders In The Sky; Cowboys and the Wild West: An A-Z Guide from the Chisholm Trail to the Silver Screen; Johnny Cash: The Songs; The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music; Music in the Market; Baseball and Country Music; Poet of the Common Man: Merle Haggard Lyrics; Willie Nelson: Lyrics 1959-1994; Hank Williams: The Complete Lyrics; Eddy Arnold: I'll Hold You In My Heart, and others.
By Wylie Gustafson
Popular cowboy singer and songwriter Wylie Gustafson of Wylie & the Wild West was quoted in a cover story by Don Cusic in the Fall, 2008 issue of The Western Way, a publication of the Western Music Association:
I still don't know what cowboy music is because the cowboys I hang out with—hard core cowboys—listen to stuff all over the map. They like everything from AC/DC to Ian Tyson to George Strait—everybody loves George Strait. To define cowboy music today is hard to do. As a cowboy band I'm bound to the traditions and respect for where it came from and I consider myself a music historian. I really feel it's important to find a contemporary element in whatever we do. Ian Tyson has done that like no other musician has. He has been a voice for the Western lifestyle...
When we asked Wylie for permission to quote him, he offered these additional comments:
I have found in riding the big circle of life that those who have the most absolute opinions of what is "Western" and "cowboy" (or what isn't) are usually the folks who have never doctored a calf or been intimately close to the discombobulated end of a prolapsed cow. But I am not naive enough to think that their opinion has no weight. It does! But it is so pointless because the West is too many different things to so many different people.
I know that whoever tries to define Western music is going to fall short. For instance, there is a strong association of the "cowboy" to what the Hollywood version of the West was. Are we to discount that version? The Hollywood version is very real and meaningful to the lovers of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and The Sons of the Pioneers. I, too, get much enjoyment out of listening to the old
recordings of the '40s and '50s! But I also know that the West and its music is so much more.
I look all directions when I'm on a good trip outdoors. It's important to know where I've been, what's on both sides of me, but I'm one of those free roaming cayuses who wants to know what's over the next hill. My point is, we can't rely on looking back all the time to define what Western Music is. We have to look around us and forward too. It is more than Curly Fletcher, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Glenn Ohrlin, or Ian Tyson—although they have made a big footprint on the trail.
I do know that corralling a worthy "definition of Western music" is like trying to get the best of a wily 6 year old steer... most of the time they are two or three moves ahead of you, and so very unpredictable at times. So my humble advice is to be wary of anyone who gets up on a high horse and tries to tell us for certain what it is (or isn't)... he will undoubtedly get bucked off in an inglorious way!
I am always amazed when I looking at a Charley Russell painting. I am seeing the truth of what it was back then. He captured an era and a feeling like no other artist... but he'd be the first to tell you that what he was painting had mostly disappeared and was no more. His West was dying in front of his very eyes and his genius was in getting it down before it passed away. But that was Charley's West. Things have changed.
I still believe in the West. Its music, poetry and people (some of them cowboys) are a one-of-a-kind. It's lyric and melody include truth, freedom, individuality, fearlessness, romance and reality. It is always a reflection of a world that is alive, vibrant, sometimes joyous, sometimes brutal, always unpredictable... but forever real in the hearts of those who share her many secrets.
photo: Ross Hecox, Western Horseman
Rancher, singer, songwriter and musician Wylie Gustafson of Wylie & the Wild West is the familiar voice behind the Yahoo! yodel. As his web site tells, "He has appeared on the Grand Ol Opry more than 50 times. The band has performed at such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, the National Folk Festival, Merlefest, A Prairie Home Companion, the Bumbershoot Festival and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada...In April 2008, Wylie appeared on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien...Wylie is an accomplished cutting horse enthusiast who was the 2005 NCHA Western National Finals Champion...He and his wife Kimberley actively operate one of the Northwest’s premier cow horse training facilities: www.crossthreequarterhorses.com."
Read more about Wylie in our feature here and at his web site: www.wyliewebsite.com.
Ralph Hamptonof Ralph's Back Porch writes:
Western music is what a cowboy sings and listens to, whether that cowboy wears clean clothes and works at an office or whether he struggles to make a living hauling an old horse around in a beat up stock trailer catching cows for a living. Western music is what tugs at the heart and makes us grin. Western music is the music we play under the stars, around a campfire and in a six cd changer in a Cadillac car.
Western music holds the keys to our past and opens the doors to our future as ranchers, farmers, and plain folks who enjoy all our yesterdays as well as the hopes and dreams of our tomorrows. It ever changes with times and technology and yet it stays true to the traditions we hold dear.
There is room for all of us in Western music, the purists who believe only acoustic will do or the fellow who creates his art using drums and an electric guitar. We are celebrating in song and poetry and story the deeds and struggles of a vast land full of a diverse populace who came into a wilderness and carved out lives for families who still hold those values dear and sacred. We celebrate America, and what is more typically American than the cowboy?
Me? I'm a fan of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter and all the rest who blazed a trail in movies and in songs. I am also a fan of Don Edwards, Ian Tyson and some others who showed us that songs are a fluid thing, not something to be bottled up and set on a dusty shelf. I'm a fan of Wylie Gustafson and Brenn Hill, who daily take the old and new and make it a wonderful painting of the colors of the West as we live it today.
I can and do listen to the classics of yesterday and the classics being made today. I broadcast the music people want to hear, and I'm proud to say, "C'mon, cowboy! Join in and sing along!"
Roger Ringer of Medicine Lodge, Kansas writes:
....Western is saddled with the instant "cowboy" label. Cowboy music is a part—but not the end-all—of the genre. Under my definition, Western music is a mix of folk, bluegrass, country, Western swing, ethnic, Americana, cowboy, Tin Pan Alley, blues and gospel. To cut it short: it is good music.
There is a definite acoustic sound. But you can't exclude that steel sound from Western swing. And isn't that sound of the steel and dobro pretty much a Hawaiian influence?
Some would blame the drums as setting music out of the Western genre. But then you would not have "I Hear the Song of Distant Drums." I don't think anyone has criticized the Diamond W Wranglers for having a drummer in the group.
Watch when people are enjoying themselves at one of the festivals, WMA shows, or others shows with Western performers. This is their music, they just have been told by radio that something else is their music. .
Watch the "Nashville" performers. Almost all have a Western song included in their CD releases. People ask me where I found a couple of songs that I do. I grin and say, "Off of a Garth CD." One of the most recorded and popular songs of the Western genre is "Desperado." Thank you Eagles! Referring to this song, Jim Farrell remarks that it is "the 'Ghost Riders' of today's music."
Western always is and has been good music. Its wide boundaries are what makes it Western. The West is not made up exclusively of cowboys. It took the pioneer, mountain man, surveyor, sod buster, town builders, bankers, miner lawmen, outlaws, Native Americans, Irish, German, Slavic, Bohemian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Polish, Czech, Swede, Russian, English, Scotch, Norwegian, and on and on. This also defines our western heritage along with the cowboy.
Western music is also relatively simple. Anyone who can carry a tune or play three chords can make it his own.
We welcome documented quotations, your opinions and responses to posted opinions. Just email us. We'll post selected submissions here at CowboyPoetry.com.
We welcome your short submissions on these subjects. We hope for serious, considered submissions that further the debate.
and More about Cowboy Music
These selections from our feature here; suggestions for inclusion are welcome, email us
Edward's web site.
Songs of the Cowboys, compiled by N. Howard Thorp ("Jack" Thorp) with an introduction by Alice Corbin Henderson. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921. See our feature and selections from this book here.
Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys, edited by Mark Gardner
The Museum of New Mexico Press has published "a celebration of the work of Jack Thorp," Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys, edited by Mark Gardner, with illustrations by Ronald Kil. The book has an accompanying CD with selected songs from Thorp's 1908 and expanded 1921 edition of Songs of the Cowboys, and the project includes a previously unpublished song. Thorp collected the songs for nearly 20 years, starting in the late 1800's. Gardner and Rex Rideout recorded the songs on vintage instruments played in the style that Thorp would have heard the songs in his time. See our feature here.
Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys is available from the Museum of New Mexico Press, Amazon, and other sources.
Songs of the Cowboys by N. Howard "Jack" Thorp
A facsimile edition of N. Howard "Jack" Thorp's original 1908 Songs of the Cowboys. It includes 23 Cowboy songs, including "Cowboy's Lament" "Little Joe, The Wrangler" and "Cowboys' Christmas Ball."
Songs of the Cowboys; The First Printed Collection of Cowboy Songs Collected at the Turn of the Century by N. Howard ("Jack") Thorp; Variants, Commentary, Notes and Lexicon by Austin E. and Alta S. Fife. New York, C. N. Potter, 1966
This out-of-print book includes Thorp's original book and (from the book jacket) "they have given for each song a general commentary and music; sources for an individual bibliography; the texts of variations; lists of commercial recordings, field recordings, and manuscripts; and places where there has been significant discussion of the song. There is also a lexicon of cowboy words and phrases, a general bibliography, and an analytical index." There are often copies available from used book sources.
Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads, by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, Macmillan, New York: 1938.
This book is the last "revised and enlarged" version that grew from John Lomax's 1910 and 1916 editions. It is a comprehensive anthology, and an indispensable reference book by the man who did the most to collect Cowboy songs. There are often copies available from used book sources.
Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp, by John A. Lomax, Macmillan, New York: 1920
Lomax writes in the introduction that this book "does not purport to be an anthology of Western verse. As its title indicates, the contents of the book are limited to attempts, more or less poetic, in translating scenes connected with the life of a cowboy. The volume is in reality a by-product of my earlier collection, 'Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.' In the former book I put together what seemed to me to be the best of the songs created and sung by the cowboys as they went about their work...The trails are becoming dust covered or grass grown or lost underneath the farmer's furrow; but in the selections of this volume, many of them poems by courtesy, men of today and and those who are to follow, may sense, at least in some small measure, the service, the glamour, the romance of that knight-errant of the plains -- the American cowboy."
This book is the last "revised and enlarged" version that grew from John Lomax's 1910 and 1916 editions. It is a comprehensive anthology, and an indispensable reference book by the man who did the most to collect Cowboy songs.
This book is out of print, and may be available from libraries and used bookstores.
American Ballads & Folk Songs by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax
First published in 1932, this book contains the words to over 200 songs, some with music. Chapters include "Cowboy Songs" and "Vaqueros of the Southwest." There is a recent paperback edition and used copies are widely available from used book sources.
Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story, and Verse, by Katie Lee
A classic of cowboy music lore, based on Katie Lee's interviews, travels, encyclopedic knowledge, and deep love of cowboy history.
The Hell-Bound Train: A Cowboy Songbook by Glenn Ohrlin
Cattleman, former rodeo cowboy, singer and songwriter Glenn Ohrlin has been called a national treasure. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellow in 1985. This now-classic book gathers his knowledge of Western folk songs, with extensive commentary on 100 songs.
He Was Singin' This Song by Jim Bob Tinsley, with forewords by Gene Autry and S. Omar Barker
"A collection of 48 traditional songs of the American Cowboy, with words, music, pictures, and stories."
Git Along, Little Dogies: Songs and Songmakers of the American West (Music in American Life Series) by John I. White, Austin E. Fife Reprint edition (October 1989)
This classic full of facts, lore, and music by writer and cowboy singer John I. White (1902-1992) was reissued in 1989.
The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing and Other Songs Cowboys Sing by Guy Logsdon
Another modern classic by writer and music historian Guy Logsdon, who is the retired Director of Libraries and Professor of Education and American Folklife at the University of Tulsa.
Classic Cowboy Songs by Don Edwards
This book of classic cowboy songs and their origins includes Don Edward's candid autobiography, which includes many amusing and poignant tales about his life and his career. The book includes lyrics, melody line & guitar. Available from Don
Saddle Songs, a Cowboy Songbag by Don Edwards
This book includes 72 favorite and original cowboy songs and ballads with words and music to songs, including "Strawberry Roan," "I'd Like To Be In Texas," "Minstrel of the Range," and "Zebra Dunn." Available from Don Edward's web site.
Old-Time Cowboy Songs, edited by Hal Cannon
This collection of about 50 classic songs, originally accompanied with a cassette tape with a selection of the songs, is now out of print. It's worth searching used book sources (try the Amazon link) to have your own copy of Hal Cannon's eloquent introduction that defines Cowboy and Western music, and for his comments, along with words and chords to songs such as "Annie Laurie," "A Bad Half Hour," "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," "Night Herding Song," "Powder River, Let 'er Buck," "When the Work's All Done this Fall," "Little Joe, the Wrangler," "Hittin' the Trail Tonight," and so many more. His suggestions for further reading and listening will send you along many many happy musical trails. See our feature on this book here, which includes the complete introduction and a complete list of the songs included.
The author of many books, Hal Cannon is the founding Director of the Western Folklife Center and its National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko, Nevada and an undisputed expert on Cowboy music. You can read more about him and the recent film he co-produced, Why the Cowboy Sings, here.
and Western Songs: A Comprehensive Anthology
by Austin E. Fife, Alta S. Fife, music editor Mary Jo Schwab, illustrations by J. K. Ralston
"A comprehensive anthology, 200 songs with music lines and guitar chords." The book also includes a 15-page "lexicon," a dictionary of words used in many of the included songs. This 1969 book is out of print. There's a reprint available:
and Western Songs: A Comprehensive Anthology
by Austin E. Fife, Alta S. Fife Reissue edition (October 2001)
From the Amazon description: This info-packed, 372-page collection features 200 American cowboy songs with complete lyrics, lead lines and guitar chords, plus an extensive introduction, notes on the songs, illustrations by J.K. Ralston throughout, a lexicon of cowboy terms, a general index and an index of titles and first lines, and more. Songs include: "Billy the Kid," "Blood on the Saddle," "Buffalo Gals," "Clementine," "Dakota Land," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Going West," "Jesse James," "Johnny Cake," "Old Paint," "Punchin' Dough," "Red River Valley," "Red Wing," "Shenandoah," "Steamboat Bill," "The Streets of Laredo," "The Texas Cowboy," and many more
Why the Cowboy Sings, co-produced and directed by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis
This is a video version of a film that premiered in January 2002 as a signature event of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and has been awarded a Rocky Mountain Emmy and a Gold Special Jury Award at the Houston Film Festival. The film features Stephanie Davis, Glen Ohrlin, Henry Real Bird, and the Schutte family of Nevada. [From our review] "The lyrical introduction lets you in on the deep roots of Hal Cannon's love for Cowboy music, and gives a glimpse of him performing, and some footage of the earliest National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko, Nevada. As more contemporary shots of some of the Elko stars are shown -- such as Linda Hussa, Paul Zarzyski, and Wallace McCrae -- Hal Cannon asks Waddie Mitchell: 'Why does the cowboy sing?' Waddie responds: 'Why does a frog croak?' The film blossoms to show the profundity underlying the humor of that response. The in-depth pieces with the featured subjects shed some light on why the cowboy sings, but perhaps even more importantly, they show an authentic portrait of the people of the real West. The DVD is available from the Western Folklife Center. See our feature here.
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