Listen up! Western music

Sadly, country music and cowboy music are no longer synonymous. With Hollywood-polished country singers dominating the airwaves, traditional Western music can be difficult to find. These three singers, pulled from the Media Review page of American Cowboy are keeping the tradition alive.
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Sadly, country music and cowboy music are no longer synonymous. With Hollywood-polished country singers dominating the airwaves, traditional Western music can be difficult to find. These three singers, pulled from the Media Review page of American Cowboy are keeping the tradition alive.

Bar-D Roundup, Volume 7

Self-published,

Website

Way back in January 2000, a small group of friends launched a website to celebrate cowboy poetry. Soon after, they published an anthology of poems collected from the site, and though the book was something of a success, the lack of profit soon dissuaded most of the group from pursuing the endeavor much further. That left Margo Metegrano, then a recent convert to the art form, to carry on the labor of love.

“Nobody’s in the cowboy poetry world so that they can get rich,” Metegrano laughs. “A lot of people are doing it because they are holding onto generations of tradition and because they wouldn’t trade that life for any other.”

Since its inception, CowboyPoetry.com has grown exponentially in terms of content, depth, and popularity. It currently hosts some 6,000 poems, representing the work of 1,000 poets, and register over 69,000 visitors per month. Though she didn’t grow up with cowboy poetry, Metegrano became hooked after attending a gathering. She was surprised and excited by the vibrant community, the wonderful poetry and music, and the fine arts and crafts.

“It would be hard not to be interested in it!” she says.

She views cowboy poetry as a way to preserve Western heritage and uphold the endangered ranching lifestyle. Communicating and collecting in this way supports community.

“Nearly everyone knows each other,” she explains. “And friends are often treated like family members. It’s a very small and warm world.”

Unfortunately, fewer young people are choosing to stay on the family ranch and uphold the traditions. What with government regulations, unpredictable weather, and a depressed economy, it’s tough sledding in the cow business. So preserving the stories of the rugged individuals who persevere against the odds is vital work for Metegrano.

“It’s [my] mission,” she says. “Cowboy poetry is important, because it conveys the stories of the real working West—compelling accounts of an endangered way of life—to those who may have little information about this important segment of our population.”

Volume 7 of The Bar-D Roundup CD is co-produced by cowboy poet and humorist Andy Nelson and contains 26 examples of classic and modern cowboy poetry recited by some of the most talented performers in the genre. (Five of the tracks are backed by music.) These pastoral poets and bucolic bards reveal their stories with passion, humor, and pride while sharing wonderment at the beauty of nature. They show the world the kind of gumption that the working cowboy still possesses, whether forking a snotty colt under an endless canopy of blue, or pulling a calf by flashlight in a late winter snowstorm. You can almost smell the branding fire.

Way Out West

Saddle Sore BluesBlue Bhikku Records,

Website

They hail from Tucson, Ariz., in the Sonoran Desert just minutes from the Mexican border, and call themselves Way Out West— emphasis on “way out.” Emmy Creigh (guitar and vocals), Slim Rost (bunkhouse bass and vocals), and Tom Poley (banjo, guitar, and vocals) approach Western music from a decidedly different angle.

The band calls their unique musical style “bordergrass.” Poley explains: “We’re a little different than most Western acts—and purposefully so. I was playing around with words and came up with ‘bordergrass.’ We’re kind of bluegrass, but we’re also sort of cowboy, and we live on the border. [Our music] is a blend of cowboy, Western, bluegrass, and Mexican border music.” different angle.

Certainly, all the trappings of traditional Western music are present in the band’s work. They yodel, sing in harmony, and pick with the best of ’em. However, despite their traditional musical styling, their lyrics focus on the present and the future, rather than dwelling on days gone by.

“When I’m writing, I try to create a Western song that has something deeper to say than ‘the canyon is beautiful’ or ‘that was a great sunset,’ ” Poley says. “I’m trying to put a little more depth into my lyrical content. I still keep it Western, but I want to be a little bit more philosophical, like many of the old-time cowboys were. And this is the modern West. Charlie Goodnight made all his decisions based on what happened in his world. In the past, that meant Indians or cattle diseases, but today we have other issues. I hope [our music] gets people to think about today’s world.”

Western music has evolved greatly over the past 150 years, and Saddle Sore Blues is Way Out West’s latest and best contribution to a genre whose roots run deep but are still capable of sprouting new and interesting branches.

Bill Barwick

The Usual Suspects

Website

Possessing one of the most recognizable voices in Western culture, Bill Barwick’s songs recall the grit, adventure, and turmoil of the Old West. Barwick’s ninth release, The Usual Suspects, introduces four original tracks, including one co-written with award-winning cowgirl poet Sam DeLeeuw.

“‘The Long Haul’ is about every farmer, every rancher, and every family that’s in this lifestyle for the long haul,” explains Barwick. “There are ranchers and farmers all over the United States that are finding it harder and harder to keep the whole thing going.” And “Blue Stem Grass” was inspired by a friend’s good luck when, out of the blue, he was handed the keys to a ranch and told to take over the reins. “A Buckhorn Christmas” is what Barwick likes to call “musical dessert,” which he tags onto the end of his albums.

The fourth of the originals, “Pat Garrett’s Regret,” describes a man of questionable reputation forever trapped in a small, dark room on a New Mexico ranch. “I read a magazine on Pat Garrett, who regretted having to kill Billy the Kid,” says Barwick. “I wrote it in such a way so that I would not raise him to the level of being more famous than Billy. Billy is the famous one there. Garret is just the man who killed him.”

“The Bounty Hunter,” “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” “Wyatt’s Lament,” “My Name Is Dalton,” and “A Few More Rocks,” round out the collection of .45 caliber cuts. These and the rest of the CD are classic gunfighter ballads, hence the title: The Usual Suspects. But there’s a double meaning, too.

“I’ve been nominated for just about every award except female vocalist of the year,” Barwick jokes. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be picked out of the ‘line up’ so to speak, again and again. There’s me, there’s Dave Stamey, R.W. Hampton—there’s a handful of us out there—and I’m one of the usual suspects.”

Charley Engel hosts his weekly radio show, "Calling all Cowboys," from his tack room near Bend, Ore. (kpov.org). When he's not horseback or playing his harmonica, he's reviewing albums for American Cowboy . "Writing and talking about Western culture is not just a hobby for me. It's a way of life."