Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival offers something for almost everyone
The Melody Ranch, Santa Clarita, Cal., March 20 - 24, 2002
By Dan MacIntosh
SANTA CLARITA, CA - The meat of the 9th annual Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival coincided with Hollywood's Oscar weekend, but just as western music has little in common with what's popular on country radio today, this event - held on the grounds of an old western movie studio -- was worlds away from the glitz and glamour of the Tinsel Town's entertainment machine.
The Melody Ranch was the setting for Gary Cooper's classic, "High Noon," and these sacred cinematic grounds were all gussied-up like a cowboy movie shoot for this music, poetry and culture festival. Ein route to the performance venues, one passed street performers doing rope tricks, blacksmiths demonstrating their trade and even a Hopalong Cassidy look-alike doing his thing. You might call this atmosphere the western equivalent to a Renaissance Faire.
But the Renaissance Faire only recreates the environment from an historic time period, whereas the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival spotlights a bunch of real life cow folk performers on its stages. Many of these poets and musicians even spoke of how ranch life inspired their songs and poems.
Music was this festival's main course, but there was also plenty of poetry to be enjoyed. Poetic styles ran the gamut from Mickey Dawes silly takes on WD-40 and hip-hop fashion, to Paul Zarzyski's more serious works, including one about a friend with Down Syndrome and another one a remembrance of his dad.
Headlining entertainment took place at a converted soundstage called the Melody Ranch Theater and featured two or three performers for each show. Saturday's line-up included a pairing of Hot Club of Cowtown and Tom Russell. Hot Club put together a delightful mix of swinging material, which included a fair share of Bob Wills and Johnny Gimble ("My Confession"). But they also found a place for a Rogers & Hart ballad along the way and worked in "Don't Fence Me In" at the end. Russell's set was extremely short. So short, in fact, Hot Club was almost thrown for a loop because of the unexpected extra time they'd been given. Russell made the best of his brief stay, however, by turning "Navajo Rug" into a sing-along, and closing with a rousing "Gallo del Cielo."
Other Saturday theater attractions included a show from New West and R.W. Hampton, a performance by Tish Hinojosa and The Sons of the San Joaquin and an evening triple play from Zarzyski, Glenn Ohrlin and Don Edwards.
Edwards was also a participant in the Sunday Morning "Cowboy Inspiration Hour," which also featured performances from Johnny Western and Sons of the San Joaquin. Johnny Western opened these un-churchy proceedings with "Cool Clear Water" and regaled the audience with his fascinating stories, including one about playing the San Quentin prison show with Johnny Cash when Merle Haggard was in the audience - as an inmate. The highlight of Edwards' set was his singing of Marty Robbns' "The Master's Call," easily one of the best cowboy spirituals of all time. The Sons of the San Joaquin sang their inspirational choices with Southern Gospel-inspired vocal harmonies, which included "Read The Bible" and "Unclouded Day."
Headlining Sunday's first afternoon concert, Wylie led his Wild West Show backing band and added to his visual appeal with a series of comedic dance gyrations on songs like the swinging "Jitterbug Boogie," the equally jazzy "Saddle Bum" and the honky-tonk of Johnny Russell's "Act Naturally." Wylie was preceded by Gary McMahon, who was hilarious with his Dylan-esque talking blues of "Talkin Grizzly Bear Blues," and just as impressive because of his yodeling abilities. Joni Harms balanced much of this concert's male silliness with her natural feminine sweetness on love songs like "I've Got A Weakness For Cowboys" and the kids song "Stan & Bert."
Michael Martin Murphey was introduced as America's favorite cowboy for his festival concluding performance, and while such a title is debatable, his dedication to preserving traditional western music is beyond question. He played banjo much of the time, and included a performance of his hit "Caroline In The Pines." Singer/songwriter Stephanie Davis was also on the bill with Murphey, and spoke and sang about her tribulations as a Nashville songwriter, as well as performing the Don Edwards-recorded "Prairie Lullaby." Sandwiched in between these two musicians was elder poet Elizabeth Ebert, who wondered allowed about the future of her culture with "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone" and spoke of western romance in "Cowboy Courtin' Time."
If you were on a low budget and couldn't afford concert hall tickets, all of these performers also made stops at the various smaller venues throughout the site. At the California Music Hall, Tish Hinojosa -- along with a guitar accompanist -- thrilled with her lovely pure voice. Her show included "God's Own Open Road," inspired by the wonderment of her young daughter, and alternated between English and Spanish language songs. Skip Gorman also gave a nicely low key presentation at the California Music Hall, with songs by Utah Phillips, Yodalin' Slim Clark and other traditional country and folk writers.
Those who came to this festival in search of a culture Hollywood has seemingly all but forgotten, found it alive and well and didn't leave disappointed.