“This is bigger than Fan Fair!” says Michael Martin Murphey, who probably attended a Fan Fair or two in the ’80s, when he was having country hits with “What’s Forever For” and “A Long Line of Love.”
Murphey refers to WestFest, an annual showcase of western singers, artists and culture set for Aug. 31-Sept. 4 in Vail, Colo. The event, projected to draw 30,000-40,000 people over the four days, begins with a rodeo, then becomes a cultural celebration of the West. The festival includes an Indian village, a Mountain Man Rendezvous, collectibles and western art for sale, and lots of music. In addition to Murphey and his Rio Grande Band, performers include western-oriented entertainers Riders in the Sky, Sons of the San Joaquin, Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, Cowboy Celtic and the Texas Playboys (with Leon Rausch), along with country entertainers Ronnie Milsap, Hal Ketchum, Crystal Gayle, Kelly Willis and BR5-49.
This year’s will be the 14th WestFest. The first was held in 1986 at Copper Mountain, Colo. The idea came when officials at Copper Mountain approached Murphey for suggestions about their music festival. Their festivals were not particularly successful because, Murphey told them, “you’re not doing anything different.” He suggested a festival that would be a showcase for the American West in the heart of the American West.
It took about a year of planning, and the first festival drew around 3,000 people. Although the crowd was relatively small, Murphey knew the organizers had something. “Four or five years later we had 45,000,” he recalls. The festival in Copper Mountain consistently drew 30,000-40,000 people and “that caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice.”
The festival has grown so large that organizers now work year-round to stage it, but the work they do has changed. In the beginning, they sought out vendors and tried to convince them to attend, now the vendors are “knocking down our doors,” says Murphey.
“We’ve got a different kind of planning now. We make plans to handle massive crowds and showcase the culture of the American West. That’s different than trying to just get it going.”
The festival left Copper Mountain when the land where the event was held was developed for hotels and condos. But the people of Vail have opened their arms and doors to WestFest. Ironically, the ski resort had been Murphey’s first choice 14 years ago, but the city was not able to accommodate the event at that time.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the West during the past 15 years. Nobody can say exactly why, but Murphey points to the publication of the novel Lonesome Dove and the founding of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., which both happened in 1985.
“Every now and then there’s a revival in the West,” he notes. “I think western movies and western music were missed — but cowboy poetry was a brand new element. When they put together a cowboy poetry festival and discovered a lot of fellows doing that, a whole new feeling was created.”
It’s only natural that the western influence would re-emerge in country music because, as Murphey observes, “the West has had a tremendous influence on country music. Country music was once derived from people who lived in the country and increasingly, people who lived in the country lived in the West.”
In 1975, Murphey appeared with Loretta Lynn on a show hosted by Dinah Shore. Shore used the term “country & western” and Loretta corrected her. “It’s just country,” Lynn said. “The ’western’ is gone.”
That caused Murphey to stop and think. And regret. Since that time he has worked hard to make the term “country & western” acceptable again.
WestFest is proof that he has been successful. So successful, in fact, that for many of those attending this premier event, “western” comes in front of the term “country.”