Fifty years after Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and John Wayne became heroes by starring in hundreds of films about cowboys and life in the West, the music, stories and poetry of a legendary era continue to reach across the generations to enchant new fans.
With festivals, radio shows and new music dedicated to Western music, the genre, though only a sliver of the large country music market, has garnered a loyal and ever-growing fan base.
More than 300 festivals honoring Western -- or cowboy -- art forms will be held throughout the U.S. this year. A number of these events will attracts tens of thousands of people, including Michael Martin Murphey's WestFest in Colorado, Red Steagall's Cowboy Poetry and Western Swing Gathering in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada.
Each week, approximately 200 radio programs featuring Western music are broadcast throughout the nation. Steagall's show, "Cowboy Corner," is syndicated to 172 markets as it approaches its 10th anniversary and Paul Aaron has kept "Cowboy Joe's Radio Ranch" based in New York City on the airwaves since 1976.
Two organizations are dedicated to preserving and celebrating the music of the West through festivals and awards shows: the Western Music Association and the Academy of Western Artists.
In May, w\Western music experienced one of its finest hours when "The Great American Cowboy in Concert" was held at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The sold-out show was the first time Western music had been performed at the world-famous venue since the Sons of the Pioneers, known as the founders of Western music, played there in 1951.
Joni Harms, an entertainer of the year from the Academy of Western Artists' Will Rogers Cowboy Awards, was among the performers at the Carnegie Hall concert. She is one in a group of new singer-songwriters trying to preserve and move forward Western music. Her latest project, "Let's Put the Western Back in the Country," has recently been released by the independent Texas label Wildcatter Records.
After a career that has included stints at major Nashville labels such as Universal Records, Capitol Records and Warner Western, Harms understands the challenges for those artists who sing cowboy music.
"There's no real opportunity for the Western artists yet," she said recently from her ranch in Oregon, "so they have to make their own."
For Harms, that has meant doing everything from visiting radio stations to promote her record to touring in Europe, where she said "they love anything that has to do with the cowboy."
Like Harms, those who perpetuate the Western lifestyle through song usually live on ranches, lending credibility to the music and the artists.
"I don't feel I have a right to sing the music and wear the cowboy boots and a cowboy hat without being a part of the ranching community," said Michael Martin Murphey recently while visiting Nashville. "I am a horse rancher and a cattle rancher. I live in an Amish community (in Wisconsin). I'm kind of a 19th century guy living in the 21st century and my neighbors never left the 19th century."
Murphey, whose long music career includes recording the classic songs "Wildfire," "Carolina In The Pines" and "What's Forever For" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is one of the most vocal and visual flag-bearers for the cowboy. In addition to writing and recording Western songs, Murphey has served as a political lobbyist for ranchers and the agricultural community for several years.
His most enduring contribution, however, may be his current recordings of 19th century classics such as "Home On the Range," "The Streets Of Laredo" and "The Yellow Rose of Texas." "Cowboy Songs," his first collection of a series that now includes four CDs, has sold more than 500,000 copies, making it the first album of Western music to sell gold since Marty Robbins' "El Paso" album in the early 1970s. Fittingly, Murphey recorded "Cowboy Songs" at Omni Studios in Nashville, which Robbins owned at one time.
"When I decided to make 'Cowboy Songs,' it was really for that reason that nobody had made a 32-track digital version of 'Red River Valley.' Nobody had recorded 'Happy Trails' that way. So people are stuck buying old re-releases of masters that are scratchy old records. As nostalgic as that is, it doesn't sound as good when you play it, so, why not make new versions?
"It's music that belongs to American culture. It's your heritage and my heritage. These are treasures that you don't have to be a billionaire to own.
"People ask me 'why do you play cowboy songs?' I say it's primarily for fun. I just love to sing them. I grew up in Texas and lived on ranches most of my life. I love to sing the music of my culture. It's the same reason B.B. King likes to sing the blues. I do feel a responsibility to get good digital recordings down of some of the classics. I'll do more albums like this of the 19th century stuff."
While Murphey likes to think of himself as a 19th century man, he was unafraid to utilize 20th century technology for the "Cowboy Songs" series, just as he intends to use 21st century technology for his next dream project, recording the Western classics on a trail around the campfire.
"I'd like to film singing some of these songs live around the campfire and put together a collection on DVD of singing these songs in some of America's great scenic places, just me solo with the guitar around the fire, like in Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. There's something about being out there that makes the music sound different, makes it feel different."
Red Steagall, who has made a career as a storyteller, poet and singer about the Western lifestyle, has seen the genre peak and valley.
"There was a time when I worried about it going away, simply because after the Millennium, our concentration was on bigger and newer and better things," Steagall said recently from his home in Fort Worth. "All of a sudden, 9/11 happened and, I believe, that brought us closer together than our country has ever been. People want to know where our country came from. They want to feel leather and oak, not plastic and tinsel. I believe that we have an audience that will last forever. I see more and more young people at our audiences."
Steagall also maintains that the appeal of the music has more to do with values than with horses, cattle or trail rides.
"The cowboy way of life that we love and want to perpetuate is not based on how well we know cattle or how well we handle horses," Steagall said. "It's based on a set of values that we developed as a country: honesty, integrity, loyalty, dedication to family, conviction about your belief in God, respect of your fellow man, common decency. Those are the things that our society was based on."
People in search of those values are drawn to Western music, Steagall said.
"The people who come to watch come from all walks of life," he said. "People still want to know that they are independent, individual and free. People who live in a clustered society where the only green grass they see grows in a city park can transport themselves into the West through a song and poem."
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