Even here in the saddle of one of the country’s biggest rodeos, there aren’t that many real cowboys running around anymore. Fortunately, though, even as the rugged lifestyle gallops closer to extinction, its culture remains formidable: The cowboy rides on as an endless muse for musicians, authors, artists and filmmakers. And that’s exactly what the 12th Annual Monterey Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival celebrates with three days of undying adoration of Western-inspired entertainment. Here’s a look at some highlights from the music side.
Juni Fisher (Sunday at 1pm) has bridged the gap between singing about life as a cowboy and actually living as a cowboy… or cowgirl.
“Cowboy is a job description, as well as a lifestyle description,” she says. “It’s a code of ethics as much as anything. Sort of the lone man/woman out on their own, against all odds, tilting at windmills like a Western Don Quixote. I cowboyed for several ranches back in my late teens and through my 20s, living in ranch housing, and it was a special time. I was also training horses for a living. It meant that injury or bad weather could be the difference between having a job or not. It’s like being a professional athlete, but without the same benefits. But the rewards are unique and spiritually satisfying.”
Fisher’s debut album Tumbleweed Letters is folk music of the American West: 11 songs with stories about everything from trigger-happy sheriffs to opium dealer immigrants. They’re all tales about real people and their triumphs, failures, bravery and fears.
“There was a spirit in the kind of people who settled the Western United States that carried them through life and into situations that lend themselves to storytelling,” Fisher says.
Though ranch life and horses remain a big part of the cowgirl’s life, music has become the No. 1 priority and the payoff has been as rewarding as herding 300 cows: Fisher won the Western Music Association Songwriter of the Year in 2008 and Western Music Association Female Performer of the Year in 2009, among others.
“I’m a full-time performer these days instead of a full-time horse trainer,” she says. “It’s an easier job in lots of ways, except for the driving.”
The romance of the cowboy lifestyle was enough to make fiddle player Richard Chon (with Strings on Fire, Saturday at 9am) move from Buffalo, N.Y., to Bakersfield.
“When you say Bakersfield, that says it all,” Chon says. “I knew Bakersfield from Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.”
When Chon got to Bakersfield he didn’t buy a pair of spurs, but he delved headfirst into country, a scene he rarely explored while living on the East Coast.
“I started playing in jam sessions and low and behold, a whole world opened up,” he says. “I was in the midst of people that had a connection to the tradition.”
After living in the Central Valley for about a decade, Chon moved to his current home in Oakland, where he continues to keep the Bakersfield legacy alive with the Western swing outfit The Saddle Cats. The four-piece band recently snagged the Will Rogers Cowboy Award for Western Swing Group of the Year and Western Swing Album of the Year.
Guitarist Andrew Hardin’s – also playing with Chon in Strings on Fire – story is kind of reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy, but without the prostitution: He spent the early ’80s driving a New York City taxicab. It was during this period that Hardin hooked up with country balladeer Tom Russell, who was also a cab driver at the time. Collaborating with Russell eventually led Hardin to a life as a full-time musician/producer, which has included tours with Nanci Griffith and John Prine and two appearances accompanying Russell on Late Night with David Letterman. Hardin constantly pulls inspiration from everything around him, from music from Bali to the different approaches used by other guitarists.
“I’m very impressionable about hearing other players,” he says. “When I first moved to Texas I heard Jimmie Vaughan play the blues and right after that I had a session and I went in there and in my mind I was Jimmie Vaughan because I was so connected to it.”
Hardin’s willingness to let in influences of all kinds is apparent on his country folk album Coney Island Moon. Blues, jazz and Hawaiian music merge with banjo and tremolo picking.
Longtime local favorite Cow Bop (Friday at 7pm; Saturday at 10:30am) have been a large part of the Monterey music scene throughout the years. Its unique Western bebop style is easy to enjoy and has charted on Americana, jazz, college and adult contemporary radio stations all over the country. Frontman Bruce Forman is also known for his guitar compositions featured in Clint Eastwood films. The band’s performances this weekend will be particularly special because it will mark their first time playing Monterey since relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago.
All told, these artists offer plenty of evidence the cowboy will never become extinct. At least not in Monterey.