What is it about the old cowboy music that brings such joy to Central Montanans and people all over the country? What is it that attracts so many people to the old way of life?
As Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky sings in “Blue Montana Skies,” the “Code of the West is to be free.” Perhaps it’s freedom that attracts people today: the freedom to roam, the wide open spaces, the pastures and the great beyond. After all, the music of the West is not just a genre; it captures a time in America when “a man solved his own problems.” Singers like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry mastered the mentality of this era, and actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were immortalized for their heroic depictions of the frontier days.
In an interview last week, Ranger Doug asked me why it was I liked the old cowboy songs. He was curious, as there aren’t as many 30-year-olds keeping this music alive, and he’s always glad to see it when he runs into one.
Experiencing the Cowboy Poetry and Western Music Rendezvous in Lewistown helps me answer such a question. Seeing Ranger Doug and his three counterparts perform a number of Roy Rogers tunes, it became clearer why this art form is so enjoyable. On Saturday night, as Riders in the Sky put on a show fitting for a hoedown of any decade, we were all in it together, laughing and singing along. The Wild West is alive and well in Lewistown.
I’ll be honest: I don’t come by the Western way naturally. Cowboy poetry is not something I had much knowledge or awareness of at all before moving to Lewistown in 2012. However, there is appreciation for the Western way in all of us, and as I dug deep into my childhood, I started to recall some fun memories that inspired more appreciation for this genre and this unique gathering we host every year.
Although the majority of my performances haven’t involved a cowboy hat, although my roots are more alternative rock, blues and R & B, I have some cowboy music in my background, too. In fact, when I was in third grade, I had my first solo on stage, singing, “I’m just a lonely, a lo-lo-lonely coyote (howl)” in a production of “Wagon Wheels West.”
Little did I know, by 32, I’d be opening for Riders in the Sky, playing bass and singing harmony on “Montana Cowboy,” which goes like this: “Oh, howl away, you old coyote, I hear your sad and lonesome song. I’m goin’ back to old Montana, back to those hills where I belong.”
Backing up Steve Hughes and playing those songs, well, I couldn’t help but get into the spirit of the whole deal. I embraced cowboy poetry weekend at each event I was able to attend and appreciated the talent and the stories. It’s phenomenal to see people keeping a way of life alive and I must admit the joy it brings them is contagious.
Not only did the gathering celebrate the West, but it also celebrated Lewistown’s own Wild West history. A reenactment of the great 1884 Lewistown vigilante uprising against notorious horse thieves Rattlesnake Jake and Long-Haired Owen took place Saturday afternoon on Main Street (where the event took place originally). Plenty of people came out to take in the retelling and many from the community volunteered and dressed up. It was a blast getting involved and working with friends in the community. One of my favorite moments happened just before the show started, as Andrew Coolidge, Randy Berry and I sang Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” together, a song I’ve always loved, which came from the Sam Peckinpah western, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” That’s probably another reason I’ve been reading Larry McMurty’s western novel, “Anything for Billy” this week. I even watched a Western Sunday after cowboy church, once the weekend was all said and done.
This being my fourth gathering, I felt a part of it. I was happy to see so many friends return to town, such as Ferg, who came to town from the Bozeman area, and Bob Petermann of Wibaux; Leo Everett was also back in town, the Winifred man with the golden voice. These guys have welcomed me. But, of course, they still tease me for not really being a cowboy, especially when I accidentally wear my hat backwards, but that’s another story.
After the experience this weekend, I think I’d tell Ranger Doug what I appreciate most about the old western songs is the innocent pleasure they bring. Also, when you have more than 70 people performing such songs, there is a remarkable amount of solidarity and love for not just the music, but the way of life, including the “Code of the West,” which has more to do with integrity than it does freedom. There are values involved in this culture beneficial to any generation, and, that’s something I’ve truly grown to appreciate and adapt into my own life, whether I’m wearing a cowboy hat or a fedora.
(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)