Western and Cowboy Music

Carl Sprague

Western Music

When we hear the term “Western Music” the obvious question is where is the “Country”? It has been some time since the two genres have been attached to one another. I can’t say exactly when the “Western” was dropped but it appears to have lost popularity in the 1970’s with the development of other sub genre such as Outlaw Country and the “Bakersfield Sound” from Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Of course there’s a lot of different genres of music that were played and came from the Western part of the US but today I’m focused on what is attached to the term, Western (Country) music. It was quite different; in Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma there were cultural influences not found in it’s more eastern ‘Country’ cousin. Here are some songs typical of the genre; ‘The Browns’ “My Adobe Hacienda“, “Abilene” by George Hamilton IV, and a song with origins from Canadian and American Voyageurs, Tennessee Ernie Ford with “Shenandoah“.

Cowboy Music

And as to ‘Cowboy’ Music it is a sub genre we can trace back to at least the 1870’s. Cattle drives in particular in the West and Midwest are the stuff of legends, many a movie and not to mention a novel or two as you Louis L’Amour fans can attest to. Well, some of these Cowboys were pretty good singers, storytellers and songwriters, so when they weren’t forking a horse they’d entertain the other fellers with a tune or two, sometimes a serious song, others a bit more lighthearted. The easiest instrument to tote around was the harmonica and thanks to being massed produced in Germany in the early 1820’s it was a widely available and inexpensive musical instrument.

The guitar was introduced by the Spaniards and was typically a more ranch or town based instrument that would become synonymous with Mariachi music, the Mexican Vaqueros and later the Singing American Cowboy. So Spanish Folk via Mexico became a big influence and is still evident today in Tejano and Tex-Mex sub genres.

There is much of old Celtic and English folk roots, some sea shanties and melodies which made their way into both Cowboy and Western Music so the fiddle also comes quite naturally into both these styles. Of course these developments predate recorded music so we then turn to later times to find the artists that represent the sub genres. While researching it was difficult to come across songs that were just listed as ‘Western’ music as they were also on the same list for ‘Cowboy’ music, so for many they are synonymous. Nevertheless I think there is a distinction if only as simple as if it’s got the word “Cowboy” in it.

Carl Tyler “Doc” Sprague (May 10, 1895 – February 21, 1979) grew up somewhere near Manvel, Texas (south of Houston) and worked as a Cowboy, attended Texas A&M University and also served in WWI. Working in the cattle business he picked up many songs from the older Cowboys and took that knowledge to the Victor Talking Machine Company in New Jersey (later acquired by RCA to form RCA Victor) and recorded 10 songs. “The Cowboys Dream” was from 1926, although writing credits went to Sprague, it is quite possible this was one of the many songs he had heard from others and would be classified as “Traditional”. He was called the “The Original Singing Cowboy” as it’s believed he was the first person who had been an actual working Cowboy to make a record. After his schooling he was an Athletic Trainer at A&M and was singing part time on local radio and at various venus leading to a full time career in music. By this time ‘Cowboy’ tunes had already been around for a while such as “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” sung by Bob Roberts with Orchestra from 1912.

The inspiration for “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” was a young New York City boy playing dress-up and this trend of play continued for many years. As a result I wasn’t the only young lad growing up in the 1940’s through 60’s to have the pair of Roy Rogers (Leonard Franklin Slye, November 5, 1911 – July 6, 1998) and his horse Trigger action figures. I had the hat, chaps, holster and yes a toy revolver as well. Following the dusty trail blazed by the likes of Tom Mix and the great Gene Autry (where Rogers was at one time just his sidekick), he would come to be known as the “King of the Cowboys”. A great singer who would go into acting and become the biggest singing and acting “Western Star” of all time.  Here is a medley from Roy Rogers, his wife Dale Evans and ‘The Sons of the Pioneers‘.

Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, Trigger

Singing Cowboys

The true “singing cowboys” are a rare breed but the music lives on, mostly in the form of songs about Cowboys rather than ones written or sang by them. First, another song from the legendary Gene Autry who was known as “The Singing Cowboy” although the Texas born actor was formerly a Telegraph Operator before going into an amazing career of singing and acting. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” (1949). These are some of the classic Cowboy songs; Marty Robbins “Streets of Laredo“,  Ken Curtis “Tumbling Tumbleweeds“, The Townes Van Zandt written “Pancho and Lefty” by Emmylou Harris, and of course “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” performed by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, written by Ed and Patsy Bruce. I blogged this one some time ago but it’s worth another mention “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (1935) by Patsy Montana accompanied by the Prairie Ramblers, written by Patsy Montana, (Ruby Rebecca Blevins, October 30, 1914-May 3, 1996).

By my own proclamation, Canada’s Cowboy Poet Loriet or is that ‘Lariat’ (not to take away from Doris Daley), is the under appreciated Corb Lund. “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots” is a song that’s a great bridge between genres and a segue to the next topic, a spin-off of Western Music called ‘Western Swing’, sometimes called ‘Texas Swing’. This style with origins in the 1920’s really developed in the late 1930’s into the 1940’s. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys being one of the most prominent to display a more upbeat tempo adding drums and electric guitar, and it’s also very danceable, “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)“. This music was hugely influential on sub genres across the ‘Country Music’ spectrum, not to mention Rockabilly and Rock and Roll. It’s alive and well and also ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ with “Miles And Miles Of Texas” (1976). One of my favorite artists of any genre is Lyle Lovett,  “That’s Right You´re Not From Texas“, (written by Lyle Lovett, Willis Alan Ramsey and Alison Rogers) from his 1996 Grammy winning Album “The Road to Ensenada” which includes “Don’t Touch My Hat” it’s a great example of his brilliant tongue in cheek writing style.

Trivia. What Tejano music legend spent three years in Louisiana State Penitentiary for possession of marijuana? Baldemar Garza Huerta known as Freddy Fender. After his initial hit song in 1959, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” (written by Wayne Duncan and Freddy Fender) his career got sidelined with his stint in jail. Freddy would bounce back and have a string of #1 hits starting with “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” in 1974, followed by “Secret Love,” “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” which was a cover of Barbara Lynn (1966) and a remake of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“.

Spotify playlist Western and Cowboys Songs https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0MOdIwbCVlVExcxbDW1GWS

References; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com,

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