Don’t call it country
Twenty years ago while working in radio, Bill Barwick became dissillusioned with the increasing gap between country and Western music. Barwick, who hits the Little Beach Amphitheater stage Sunday in Minturn, cut his ties with the genre, and, as the 2005 Will Rogers Cowboy Award winner puts it, began doing “what it is that I do.”Doing meant distancing himself from the covers he’d been playing of other country musician’s work. In its essence, Cowboy, or Western, music is independence manifested. The great open spaces of the American West have inspired songs and poetry which have been passed down to generations through a mostly oral tradition. While artists may play in tandem or with a group, their themes are still largely derived from the isolationist nature of a cowboy on the move.
“I think cowboy music leans real heavily on its roots, and that’s what holds it to itself,” says Barwick.While cowboy music holds to its roots, its musicians utliize the contemporary industry like anyone else – they just tour more.Liz Masterson, who has been coordinating the Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Arvada since 1991, just got back from playing West Virginia and Philadelphia. Despite locations not traditionally tied to cowboy culture, Masterson said the East Coast audiences were enthusiastic.”Cowboy music has a much broader appeal than radio stations give it credit for,” she says, adding, “A lot of country music on the radio has to do with lost love, fighting, drinking and divorce – a lot of sad topics. Cowboy music has more to do with outdoor activities like gathering cows, riding under a sunset, being out in the sage. More outside, more friendship and positive images.”She’s officially been involved with cowboy music for 25 years, but her interest was whetted during her youth. As a young girl, Masterson would sing cowboy songs at family reunions in Wyoming. She learned lyrics and intonation from old 78 recordings of Roy Rogers and Patsy Montana; she picked up tunes from song books and sheet music.”There’s no one source. It’s an accumulation of keeping my eyes and ears open.”
Like Masterson’s, cowboy music’s influences are widespread. As with many oral traditions, the style has evolved to include footprints or some unlikely passers-by. In this case, yodelers in the American West.According to Masterson, there’s been yodeling in cowboy music since the days of trail drives. Travelers would pick up the songs of Swiss yodeling troops and bring them back to cow camp.The ecclectic nature of cowboy expression was a major factor in Karen Earley’s decision to initiate the first annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering. After attending the event in Arvada, Earley was hooked.”You get a little taste of everything,” says Minturn’s economic development and special events director. “There are some poems. Some ballads. Some might even make you cry they’re so sweet.”Masterson, the event’s MC, says she will do some yodeling, while the Yampa Valley Boys plan to show off their renowned harmony and banjo skills. Cowboy poets Gary Knighting and Larry Glenn will also share the stage with local Bud Gates, whose topic “is a surprise.” Barwick is playing Vail for the first time and plans to provide listeners with “some new musical tunes they might enjoy.”The Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering, which takes place from 3-6 p.m. Sunday on the wooden stage new Little Beach Amphitheater in Minturn, will be an open-air affair. To up the ambiance, lawn seating will include bales of hay, but Earley suggests you bring a blanket or fold-up chair as well. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for seniors (children are free). A truck wagon will serve beef brisket, bratwurst, hamburgers and hot dogs and the beer garden is all domestic.Earley believes the first annual gatherings will draw a good crowd because of the valley’s well-established musical scene. Plus, what is now a string of resort towns and their suburbs was ranchland in the not-too-distant past.
Masterson, who lived in Vail from 1970-73 (she took guitar lessons at the CMC in Frisco), remembers when the town had just evolved into something more than a sheep ranch and mail was delivered to the hardware store.”It’ll be good to go back to the rural roots – at least for a day.”
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If the coronavirus sparks migration, what will that mean for places like Eagle County, which local economic development officials say is well-positioned to offer people the recreation and lifestyle opportunities they may be seeking?