After five years as Programs Coordinator for the Western Folklife Center, and five National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings under my belt, I am cleaning out my desk and closing the door.
I came to the Western Folklife Center as a folklorist who had worked on quite a few folk festivals, but I was not prepared for the community that descends on Elko once a year, in the middle of winter, to perform a unique art form, to reconnect with good friends, and to let loose a little in the Pioneer Saloon, while sharing all of that with strangers.
My first visit to the Gathering was in 2007. I was hired to help with the education programs, specifically the CowKids’ Stampede. At the time, the Stampede was held in the G Three Bar Theater, so only 300 students could attend at one time. My responsibilities were to introduce the Ringling 5 and make sure they had what they needed. Well, the volunteer ushers didn’t show up (or maybe they did but I didn’t know who to look for), so I also ended up herding 300 students in and out of the theater three times. Basically, I’d never been to the Gathering and I had to manage 900 kids and the Ringling 5! It was tremendous fun.
When the job for Gathering Manager (actually, the title is more innocuous that that–Programs Coordinator) opened, I knew it was the job for me. Luckily, the Western Folklife Center took a chance on me. As a Midwestern city girl, I was nervous about being rejected as an outsider. But not one single person made me feel out of place—in fact, I immediately felt like a part of the family. All those festivals I’d worked before don’t hold a candle to the Gathering. I have never gotten so many hugs as I did that first January (and all the Januarys since).
The thing that always stuck with me about my first Gathering as manager was how many people told me that I was “so calm.” It’s natural for me to remain calm under festival pressure, but I think it was more than being calm. I was having fun, and that’s what made everything seem to run so smoothly.
Five years of running the Gathering has taught me a few things. I have learned that cowboys are the nicest people on the planet. They will not only give you the shirt off their backs (like Waddie did one year after I complimented him on his sweater–Lisa was none to happy about that!) but also their undying friendship. I feel so honored to have had the wonderful pleasure of getting to know so many interesting and kind people; I may never have the chance to meet so many great people in such a short amount of time. If I’m lucky, I’ll meet as many during the rest of my lifetime.
I have also learned that every problem has a solution and that there are many people to help find that solution. One year, Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie were scheduled to play the CowKids’ Stampede. They all got in on Tuesday, but their luggage didn’t make it until Wednesday–the day of the performance. So here it is at 9:00 am, a half an hour before the kids will be let into the auditorium and I need to find a bass guitar, an accordion and a frattoir, or washboard. Finding a guitar was easy. The accordion wasn’t too hard, but where in the world was I going to find a washboard at 9 in the morning? Next door at Cowboy Joe, of course! You can read my blog post about it here.
I plan on attending the Gathering, just as an audience member, so I can finally get to see everyone perform! If the Gathering is a family, then you can just think of me as going off to college. I’ll be home for the family reunion in January.
Thank you again for welcoming me into this family. I’ll miss you.
As the manager of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it is rare that I get a chance to have extended conversations with any of the poets or musicians during the Gathering. I am always getting called away to put out one fire or another. Today I got lucky and had a chance to sit with Vess Quinlan for a while.
Vess was talking with Keith Ward, a poet from North Carolina who participates in the Gathering’s open mic sessions. Keith is still somewhat new to the world of cowboy poetry, and he’s eager to learn from an “old hand” like Vess. Keith and I listened attentively to Vess as he described his writing process and what he’s observed from other, more academic poets. Vess talked about learning to move his rhymes into the body of the poem, rather than leaving them all at the end, and how the meaning of the poem is more important than forcing a rhyme. He talked about how some poets (not cowboy poets) are forced into a certain form or style because of the institutions they work in or the positions they want to hold.
Keith told Vess that since he’s started coming to the Gathering and sharing his work, he has been trying to figure out the rules himself. Vess told him that the beauty of cowboy poetry, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in particular, is that the poets are allowed to take risks. Each and every poet who performs at the Gathering supports every other poet. They don’t compete with one another, and that’s why Elko is good. If Jerry Brooks (who joined the conversation at this point) does a poem that has a sad mood, then Vess will adapt his plan to do a poem that brings the mood back up. If Vess does a long poem, then Jerry will do a short poem. Vess says that is what sets cowboy poetry apart: there are no rules and everyone supports one another.
Vess also mentioned the audience, and Jerry agreed that the audience in Elko is sophisticated. They allow those risks and make it possible for the poets to break the barriers between the performers on stage and the audience.
I can’t wait for the sessions to start on Thursday. Sure, now is the chance when I can sit for a minute and listen to some great stories, or even spend most of an evening performance in my seat, but I love the end of the week best. Vess Quinlan and Jerry Brooks are performing each day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; check the schedule for times and locations. Also, take a moment to listen to the open mic sessions in the Cedar Room. You might get to hear what Keith Ward learned today.
The Gillette Brothers, Guy and Pipp, play music that is rooted in the history of the West. Tamara talks to them about Texas, playing music and running a business with one’s brother, and the many types of music that they play.
TK: Most of what I know about you is related to the music you play. Tell us a little bit about the family ranch and how you ended up back in Texas to run it.
GB: Our Grandfather V.H. Porter started the ranch in 1912, and 2012 marks the 100th anniversary. We spent our summer vacations working with him and have been interested in ranching ever since. The ranch had been leased since our Grandfather’s retirement and we had been playing music up and down the East coast. In 1983 the lease expired and we decided to combine our music with our desire to get involved with ranching. We continue to run a commercial cow/calf operation, much the same as our Grandfather.
TK: What led you to playing music? Did you have any musical relatives?
GB: Our paternal Grandfather, Merlyn Gillette, was a singer and piano player, and our mother played piano. The biggest influence, however, were the records our parents played for us as kids which included many cowboy songs by Cisco Houston, Hermes Nye, Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
TK: What is it like to play with your brother? You also work together. How do you keep your relationship friendly and collaborative?
GB: We share similar interests and have always enjoyed being and working together, so it’s GREAT!!!
LISTEN to Jingle Up the Horses
TK: Your music represents many different styles, from Celtic music to minstrel music. How do the different styles connect to make the music cowboy music?
GB: These were among the popular musical influences of the original cowboy period and came together on the cattle trails when Irish/English/Scottish cowboys worked side by side with recently freed African American cowboys.
TK: Many of your songs are prefaced by stories, some of which are about your family history, some about the history of the song. What is the importance of history to the songs you play?
GB: It brings the songs to life by putting them in an historical context and illustrates lessons that are still viable. Our Grandfather Porter was a wonderful storyteller and has left us a lot of material.
LISTEN to You Give Me Your Love
TK: Like Sourdough Slim, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, you play more instruments than the standard guitar. How is expanding your talents beyond the guitar important to making music? How do you decide which instrument to play when you are arranging a tune or creating a new song?
GB: The instruments are ones that were popular at the time the songs came into being and are another element that helps to recreate the period. The variety also makes the presentation more interesting for us and, we hope, the audience.
TK: Some of the instruments you play are whimsical or unique. How do the bones or a harmonica enhance the songs?
GB: The harmonica was cheap and portable and a cowboy staple. The bones have a long and interesting history, in spite of the fact that most folks are not familiar with them today. They were extremely popular in the 19th century. These instruments add spice and diversity.
LISTEN to Brazos River Song
TK: Besides music and running the family ranch, you make bones (a rhythm instrument made out of animal ribs), and host concerts at the Camp Street Café, which you renovated into a theater. Is there anything you don’t do?
TK: Is there anything I missed? Anything else you want people to know about you?
GB: Pipp carves wooden decoys in a time honored tradition and makes whimsical masks made of paper-mache.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
GB: Tamara…Our pleasure and we’re looking forward to another great gathering!!
Meet the Gillette Brothers at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. You can learn more about the brothers and Camp Street Café at www.campstreetcafe.com.
Mike Beck regularly performs his solo show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and with his band at the Stray Dog in Elko. Tamara talks to him about singing ballads, training horses, and his connection to all the places he’s lived.
TK: You play both as a solo musician and with your band, The Bohemian Saints. Some musicians play the same thing solo or with accompaniment, but you have different styles when you’re playing with the band than when you’re playing solo. Why do you play differently with the band?
MB: My acoustic solo shows are more intimate. They allow me to reach right into the folk tradition and be more of a storyteller. As a young boy I got to see a few folk acts that really put an impression on me, Pete Seeger for one. He made you feel like he was in your living room, took you someplace. Arlo Guthrie, too—his Alice’s Restaurant was, in my humble opinion, a direct link to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. That style of storytelling . . . it just moved me.
I’ve added that element to the band too, maybe a different flavor, but it’s there. Fronting a band is kinda the same—you should be taking the audience somewhere—that’s your job. Otis Redding—he could take the audience somewhere. I try to learn from the greats. The Bohemian Saints are really a west coast band. There’s a lot of freedom, musically speaking, in our sound. We all grew up there, so it’s in our DNA.
TK: Your solo work is a lot of ballads, and you often tell anecdotes and stories to set up the songs. How are stories important to your songwriting and to your performances?
MB: I have always liked a good story and a good storyteller. It’s an art. When I cowboyed for a living, a good storyteller was a plus on the crew, and I heard some good ones, and that affected me I’m sure. The bottom line in a great song to me is how it affected the listener. Did it move you . . . did it take you someplace? Same with a story.
TK: Many of your songs are about people, and “Patrick” is about a horse. What inspires you about a certain person or a particular animal?
MB: In the case of “Patrick” it was a way for me to tell a bit of Bill Dorrance’s life by saying things about Patrick , a horse he owned. A way to tell a story really about Bill. In songwriting, there are no rules, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it!
LISTEN to Patrick
TK: Your music with the Bohemian Saints has been described as being influenced by the Byrds, as well as other rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Do you put on a different persona when you are playing more rock-influenced music?
MB: Not so much. But I do try my best to get my head in that space and just let it breathe . . . just let it create its own place, see where it takes us. That’s the big adventure!
TK: Where is the line between rock music and cowboy music? How do they connect for you?
MB: Is there a line? Not really. I grew up in California. I loved music, and I still do. I cowboyed for a living, and still do a lot of work with horses, so my sound has evolved from all that influence. I did not grow up in Texas listening to Bob Wills (which I love by the way); it was CS&N, Jackson Browne, Byrds, Buck Owens, the Brit bands, The Who, Traffic—the list goes on and on. Of course all that moved me, influenced me. Naturally you become a product of all that.
TK: You got your first horse in third grade, and you were inspired to play music at 13. Like many cowboy musicians you spent some time as a cowboy. Growing up in Monterey, California, you could have found inspiration from many places, like the mountains or the sea. Why did you choose to become a cowboy and a cowboy singer, rather than, say, a sailor?
MB: Well it was almost the sea that took me—came close. But Nevada, the Sagebrush Sea, it got me good!!
TK: You don’t live in Monterey anymore, but you return regularly to play there. Why do you make the trip to Monterey so often? What is the draw?
MB:. Monterey will always be home. I have family there, friends. The Bohemian Saints, we have a following there. It’s beautiful, the coast line, the weather—I can never stay away too long!
TK: You lived a short while in Elko, and you play at the local bar, The Stray Dog, every January during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Why do you come to Elko every winter, even when you aren’t playing at the Gathering?
MB: The Stray Dog is where we’ve played as a band for a while during the Gathering. If you have to ask why we come back there and play every year, well, all I can say is get yourself in there when The Bohemian Saints are smashed together on that tiny stage and find out for yourself. It can be magic!
TK: You’ve lived in Montana for quite some time now, returning there after your stint in Elko. How has each of these places influenced your music? What is it about these places that you can’t shake?
MB: Montana is just a nice place to live. Everything gets more complicated when you leave Montana. You gotta look out for Moose on the road, though, on your way back from late night gigs!!
LISTEN to Don’t Hurt My Heart
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
MB: Tamara, it’s been my pleasure. See ya in Elko at The Gathering!!
You can learn more about Mike and his band at www.mikebeck.com, or meet him at the Gathering. Mike Beck and the Bohemian Saints will be performing at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4.
Sourdough Slim is a regular performer at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, entertaining the audience with his humorous songs and anecdotes. Tamara Kubacki tries to get beneath the comic exterior to find out what drives Rick Crowder to perform as Sourdough Slim and how he so easily taps into everyone’s playful side. Note: All of the music samples are from Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong’s newest release, Oh, Sweet Mama!
TK: The tagline on the bio found on your website, sourdoughslim.com, is “Last of the Vaudeville Cowboys.” Can you explain that?
SS: First of all, it immediately gives reference to the era and style of entertainment I present. I think it has a nice ring to it too. My stage show combines cowboy crooning, yodeling, comedic sketches and an occasional rope trick. Much the same as a variety act you might have seen on the Vaudeville circuit of the 1920’s
LISTEN to Hesitation Blues
TK: When did you discover that you have a knack for tapping into the joy of music? Both your humorous songs and other traditional and old-time songs bring a smile to everyone’s faces. Where do you find that magic?
SS: I guess I am a natural born ham. I realized at an early age that I was blessed with a gift to make people laugh. I love playing music and entertaining. When you’re having fun on stage it just naturally spills out into the audience. Of course 40 years of entertaining and honing your stage-craft in front of every kind of audience imaginable helps too.
TK: You also write original songs. Are all of them inspired by the music of the past? You grew up on a ranch outside of Hollywood. Are any of your original songs drawn on your childhood experiences?
SS: My fascination and passion for the music and culture of early 20th century America is a big influence on Sourdough Slim. Although I was born in Hollywood, I did spend a considerable amount of my childhood on our 700 acre family cow ranch in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. Many of the songs I have written have come from my memories of that time in my life. “In Old California,” “I Am A Yodeling Cowboy” and “Ridin’ High, Singin’ A Song” to name a few.
TK: A lot of the musicians who play in Elko are influenced by the music from the past. Why do you think that the history of cowboy music is important to the music you are playing today?
SS: The old cliche “In order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you came from” comes to mind. I think it is important to make available a link to the origins of cowboy music and culture for anyone that is interested.
TK: Speaking of other musicians, most of the other solo musicians performing at the Gathering play the guitar. You play the guitar, but you often play the accordion instead (you also play its cousin, the harmonica). When did you learn the accordion, and why is it featured in your performances?
SS: I have always liked the sound of the accordion. It wasn’t until 1988 that I bought one and taught myself how to play it. Many people are not aware that the accordion was a featured instrument in most cowboy bands of the 1930s and 40s. I like the full sound and musical possibilities. It’s like a one instrument band. You can play the bass, melody and chords all at the same time. Not to mention what a cool Western fashion statement it is.
LISTEN to Mexicali Rose
TK: At the Gathering, you usually perform solo, but you have played with Robert Armstrong and often jam or perform with Dave Bourne. How does your performance change when you play with other musicians? How do these two musicians complement your music (or vice versa, how do you complement their music)?
SS: Robert and Dave are both passionate about the same music from the same time period as I am. There is a shared joy and reverence for this music when we play together. We play a lot of the same songs I play solo but when we play together the performance is focused on the ensemble sound. The excitement and joy of two or more musicians in the groove, playing the music they love, can’t be beat.
TK: You and Robert Armstrong have a new recording, released just this year, called Oh, Sweet Mama! Please talk about the CD and about working with Robert on this recording.
SS: My last two CD’s, Classics and ClassicsII, featured classic popular cowboy songs, both traditional and from the singing cowboy era of Hollywood. Early cowboy entertainers were often influenced by a wide variety of popular music including blues, pop songs, novelty, jazz and ethnic music and included them in their repertoire as well. The songs on Oh, Sweet Mama! are a mixed bag of originals, country blues, old-time string band, pop and traditional western music. Some of the songs are very obscure. Robert adds his instrumental virtuosity as well as some wonderful vocal harmony. Most of it was recorded live in the studio, many tracks from the first take. The joy we share playing this music together shines through on this one. We think it really captures the sound and feeling of early 20th Century rural America and showcases what we do best.
LISTEN to The Sunset Trail
TK: Many schoolchildren have been educated and entertained by your performances. Some performers aren’t comfortable with children, but you seem to enjoy playing for them. We at the Western Folklife Center think it is important to not only expose children to cowboy music, but also to teach them something while they are being entertained. How do you do both so well?
SS: The key to my success as a children’s entertainer is to just be myself. Be at ease and have fun. Keep the show fast-paced and involve the kids in the show as much as possible. Kids love physical comedy and they like to be tested. If you want them to listen to you, you have to listen to them. I catch them off guard. Because I’m having so much fun myself, they can’t help getting caught up in the fun too. And in the process they end up discovering and appreciating something about the culture I am sharing with them.
TK: What are the differences in performing to children and adults?
SS: Of course the material you choose is going to be different. I enjoy entertaining for both groups but children are definitely more of a challenge.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
LISTEN to Slim’s Sweet Mama Blues
Learn more about Sourdough Slim at sourdoughslim.com, and follow the links to purchase his newest recording, Oh, Sweet Mama. You can also meet Sourdough Slim in person at the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4, 2012.
Tamara Kubacki interviewed Skip Gorman about the appeal of cowboy music, playing with other musicians, and the importance of teaching and learning about history.
LISTEN to Buffalo Hump
TK: You listened to and watched musicians from an early age, and you received your first guitar when you were eight. When did you become interested in cowboy music?
SG: I think I first became interested in cowboy songs when I was around 10 or 11 years old and heard recordings of Jimmie Rodgers. He wrote and sang a few very authentic-sounding western songs. Then Bill Monroe covered Rodgers’ “When The Cactus Is In Bloom,” and of course, Bill used to sing Cliff Carlisle’s “Goodbye Old Pal” a lot when I started listening and playing bluegrass music. Later when I was in grad school in Salt Lake City and in the Deseret String Band, Hal Cannon and I used to find and listen to old 78 records of some of the cowboy greats like Carl T. Sprague, Powder River Jack Lee and Jules Verne Allen. Also around that time in the 70’s Glenn Ohrlin was re-discovered by the old-time music crowd at folk festivals. So this all piqued my interest in the history of the music of the West.
TK: Your music brings not only a glimpse into the history of the cowboy, but also a truth about life on the ranch or the range. You worked as a cowboy in Wyoming for awhile, too. What is the appeal of the cowboy to you and to fans of the music?
SG: Though I lived in Utah for 6 years, I was not raised in the West. So I never started riding and working on ranches until I was in my 40’s. Then I was hired on at a dude ranch to entertain at recreations of 1880’s cattle drives. It was then that I got a good taste of what I had been singing about for 20 years. It was a fascinating way to go!
What appeals to me most about the cowboy is similar to what appeals to me about old time New England Farmers: they have an astute sense of independence . . . the dogged determination to get things done right, even under lonely, very difficult circumstances.
TK: The songs and tunes you play were influenced by many different traditions: Celtic, Appalachian, Spanish and African-American music. It’s quite a diverse tradition. How do you wade through the long history to find the songs that speak to you?
SG: Because I’m so partial to old-time sounding, unplugged music, I’m always charmed by melodies that speak with a historic flavor, whether they are Celtic based or south of the border in feel. And then the lyrics that tell the story are the icing on the cake for me. Ironically, this appears to be the opposite of how many of the old time cowboys put together their “songs.” For them the story was the primary focus. Therefore, lyrics came first and the melody was often attached to the story line later. Their stories and poems were of prime importance…. not music or any hot picking or licks. I like being transported back to a time before Hollywood and jazz, swing and blues seemed to permeate and take over most everyone’s musical sensibilities.
TK: Along with playing music, you also teach workshops and school programs on playing music, cowboy songs, and the history of the West. You will be teaching a fiddle workshop and giving a talk about the history of cowboy music at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Explain the importance of teaching.
SG: Yikes! One can cover acres answering this question. I think teaching is merely introducing to someone—in an exciting way—something that they may not be familiar with at all, or being able to convince a person to view something from a very different angle.
When I go into schools to teach kids about the West, they are often surprised to learn that there’s a lot more to it than cowboys in fist fights, gun battles with Native Americans and yodeling.
When they hear the flavor of the older music and actually see a map of an emigrant or cattle trail, they are often pleasantly surprised and fascinated.
TK: You play solo, as a duo with Connie Dover, and with a group, The Waddie Pals. Connie and the Waddie Pals will be joining you at the Gathering. Will you talk about what it’s like to play music solo, with Connie, and with the Waddie Pals? What makes a good partnership?
SG: Playing gigs as a solo act certainly allows you the freedom and spontaneity for a concert or program to develop freely as you size up and play the audience. Yet, doing this alone is often much more work, lonely travel, and usually not as exciting. Singing with Connie Dover gives me a stellar voice to try to match. It takes me to another level and I enjoy being with her immensely. Like Connie, the Waddies are old friends. What’s more fun than spending time with old musical pals?
LISTEN to Powder River, Let ‘er Buck
TK: You have a new recording in the works, Fiddles in the Cowcamp. Tell us a little more about it, please.
SG: When I saw how people were enjoying Mandolin in the Cow Camp, which I recorded a few years ago, I realized that there was a need for a similar project with the fiddle. Yet, doing all the mandolin playing on close to 80 tunes on a double set had been a load of fun for me but a huge amount of work.
I immediately thought of some of my fellow fiddler pards in the West whose music very much deserves to be heard more. People like Ron Kane, Tom Carter and Ruthie Dornfeld have something special when it comes to rendering an old fiddle tune with time-honored nuance and a true sense of what the music most probably sounded like before Hollywood. Their music is the style of fiddle playing that would have been done in cow camps before the 1930s or so. They use older bowing styles, cross-tunings, clawhammer banjo accompaniment and rhythm as was done in the West as far back as the 1800s. We’re excited about this project and it’s with great old pards.
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
SG: Thank you Tamara! We’re looking forward very much to being at the Gathering this year.
The Western Folklife Center received a TourWest grant from WESTAF to help cover some of the travel costs for Skip Gorman, Connie Dover and the Waddie Pals. Skip and Connie will perform on Tuesday, January 30 and Saturday, February 4, 2012, and the Waddie Pals will join Skip during some of the daytime performances, February 2 – 4. Skip is also conducting a two-day fiddle workshop on Tuesday, January 30 and Wednesday, January 31. Please join us at the Gathering.
Each year, the Western Folklife Center invites artists to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Unfortunately for all of us, the Gathering is only a week long, hardly enough time to get to know all the artists. Through this blog, we hope to give you a closer look at some of the artists. To start things off, Gathering Manager, Tamara Kubacki, interviewed Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges. As part of the interview, Andy Hedges sent along two tracks from their upcoming album, The Outlands. Get an exclusive first listen here!
LISTEN to The Crooked Trail
TK: You have a new website, andyandandy.com. After three albums, does this mean that yours is a permanent partnership?
AH: We’ve also just finished recording a fourth album that will be released by the end of the year. I don’t foresee us ending the partnership but I am sure that we’ll both continue to do solo projects and perform solo at times. One of the nice things about our arrangement is that there is no pressure and no expectations. There was never a formal beginning. We just sort of fell into working together and I’d like to think that if it ever ends, it would be the same way.
AW: Exactly. There are two other important factors to consider. First, we’ve never come up with a cool band name. Second, at my age a permanent partnership really doesn’t mean much!
TK: You also released a new CD this year, Mining the Motherlode. Many of the reviews I’ve read point out that much of the subject matter is the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Andy Wilkinson said, in a review by Margo Metagrano of cowboypoetry.com, “The history of the American West was openness. The future of the American West is water. Mining the Motherlode explores that future by using the lens of art to look at our present and our immediate past.” Will you expand on the idea of using art to look at the present and immediate past?
AW: The principal business of art is storytelling. And the principal business of storytelling is to give us an understanding of the world that is distinctly human. The historian sees their view, even though it is ever-changing, to be the objective truth. The artist knows that the ever-changing nature of truth can only be captured in a story.
TK: What about using history to explore the present and future? A lot of the songs you perform, not just on the newest CD, are arrangements of traditional and folk songs. How are traditional songs relevant to today’s listeners?
AH: Traditional American folk songs are weird, strange, funny, scary, sad, and intriguing stories about the human condition. Bob Dylan said a person could learn how to live listening to folk songs. And all American music comes from this, whether it’s rock-n-roll, country music, blues, or cowboy songs. It all grows out of this same tree of American folk music and it is as relevant now as ever, especially in a time when it’s hard to find anything that’s real. These traditional songs are honest. With that said, I don’t approach the music as a traditionalist or a purist. I am not trying to duplicate the sound of a 1930s recording. I am simply an interpreter, trying to bring what I have to the songs and looking for ways to change them – new verses, new melodies, combining songs, anything that makes the songs fit. It’s all part of the folk process.
TK: Your collaboration is rich with dichotomies that prove that opposites attract. Your voices are very different from each others’: Andy Wilkinson writes original material while Andy Hedges arranges the traditional songs; the topics you explore cover both history and the future; and Andy Wilkinson is a bit older than Andy Hedges (sorry for pointing out your ages!). I find it interesting that all of these opposing ideas work so well together. How do you do it?
AH: I’ll add another one: Wilkinson is a poet and I am a reciter. But, we do have the same name! I think it’s the differences that make our collaboration work. It would be boring if we were both the same age and both songwriters.
AW: I’ll add only this: our souls are the same age.
TK: Speaking of your ages, people might assume that because Andy Wilkinson is older, he is a mentor to Andy Hedges. But as I’ve gotten to know you, it seems to me that you are truly friends and that your musical relationship is a partnership rather than a teacher/student situation. Is Andy Wilkinson a mentor or more?
AH: I don’t really think about or notice the difference in our ages. I’ve always been friends with folks who were much older than myself. Andy Wilkinson IS a mentor to me but he’s much more than that. Or maybe he is exactly what a mentor should be: a friend who is generous with their time, talent, and knowledge, who treats you as an equal and is also eager to learn from you.
AW: I should add that I learn every bit as much from Andy Hedges as I hope he learns from me.
TK: I am also interested in Andy Hedges’ attraction to traditional and older styles of music. Where do you find the songs you rearrange? How does working with Andy Wilkinson help your process?
AH: I immerse myself in all types of old time and American folk music. I have a special interest in cowboy songs but I listen to a little bit of everything and it’s all connected. I listen to old 78s and LPs and I buy lots of CDs and I download music. I collect old folk songbooks and I’m always keeping my ears pricked for something that I can use. Sometimes Wilkinson writes a song that will remind me of something I’ve heard or will send me in search of a certain kind of song to pair with it. For example, Mining the Motherlode originally started with Wilkinson writing a little bunch of songs for a program we did about the “next Dust Bowl” and we wanted to include some depression era songs and some Dust Bowl songs so I began digging deeper into that material.
TK: Andy Wilkinson, you also seem to be interested in historical figures and are presenting your show Charlie Goodnight: His Life in Poetry and Song” at the Gathering this year. Can you speak to writing original material, especially music, that draws on history, and how Andy Hedges’ traditional sensibilities affect your current work?
AW: I am fond of saying that I write from history because I’m lazy; there are no better characters, no better plots, no better stories than what can be found in the real world, and if it’s already happened, it’s history. So in that, I am already a traditionalist. Besides which, good songs are timeless — no song speaks to me just because it’s old, or just because it’s new, or just because it comes from some particular tradition or genre.
TK: A lot of your music not only illustrates a time in history, but also evokes a sense of place. What role does living in Texas play in the music you create?
AW: I don’t think living in Texas makes any difference. I do think that living in this particular part of Texas plays an enormous role. Out on the Southern Plains, we’re still very close to a history that’s particular to this place. Cities tend to develop in many of the same ways, but each countryside seems — at least, to me — to have its own, unique history.
TK: On your latest release, Andy Hedges’ wife, Alissa, and Andy Wilkinson’s daughter, Emily Arellano, play a more noticeable and prominent role, each of them singing lead on two songs: “Dust Can’t Kill Me” (Emily) and “Old-Timey Heart” (Alissa). Both of them have beautiful voices that complement your voices in different ways. Why have you decided to include them in your collaboration, and how has it enhanced the recording?
AH: For one, they are much better to look at than the two Andys! And, as you have pointed out, they have beautiful voices that complement what we are already doing. They also allow us to perform some songs like “Old-Timey Heart” that would not make sense with a male voice. The thing I really like about performing with Alissa, Emily, and Andy is that we are all friends and family. When we make a record, we record almost everything in real time with very few overdubs and we don’t use any session players. Everything you hear on the new record comes from the four of us. It’s a very natural way to make music.
AW: And I’ll add that my son, Ian, is playing harmonica on our newest and as-yet-unreleased project. I can’t imagine doing something as important as art with people other than family and friends. We’re very, very lucky.
LISTEN to The Old Chisholm Trail
TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Readers who want to know more about Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges can visit their website at andyandandy.com, or, better yet, talk to them in person at the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4, 2012.