SINGAPORE -- With Western clothes, a Texas drawl and a sound polished in Nashville, 'Singapore Cowboy' Matthew Tan is luring Asians down the long country road.
Young Singaporeans seeking an alternative to rock 'n' roll are joining homesick Americans basking in Tan's repertoire, which stretches back to the 'Red River Valley.'
Tan, a 44-year-old Chinese who never outgrew his childhood infatuation with singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, now is entertaining standing room only crowds of new country fans.
'I was born a half world from Nashville, Tennessee, where all year long the summer breezes blow,' croons Tan. 'And while my friends were flying kites and planting bonsai trees, I got high on country radio.'
Working stints as a salesman to keep his show business ambitions alive, Tan at first performed wherever he could, gradually mixing country tunes with the pop songs the crowds had come to hear.
'The country sound was almost alien here,' Tan said, 'so I started out slowly with songs like 'Red River Valley,' 'Yellow Rose of Texas' and even 'Home on the Range.'
In a nation where rock 'n' roll is the mainstay of record stores and radio line-ups and selections by such country stalwarts as Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams are rare, Tan sticks to a musical formula that works: songs with simple lyrics and catchy refrains.
'People anywhere can relate to this music,' Tan said. 'Broken love affairs, hard times, life's miseries and joys. That's universal stuff.'
In the posh Peacock Bar, the requests pour in for what Tan calls the heartbreakers, like 'Your Cheating Heart,' 'I Don't Care if Tomorrow Never Comes,' 'Cold, Cold Heart,' 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' and 'Stand By Your Man.'
Tan acknowledged his style was mostly imitative. The uncanny renditions of 'On The Road Again,' 'Rocky Mountain High,' 'Honky Tonk Man' and Johnny Cash favorites prompt many transplanted Americans employed by oil refineries to sing along and newcomers to clap and stomp their feet.
The crowd never tires of numbers by the late Jim Reeves, particularly such perennials as 'He'll Have to Go' and 'Down in the Valley.'
It was the 18 months Tan spent in Nashville in the 1970s singing with any group that would give him a chance and subsequent tours around the United States that stripped away the novice trappings.
With Southeast Asia far off any country singer's circuit and Tan depending then on whatever he could glean from records and radio broadcasts, he laughingly described how incongruous he must have looked dressed with his three-man band in the traditional garb of Chinese mandarins.
'Actually I was so grateful for any chance to sing, I didn't care what we wore,' he recalled, 'and those costumes linked us with the Chinese culture.'
It was during that first, eye-opening stint in the United States that Tan began cultivating his image -- Texas drawl, Western shirts, big brass buckle belts, leather boots and the informal style long associated with country stars.
'It was the relaxed and homey presentation that made the biggest difference,' said Tan, who dropped the stiff Asian demeanor for an easy-going manner, wooing newcomers to the country sound in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Japan.
A recent six-month jamboree in Tokyo required some adaptations, Tan said. 'The Japanese are into jazz and by nature are rather quiet and subdued. So we toned the music down, threw in nostalgic evergreens and stayed away from the really rowdy stuff.'
Back in Singapore, Tan stops to say 'howdy' to the many regulars who missed him during the Japan stint, locals who dropped in at the Peacock Bar out of curiosity one night and found themselves addicted.
With four albums out and some original numbers selling well -- such as 'Singapore Cowboy,' which explains his lifelong passion country music -- Tan's place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Southeast Asia branch, seems assured.
'Country music lovers are very staunch and loyal,' Tan said. 'You can lose a rock fan when you change your style, but country fans stay forever. You know they're here just for your music.'
Robin Chua, a 31-year-old office equipment salesman, is among them.
While Tan strummed, 'Rocky Mountain High,' Chua said, 'This really relaxes me. I've never been to the States or seen the places he sings about, but it doesn't matter. I'm hooked.'