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Cowboy Music Makes a Comeback - 2002-11-01


The movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou two years ago helped spur a renewed interest in so-called "roots" music across America. But not just the kind of twangy mountain and bluegrass music featured in the movie. Another old-time genre, cowboy music, is surging as well, in part because of the movie and for other reasons.

It's cool to be a cowboy these days.

"The cowboy life is a dreary, dreary life
All out in the midnight rain.
Punching cattle from morning to night,
Way out on the Texas Plains..."

Don Edwards, known as the "Minstrel of the Range," is just one of many balladeers writing and singing about themes of the Old West - cattle drives, the wind and stars on the open prairie, and the loneliness of the good-hearted cowboy.

So popular is this music that more than ten new record labels distribute the work of these artists, and the big Warner Brothers label has created a western music division.

"I'm back in the saddle again. Out where a friend is a friend . . ."

And the old is new again. Americans are watching a cable-television channel devoted to nothing but old western movies, many featuring singing cowboys like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Monte Hale, and Roy Rogers. And compact discs, videotapes, and digital recordings of these western troubadours of the 1940s and '50s are selling briskly.

"Take me back to my boots and saddle
Oooh-ooh-ooh, oooh-ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh"

Groups like the Riders in the Sky, out of Nashville, Tennessee, tour the country to packed auditoriums.

"These big-city lights sure don't shine as bright
As you, blue Montana moon..."

Like many others among a new breed of cowboy - and cowgirl - singers, Joni Harms - voted Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists in a year when her album sales have tripled - lives, works, and writes on a working ranch.

Being a working cowhand is a requirement for both musicians and poets to perform at the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held each January in Elko, Nevada. Nightly attendance there has grown from 1,000 a few years ago to 8,000 - and organizers say twice as many fans would come if the little town had a building large enough to hold them.

Mickey Dawes, the president of the Western Music Association, based in Nashville, says cowboy poet gatherings and cowboy heritage seminars are popping up across the nation, spurring interest in the romance - and the music - of the West. Mr. Dawes, who is a cowboy comedian performing alongside several top western entertainers, says the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, had a dramatic impact on the cowboy-music genre. "I think it started to make people realize that life is precious, and maybe they need to go back to thinking about some traditional values and morals," he said. "And western music fits right into that category because it's easy to understand the lyrics. We sing about the great open spaces and campfires and all that, and it just has a real wholesome feel to it. Maybe we need some heroes, and maybe we need some things to hang onto, and western music fills that void very well."

"To all of us kids, Cowboy Bill was a hero
Just as true as his blue Texas skies..."

As country music strayed farther and farther from its roots into a glitzy pop presentation, artists like Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Michael Martin Murphey stuck to a purer, boots-and-saddle sound.

"You gotta cowboy up when you get throwed down.
Get right back in the saddle as soon as you hit the ground..."

One young cowboy artist, Chris LeDoux already has three gold albums, meaning each has sold more than 500,000 copies.

And there's even what's called an "alternative cowboy" scene, made up of edgier artists like Whiskeytown.

"Sit and listen to the rain..."

And Uncle Tupelo. "I can see the sand
And it's running out.
It's running out..."

The first singing cowboys appeared as early as the 1920s, and it was in the following decade that Jimmie Rodgers warbled his voice into his famous yodel. Then, too, in the depths of the Great Depression, country music's legendary Sons of the Pioneers added superb harmonies and brilliant arrangements to simple cowboy songs.

"See them tumbling down.
Pledging their love to the ground.
Lonely but free I'll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds..."

The Sons of the Pioneers, with whom Roy Rogers got his start and whom he kept as backup singers throughout his career, are the inspiration to many current western groups, including the Prairie Rose Wranglers - three men who are part of a remarkable western renaissance in southern Kansas.

"A way out west they got a name for wind and rain and fire.
The fire is Joe.
The rain is Tess.
They call the wind Maria."

The Wranglers, Stu Stuart, Jim Farrell, and Orin Friesen, perform at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper Club outside Wichita. Three years ago, on a struggling cattle ranch there, Thomas and Cheryl Etheredge were asked by the local chamber of commerce to entertain 25 French visitors. Cheryl cooked beef brisket and beans, and Thomas invited three friends who became the Prairie Rose Wranglers to sing. "And as they sang, even though this delegation could not understand English, tears began to roll down their cheeks and they began to, over the course of the next hour, fall in love with something they had read about and heard about in France all of their lives - the great American cowboy," said Thomas Etheredge.

The Prairie Rose is still a working ranch, but now more than 60,000 people a year - including thousands of international visitors - come to eat beef and beans, tour the ranch, buy western souvenirs, pay homage to the great American cowboy, and hear the Prairie Rose Wranglers perform music like the state song of Kansas.

"Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play."

In addition to singing and playing the bass fiddle with the Wranglers, Orrin Friesen is a western historian and disc jockey. "Western music is so positive," he said. "You don't find songs like in country music, especially the older country music, where there's all this cheatin' and drinkin.' Here the songs are about horses, about deserts and mountains and prairies. It's somethin' that America is ready for. And I see it growing right now."

Fellow Prairie Rose Wrangler Stu Stuart makes a simpler distinction between western music and country music. "Country music is one guy in a cowboy hat, singin' about three women," said Stu Stuart. "And western music is three guys in cowboy hats singin' about their horse!"

If there were any doubt about the renewed popularity of cowboy music, it will be erased next spring. The Prairie Rose Wranglers have been invited to host, perform, and introduce other western artists at the very first concert of cowboy music ever staged at Carnegie Hall in New York.

It's an honor even Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers never enjoyed. That night, Mickey Dawes is likely to end his performance with a favorite line to the audience: "We'll see you in the future, or maybe the pasture."

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