November 3, 2009
When they announced the music lineup for the 15th annual Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair, which got underway yesterday and continues through Sunday, one name jumped out and began twirling across the dance floor of my memory.
I couldn’t believe it! Asleep at the Wheel, the Choo Choo Ch’Boogie bunch themselves, will be playing Hebertown twice this Friday with a concert alongside the great cowpoke crooner Don Edwards scheduled for 1 p.m. and at the Cowboy Buckaroo Ball on a bill with Michael Martin Murphy at 9 p.m. Both events are at the new Wasatch High School.
Now the Buckaroo Ball is where the dancing posse I usually associate with will be heading. We’ve been fine-tuning our hardwood chops to the Barfly Wranglers of late and, as they say, we’re ready to Wheel. Bring on that fiddle and steel guitar and a corral-full of western harmonies.
There are also some other great acts performing Friday at the high school. The Hot Club of Cowtown has a quite sophisticated sound reminiscent of Django Rheinhardt. They and the always hilarious Riders in the Sky will both be struttin’ their stuff at separate shows.
There was a time in my life when a gathering such as this wouldn’t have caused the stir it does these days. Back then I would have yawned. Now I do back-over-flips! Figuratively! Where once I saw the whole cowboy-culture scene as unworthy of my attention, the day came when I saw the light.
Musically, as a card-carrying jazz, blues, folk, and rock snob, I was quite comfortable. I never assumed that I might be missing out on something. And then along came the fiddle and all bets were off.
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Looking back, it’s rather easy to connect the dots. That’s because country music, which I’d always kept at arms length, had both influenced and had been influenced by most all other music forms. I just hadn’t been listening.
The two sub-genres that set the hook, so to speak, were bluegrass, of course, which came out of British Isles’ and, later, Appalachian traditions, and that hillbilly-jazz form that came to be known as western swing.
Evolving from the cultural collisions of olde-time string bands, early country, cowboy ballads, various folk traditions, and hot-jazz swing, the highly infectious music simmered in dance halls throughout the Southwest for years before going national and global.
Bob Wills and Milton Brown, a couple of sidekicks from, initially, The Aladdin Laddies and later The Light Crust Doughboys, came to exemplify the idiom early on and later would be looked back upon as co-founders of the movement. Wills would go on to renown as the "King of Western Swing."
Years later, Merle Haggard, a longtime Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys buff who tortured his friends by learning to play the fiddle so he could perform their repertoire, brought a couple of Bob’s old instrumentalists out of retirement to join his own band.
Eldon Shamblin, guitarist, arranger, composer, and right-hand man to Bob Wills from the late ’30s to the mid ’50s, and his good "senior citizen" road buddy and 5-string-mandolinist extraordinaire Tiny Moore, infused Merle Haggard and The Strangers with an authentic old-school swing vibe that it maintains to this day.
And it was just about that time that a western-swing renaissance featuring young rockabilly country-jazz pickers like Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and Asleep at the Wheel came on the scene. Now it was Ray Benson’s turn. As the founder of Asleep at the Wheel, Ray became the post-modern king of western swing.
Ray probably goes about 6 feet 6 and can sling a guitar riff of "bovine bop" at the drop of his 10-gallon brim. His legendary vocal style, while not lazy, is certainly kicked back. He’s seen miles and miles of Texas, you see, and his harmonic narratives attest to the fact.
The most pleasing parts of western swing are, to me anyway, those that feature no-apologies swing-jazz riffs within a stridently country envelope. It’s what got me listening to Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizell. It would be no far reach to say that it changed my life!
I’m reminded of when Asleep at the Wheel flat-out rocked the old Rusty Nail Lounge at the then Park City Ski Area back in the late ’80s as part of the Senator’s Cup celebration. After a bit of moderate lobbying on my part, Craig Badami assigned me to have dinner with the boys beforehand and escort them to the venue. Suffice to say, I was riding high.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.