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Friday, January 18, 2013

Cowboy Sweethearts

From the Vault Dept.: When, some sixteen years ago, my wife decided to acquire a horse and ride again regularly, it fell to me to groom the beast. So I expanded my vocal repertory to include songs appropriate to the process, and the CDs described below certainly helped. You can get “Cool Water” or “Whoopie-Ti-Yi-Yo” out of me with little prodding. 


WHAT DO YOU LEARN from four CDs of cowboy songs? That there was – and still is, to an extent – a distinct cowboy song genre as American as jazz. That an important aspect of the American identity was mythologized in these songs. And that the genre exploded into popularity so quickly that it was glamorized by Hollywood and easily turned self-referential, so that in 1975, Rex Allen, Jr., could pay tribute to his country-singer dad with “Can You Hear Those Pioneers?,” including backup vocals by two of the then-current Sons of the Pioneers.

No group exemplifies the beauty and power of the cowboy sound better than the Sons of the Pioneers, well represented across all four volumes (seven cuts, as well as solo outings by Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan). The crisp close harmony and unabashed sentiment inspired all who followed, and if you get hooked on that sound there’s a four-CD Bear Family set that gives you a well-curated dose of them. And who ever yodeled in chorus so well? “Way Out There,” Nolan’s famous train song, still exemplifies all by itself the sound – and mystique – of the west.

Yodeling is a big part of this collection, beginning with Jimmie Rodgers’ “When the Cactus Is in Bloom.” Tex Owens’ “Cattle Call” is presented in its original version and in the famous Eddy Arnold cover; Patsy Montana (whom you heard on the soundtrack of the movie “Lone Star”) warbles through “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” and Riders in the Sky tell us “That’s How the Yodel Was Born,” among many other examples.

The commercialization of cowboy music wasn’t a wholly bad thing, as the middle volumes show. Cole Porter tried his hand at it, buying and improving a lyric that became “Don’t Fence Me In” (sung here by Roy Rogers) – and it’s good stuff, tersely expressive of the genre. Film scorer Dmitri Tiomkin wrote the effective theme to “High Noon,” sung for the movie (and recorded here) by Tex Ritter. Even Marty Robbins’ formulaic “El Paso” gets a good context here. Then there are dreadful numbers like Johnny Western’s “Ballad of Paladin,” drummed into our ears as a TV theme song and thus indelible. The trite pales beside the true.

Compiler Douglas (Ranger Doug) Green is himself a fine singer and yodeler, and his group Riders in the Sky gets three cuts on the last album, including their sign-off “So Long, Saddle Pals.” Other modern numbers are Michael Martin Murphy’s wry “Cowboy Logic,” which works well beside the lovely tearjerker “Silver Spurs,” sung in gorgeous harmony by schoolteachers-turned-singers Sons of the San Joaquin. Sylvia-less Ian Tyson now writes cowboy songs, as “The Gift” attests, and there’s a lot more to be discovered here.

You don’t need to be picking your horse’s hooves out on some damn prairie to get a charge out of this set. Try a volume or two and I guarantee you’ll go for them all.

The Cowboy Collection (Rounder Records)
Cattle Call: Early Cowboy Music and Its Roots
Don’t Fence Me In: Western Music’s Early Golden Era
Stampede!: Western Music’s Late Golden Era
Saddle Up!: The Cowboy Renaissance

Metroland Magazine, 10 July 1997

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