Western Music Ropes In New Listeners
WASHINGTON — There was a time when you could ask anyone driving a pickup truck what kind of music they listened to and you'd get a well-worn witticism.
"I like both kinds," they'd say, "country and western" as though there was nothing else worth listening to. The phrase was also funny because they were considered one and the same.
But during the 1960s, the two parted trails and in many ways are as different a drive as a dirt road and Madison Avenue.
Country took a commercially successful route. Millions of pop-music fans regularly cross over to listen to heavily produced tunes of teenage phenom LeAnn Rimes. Garth Brooks even swings across the stage on a wire like the heavy-metal rockers of the '70s.
The size of the western audience, on the other hand, dried up like a desert tumbleweed. But the enthusiasm for the simple harmonies and ballads performed mostly on acoustic instruments never did.
And today, that enthusiasm for songs that dust the Old West with a golden patina is making a comeback.
"It's taking off all over the world," says Ray Condo of the Canadian group Ray Condo and the Ricochets, one of a growing number of groups singing western-style music. "The whole Americana wave is going worldwide. It's a celebration of American culture, it's like gold," he says.
Western groups are popping up everywhere - Australia, Europe, Japan. In the United States, country fans are returning to the roots of their music, but a younger, alternative-music crowd is also listening.
The reason for the revival can be found in part at the genre's center in a single cultural icon: "There is no more recognizable hero in the world than the American cowboy," says Voleta Hummel of the Western Music Association in Tucson, Ariz.
Another reason is the simplicity and nature of the songs that center on western life, journeys, and a satisfaction with life. "We like to say country music is about bedrooms and barrooms. Western on the other hand is very wholesome music. You aren't embarrassed to take your mother to [hear] it," Ms. Hummel says.
Western music, as Hummel explains, began out on the range. The songs cowboys sang to keep their herds quiet evolved into an American music staple by the 1920s.
Movies of the 1930s and '40s saw western music branch into a string of subsets with singing cowboys like Gene Autry and western swing that incorporated elements of jazz made famous by the likes of Bob Wills.
Today the term "western" casts a much bigger lasso around the entire western experience, drawing in more than just music.
Cowboy poets like Baxter Black are a mainstay at western music festivals. Artists like Tish Hinojosa and Santiago Jimenez Jr. give dimension to the Mexican influence on the early western experience.
Also called "cowboy folk," western artists have the challenge, as folk and bluegrass artists do, in exposing their music to wider audiences. But that trend is turning around. Artists like Sons of the San Joaquin are boosting their sales through alternative-music stores, mail order, the Internet, and mega-western festivals.
The much-anticipated movie release this May of "The Horse Whisperer" starring Robert Redford will also feature western artist Don Edwards.
For those who have been singing western music all these years in dark dance halls and at rodeos with little widespread appreciation, the new wave of attention is welcome.
One of the granddaddies of the genre, Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band, fits into that category. As a kid, the Austin, Texas-based musician learned to play his first six-string watching the singing cowboys of the silver screen back in the 1940s.
Recently signed by a big music label, he has continued to play western music for decades because of the optimism the music conveys.
In western tunes, "people sing about life and the way things are, and in some cases depict life better than it is," Walser says. "Nowadays I think most songs are geared at depicting life worse than it really is."