Sights for a Cowboy’s Sore Eyes: Western Music Celebrated in Tucson

The Western Music Association’s “Song of the Year” sums up the plight of cowboys and western music in the world today. The lyrics confront the notion that the cowboy has disappeared, that he can’t be found. But the lyrics also point out that, in reality, the cowboy is alive, well and doing quite fine, thank you, but, in the words of the award-winning song by Jack Hannah and Baxter Black, “he just can’t be seen from the road.”

Cowboys — particularly singing cowboys — certainly could be seen at the Western Music Association’s 12th annual convention, held Wednesday through Sunday (Nov. 15-19) in Tucson, Ariz. The gathering included everything from seminars covering topics such as the history of singing cowboys to practical nuts-and-bolts presentations on how a singing cowboy can get publicity and bookings.

There was also a steady parade of showcase performances. Standouts included the legendary Johnny Western, Sagebrush Swing, Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn, Richard Allen Jones, Belinda Gail and the Rockin’ M Wranglers.

Highlight of the convention was the annual WMA awards show, hosted by Ranger Doug Green of Riders in the Sky. Following the presentation of this year’s honors, Green and his group gave a full concert. The four-man outfit, including Ranger Doug, Too Slim (Fred LaBour), Woody Paul (“King of the Cowboy Fiddlers”) and Joey the Cowpolka King (Joey Miskulin) is one of the most talented working in any genre. They are the Beatles of western music, superstars in the field standing head and shoulders over their competition.

Ranger Doug’s rich baritone is a classic cowboy voice, but each of the members can more than hold his own, especially on harmonies. What other group can do a triple yodel in harmony?

Musically, they rival anyone on any stage. Woody Paul plays an incredible jazz fiddle. Ranger Doug may be the best rhythm guitarist outside the studio in country music. Joey is a virtuoso on accordion. And Too Slim is a master of the upright bass.

Their showmanship allows their talent to shine. Quick-witted, humorous, and dressed to kill in custom-made, colorful western outfits, the Riders transport their audience back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when kids had cowboy heroes.

Highlight of their set was a medley of songs from their new Disney album, featuring songs from Toy Story 2. The group sang in the movie, and it has given them a boost with mainstream fans. The Riders are certainly part of mainstream popular culture, doing things “the cowboy way,” and one of the precious few in western music who have no problem being “seen from the road.”

The other highlight of the festival was a “Barn Dance” where the WMA recreated an old-time radio show similar to one heard for many years on WLS in Chicago. Hosted by Johnny Western, Rick Huff and Bill Mortimer, the show featured outstanding performances by Buckshot Dot (with the destined-to-be-a-classic “Old Girl Power”), the incredible harmonies of The Due QWest Trio singing “Shenandoah,” Richard Allen Jones doing “Wouldn’t Be No Cowboys – If It Wasn’t for the Cows,” Sagebrush Swing, the Rockin’ M Wranglers” and Masterson & Blackburn.

Dates for next year’s event are Nov. 7-11 in Tucson.