Cowboy Heaven in California

Poetry and Music Festival Fulfills Fantasies for Lovers of Western Culture

It used to be called “country & western” music, but sometime back in the 1960s the term “western” was dropped, replaced by the more concise, more hip term “country.” By that time, there wasn’t much western influence or flavor in country music.

But the western side of country music would not be denied and began to come back on its own as a separate, distinctive genre. Today, a whole herd of performers, dressed in cowboy hats, boots and western outfits, proudly call themselves “western.” Many came to Santa Clarita, Calif., April 1-2 to perform at the annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.

About 30 miles north of Hollywood, Santa Clarita is home to Melody Ranch, the western movie town formerly owned by Gene Autry. Melody Ranch provided the perfect ambiance for the festival, which drew an estimated 17,000 people over the weekend. Crowds walked the dusty streets, flanked by scenery that has appeared in TV shows such as Gunsmoke and The Magnificent Seven, and movies such as High Noon and The Shootist.

The event began Friday evening with a special concert by western music star Don Edwards. The singer has a warm, pleasant baritone, reminiscent of Marty Robbins, and his concert was held at William S. Hart’s former mansion. Hart was the first big movie cowboy, starring during the silent era; he finished his career just as the talkies began.

The festival itself featured musical performances on four different stages. Top-name acts appeared at the Melody Ranch Theater, which seats just under 1,000. These concerts required a separate ticket, and five of the eight had sold out before the festival began.

Saturday concerts at the big theater featured one-hour shows by Wylie and the Wild West, the Sons of the San Joaquin, Michael Martin Murphey and the western swing group, Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, who provided music for a western-style dance Saturday night. On Sunday, there were shows by Jill Jones, Red Steagall and the Texas Playboys.

Riders in the Sky were not at this year’s festival, but they were the only act missing from the top tier of western performers. Murphey, formerly a pop and country artist, has become godfather and conscience to the movement. His set consisted of a number of old-time or “authentic” cowboy songs from the 19th century. The Sons of the San Joaquin — two brothers and the son of one of the brothers — have a trio sound closely akin to the Sons of the Pioneers, from whom they take their name.

Jill Jones is perhaps the finest female singer in America, although few outside the world of western music are even aware of her immense talent. She embodies the essence of western music performers: talent uncomfortable with stardom, dedicated to the romance of the West at the expense of mainstream success. Not that western performers dislike success; they just insist on it coming to them on their own terms.

Wylie and the Wild West make music with a western theme, but the group sometimes strays from the old folk melodies into rockabilly. Long and lean, frontman Wylie Gustafson displays more showmanship than most of the western performers, who prefer to let their songs be their show.

On the smaller, outdoor stages, performers did 30-minute sets. Those performing included Liz Masterson and Sean Blackwell, the Rich O’Brien Trio, Dan Roberts, Brenn Hill, Doris Daley and Joni Harms. Harms’ song “Are We There Yet” was well received by parents of children who constantly ask that question on car trips.

Aside from the steady stream of musical offerings, the buildings in the movie western town were filled with “cowboy gear” in a flea-market-style shopping mall of cowboy clothes, jewelry, hats, recordings, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and leather goods.

Say what you will about contemporary cowboys; they sure know how to dress with pizzazz. Festivalgoers donned everything from 19th century western clothes to the jeans-hat-boots look and, of course, the everyday California wear of shorts, T-shirts and sneakers.

The theme throughout the event was “heritage.” Murphey summed it up when he said, “Youngsters have so much trash around them these days, but if they’ll embrace these cowboy values, they’ll come out all right.”

Youngsters at the event were treated to ropers doing rope tricks, a magician and a performer dressed as Hopalong Cassidy, who gave a patriotic talk and handed out copies of “Hoppy’s Creed.”

Western music may have been confused with country music by a few of the festival attendees, but most were fully aware that while country and western might be cousins, they really don’t see much of each other. Western music is essentially acoustic, rooted in western tradition and the romance of the West, and delivered originally by singing cowboys in the movies. Many of the songs express a longing for a past sweetly remembered through nostalgic glimpses of life or a hankering for “the good ole days.”

There are a number of gatherings throughout the year for lovers of the West and western culture, everything from festivals that feature arts, crafts and live music, to conventions of western film fans and collectors. Interestingly, the Internet has provided a big boost to western aficionados, allowing them to network and find out about events scattered throughout the country.

With its emphasis on top-name western musical talent and its great location, Santa Clarita is a cut above most western festivals. Every armchair cowboy dreams of walking the same streets Marshall Dillon walked or singing on the ranch once owned by Gene Autry. The Santa Clarita Festival allows them to do that.

Don Cusic teaches music business at Belmont University in Nashville. He is the author of several books including Cowboys and the Wild West, published by Facts on File.