In the first installment of his Cimarron Sounds column about Western music, RW Hampton asks — and answers — whether it’s still relevant.
Editor's Note: Cimarron Sounds is an online blog series presented by C&I from award-winning Western artist RW Hampton. Read — or listen to — Hampton's musings on Western life and music.
“So what’s a cowboy singer like you doing in Nashville?”
This is pretty much how the conversation started as I was sitting in the Music City office of one of the Great American Country (GAC) moguls with my manager one day.
I answered, “Well, I thought it was country and Western music?”
“No, no!” says Mr. Sweatpants, Gold Chains, and Running Shoes. “You’d have to go over to a classic country station to find any of that stuff!”
Listen: C&I Presents RW Hampton’s Cimarron Sounds, Vol. 1
Now rewind a little further back in life to a magical Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry. I remember as I tipped my hat and exited the stage, I don’t think my boots ever touch the ground! Opry manager Hal Durham was there to greet me. “Well, I think they liked you!” he said. “Let’s stay in touch!”
I will always remember his next words. But not until sometime later did I really understand the full meaning: “I believe you are the first solo Western artist we’ve had on here at the Opry since Marty died.”
What I didn’t know was that country music had already started to distance itself from its Western cousin.
Western Characters: Horses, Cattle, Love, and the Land
OK, now please indulge me and push rewind for one more memory trip. I was honored to be in London for the British Country Music Awards. My new album at the time, Austin to Boston, was receiving a lot of airplay and gaining some real traction on their country music charts. During a live interview at London’s BBC headquarters, the host asked me, “What is cowboy and Western music, and what is its relevance today?”
Now this wasn’t the first time I have been asked this, but somehow, on that foggy day in London Town, I came up with the answer I still use today: “Western music is the country music of the American West!”
A person could spend a lot of time and effort explaining what Western music isn’t, but I’d rather talk about what it is instead.
When it comes to themes, there is a whole lot of love in Western music. It may sound corny in today’s sophisticated, “woke,” and cynical world, but we apologize to no one when we sing about love for the land, this country, our freedoms, our animals, our spouse and family, heritage, traditions, and God. Yes, God! Not a PC God, but GOD.
Freedom is one important thread running through Western songs. All the way back to the earliest post-Civil War trail drive songs to the harmonies of the Sons of the Pioneers to Ian Tyson and Corb Lund, the cry of and for freedom rings loud and clear from the cowboy’s heart. But that’s a story all in itself.
I would be hard-pressed to talk about this music without bringing up the colorful characters we often sing about in Western songs. I’ll bet cowboys, pioneers, miners, loggers, and gunfighters are some of the first brought to mind when it comes to characters, but what about the horses? Yes, the horses!
The story of the West in song would not be complete without the horse. From 150 years ago to today, our horses have carried us to glory. Like our country cousins, we might even mention our pickup trucks now and then, but in a Western music song, our pickups are most likely hooked to trailers with a saddled horse standing at the ready.
The biggest, meanest, most beautiful and deadly character in all Western songs is and has always been the land — the land and its weather. From Texas to Alberta, from the Oklahoma Hills to the Rockies, from the High Plains to the rolling prairie, the California coast to the Badlands. The geographic region known as the American West is very much its own character with moods and a temperament so big that everything else in the West revolves around it.
Western music, at the heart of it all, is about the West. The songs are about what’s important to us, like rugged individualism.
It’s not just a theme of the words but also the sound. Unlike our country cousins, a Western song will never fit into a predetermined rhythm track, melody line, or two- to three-minute radio format. It’s that rugged individualism that probably got us kicked out of Nashville in the first place. And out here in the West — whether it’s in song or horseback — it’s what drives us and what keeps us alive.
So, where to from here?
Well, there’s no denying, how good it would feel for our cousins in country to invite us back to sit at the party and have us a good old-fashioned family reunion. Somehow, I don’t see that happening anytime too soon. Besides, we’d have to behave ourselves and sing about a tanned cowgirl on a horse, at the lake, wearing short shorts, a bikini, aviator shades, and drinking sweet tea out of a red plastic cup. Oh, and all in two minutes and 24 seconds! Thanks, but no thanks!
Who do I see still sitting out in the seats listening to us and buying our CDs? Well, it’s cowboys and Indians, cowgirls and ranchers, farmers and construction workers, Midwestern families, rodeo hands, fashion designers, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, schoolteachers, pastors, active-duty warriors, cops, housewives, and disabled vets.
Once they hear Western music, it’s people from every corner of America who have an appreciation for independence, from every clime and economic demographic. I see America. And as long as they will listen, this cowboy will sing.
Playlist: RW Hampton’s Trail Drive Sampler
RW Hampton — “Colorado Trail”
Marty Robbins — “Saddle Tramp”
Sons of the Pioneers — “Tumbling Tumble Weed”
Ian Tyson — “Fifty Years Ago”
Corb Lund — “September”
About RW Hampton
Since growing up in a small Texas town, RW Hampton has drifted all across the American West, working cowboy jobs punching cattle, riding young colts, shoeing horses, and even leading trail rides and guiding hunters in the high country. But perhaps his favorite thing and the through line of all his kicking around the West was singing around the campfire while out with the wagon. Never glamorous, ranch work instilled in him a positive approach to life. Hampton’s rich baritone voice brings an honest quality whether he’s performing live or on record. He writes and sings about what he knows and lives. Hampton’s music has earned numerous honors from such prestigious organizations as the Academy of Western Artists and the Western Music Association, which inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2011.