Cowboy artist Charlie Russell proclaimed the West dead before his own death in 1926. Almost 100 years later, singer-songwriter cowboy philosopher RW Hampton begs to differ.
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.
The American West — “Well, that’s a mighty big subject!” an ol’ cow puncher amigo of mine once said to me. But, really, what is our American West? Is it everything west of the mighty Mississippi? How about everything West of the 98th meridian?
You know, there once was a time, back in our colonial days, when the West was way out in Tennessee and Ohio. We Americans have been pushing the boundaries and looking toward the sunset ever since we first landed on Plymouth Rock. Heading west, ever westward!
Listen: C&I Presents RW Hampton’s Cimarron Sounds, Vol. 4
Could it be the West is gone? Long gone? After all, famed Montana cowboy artist Charlie Russell proclaimed before his death in 1926: “The west is dead, you may lose a sweetheart but you’ll never forget her.” Charlie had seen the end of the open range, the demise of the great buffalo herds, and finally his beloved Native brothers herded like cattle onto reservations.
Yes, to Russell, the Montana he found in 1880 as a youth had changed forever. Those youthful memories though, burned so brightly in his heart that he had to put them down on canvas for the whole world to see and for us to enjoy yet today.
Well, I will tell you right now, “Friend Charlie,” the American west is not dead. It’s not even sick. Oh, sure, it has changed — it is changing now and will continue to change. But dead? No, never. As long as ranching and farming continue out in our big empty spaces and as long as there’s room enough for a man or a woman to ride a horse and swing a rope, the West will live on.
When I was a kid growing up in North Texas, the West, for me, was everything the other side of Dallas. As my old pard cowboy singer Don Edwards used to tell me, “Dallas is where the East peters out, and Fort Worth is where the West begins.” Even though almost every Texas town had a yearly rodeo, I never felt really “Westy” till I was headed out of Dallas toward Fort Worth.
I remember well our visits to my great-grandmother, who lived in Cow Town. I loved her dearly, but it was the trip over there that I remember best. I would be sitting in the backseat with my younger brother and little sister in our shiny Chevy Impala. We’d be back there reading a book or irritating each other as siblings do. For some reason, getting through Big D always seem to take forever. But then all at once, the world changed and I was looking out the window at the West!
We had magically left the flat blackland prairie to open rolling plains. The trees turned from oak and elm to mesquite and they were scattered out where a person could see as far as his imagination would let him. After a while, like a mirage, the skyline of Cowtown USA started to rise out of the earth and that small cluster of skyscrapers looked like a hard-ridin’ posse headed right straight for me! A good part of that experience would later include visiting the Stockyards, buying cowboy boots, and eating Mexican food from Joe T. Garcia’s. I remember well thinking that one day, I would live and make my home in the West
That was back about 50 years ago and yet those memories still burn brightly in my heart.
You see where I’m headed with this folks? Sure ya do! The West is not just a geographical designation or region. No, for me, Charlie Russell, our Native brothers, the pioneers, frontiersmen, and I’ll bet all you readers too, the American West is so much more. It’s an attitude, a way of life, and most important, a place that burns brightly in our hearts.
RW’s American West Playlist
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.