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The Arts Voyager, 5-17: Ridin' Away
Dawson, Harris, & the Texas Trailhands put the 'whole' back in wholesome
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
FORT WORTH, TX -- There are artists content to follow and occupy themselves with their own star, and then there are those who strive to change the constellation. Devon Dawson, the dulcet-voiced cowgirl heart of the Texas Trailhands -- though cowboy vocalists "Hoot Al" and "Roncho Ron," with their invitingly warm but not overpowering Texas twangs, should not be under-rated, nor should the other instrumentalists who set the ambiance -- and a latter-day Dale Evans in her own right, makes up part of the latter, a game-changer not just in the realms of music and the West but for young people as well, which is why it's important to consider her and a prodigy, the sensational teenager Kristyn Harris, a reincarnation of Patsy Montana and Patsy Cline if ever there was one, in the same breath.
We'll consider here the Trailhands' first three albums as well as Dawson and Harris's solo rambles, but let's start at the Opry, the Cowtown Opry of which Dawson is part of the nucleus and which doesn't just hold forth every Sunday at the historic Fort Worth Stockyards at the juncture of the old Chisholm Trail, but actively seeks out talented young people to teach them the art and history of cowboy and Western singing and song, legend and lore. This is where Dawson roped in -- if you'll forgive one corny Cowboy analogy -- the preternatural Harris, for the Opry's Buckaroo program in which youngsters are mentored in Western repertoire (including the subsets of Western Swing and Frontier), vocal skills, yodeling, instruments, and presentation, by Dawson, Janet McBride, and others, using live music. (For the whopping annual membership fee of $25.)
I thought of Harris -- and, more largely, Dawson, McBride, and the Buckaroo program -- on a recent week-end at the Will Rogers Center, where I stumbled upon the opposite of what they're doing, in both the artistic and moral values being imbued in children:
the "Dance Hall of Fame Challenge." (Being held practically next-door to a gun show.) Most of the girls -- and most of the contestant/performers were girls -- were a lot younger than Harris, I'd say from elementary school through junior high, and yet 75 percent of the dances demanded that the girls objectify their bodies. 80 percent of the music was horrible generic beat-infested pablum with meaningless lyrics, again often boy-centered. Most of the costumes were dreadful and, to put it delicately, tasteless and inappropriate. There was little here to make a child, teacher, or parent, proud.
Until I saw this show and, in February, when Dawson, Harris, and others performed at the annual Rodeo and Livestock Show at the Rogers Center, was introduced to cowboy music and its power to give young people like Harris a dignified artistic avenue that has nothing to do with selling sex and 100 percent to do with talent, I used to be one of those East Coast sophisticates / Left Coast liberals who sneered at terms like "family values," "family-friendly," and "wholesome entertainment," because they were usually pronounced by Right-wing political or religious zealots or prudish cultural gate-keepers. But Dawson and her cohorts at the Opry have put the 'whole' back in wholesome, re-introducing an art form that manages to be adult without being sexual, simple without being simplistic, clean without being sanitized, spiritual without proselytizing, and Earthy without Earthy language or innuendo. (Oh yeah: And for cowboy music, there isn't a whole lotta gun-play.) This is full music about emotionally, sentimentally, and texturally full living.
|The Texas Trailhands. Promotional photo courtesy Devon Dawson.
So let's talk about the music.
I started with the three Texas Trailhands albums in the bushel of music Dawson delivered to me personally, outfitted in simple but elegant cowgirl regalia. Like Dawson's outfit and artistic-Western spirit, there are no rhinestones here, just solid gold. The album "Lone Star Swing" makes clear the expeditionary nature of this musical adventure, beginning with a scratchy radio dial and other sound effects and the words, "You know, I think it was just after the big one that tore through Lubbock..." that the Texas Trailhands blew into town.
As with most of this music, much of the richness of "Saguaro," an old cowboy legend -- "Saguaro, a menace to the West," about a terrible twerp who thinks he's Wyatt Earp, except that his opponents are more likely to be cacti than the Dalton Boys -- comes from the language, in locales like "Maripopa County" and lines like, "When the smoke cleared, the cactus lost that final round. 200 years of nature's work lay splattered on the ground."
Larry McWhirter introduces a cowboy version of Cole Porter's "Ain't Misbehavin'" with words that summarize much more concisely than I may have above the charm of this music: "It's nice to know that there's some music out there that is just nice to listen to. You don't have to jump up and down, you don't have to get nervous. Sometimes you just want some downtime, and I guess that's what this music is about, enjoying life, loving life, and not being ashamed of that fact... Just to hear music instead of noise."
"Cielito Lindo" introduces the Trailhands' approach to Mexican or what I like to call Texican music. Whatever you might have heard about anti-immigrant or anti-illegal immigrant sentiment in the southwestern states, the reality on the ground is much more nuanced. Mexican and Spanish culture has a long history in Texas -- right down to the horses brought to this continent originally from Spain -- and the tastiest morsels of Western culture assimilate south of the border flavor without caricaturing or devouring it. For this song as for all their essays into Latino rhythms and lyrics, the Trailhands perform as respectful guests in the terrain. Not that they don't mix it up; here as throughout the Trailhands oeuvre, paying respect to their own history and debt as Western Swing / Cowboy interpreters, Dawson is likely to introduce a trademark Bob Wills "ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," which so uncannily resembles the original that she might be the lost grand-daughter of the cross-cultural originator of Western Swing. (Wills also drew from many musical genres and cultures in inventing the form.) Her own native voice -- let's introduce it here -- has a natural story-telling style, the tone predominantly alto but able to slide into soprano when the sentiment calls for it. Dawson has a haunting trill with the resonance and vibrational quality and trill capability of a string instrument. She can also slip easily in and out of a soft and smooth, never sudden or jarring yodel, which she does at select moments. If her articulation is clean and crystalline, it doesn't stop her from warbling or tremoring. She uses all this on "Hootin' Owl Trail" from the album Cowboy Swing 2, which is the kind of song you might listen to sitting on the porch swing love-seat with your sweetie in the early twilight, marveling at the dappled-color sunset in the horizon of the vast Texas sky: "My heart's right at home on the old home range when we're riding down the hootin' owl trail," she incants in a welcoming voice that treats the listener like an old friend, inviting him along for the ride. Here Dawson is spelled in her whimsy by "Rodeo Kate"'s winsome fiddle, with -- of course -- the contemplative harmonica of "Chuck Wagon Chuck" Dawson capping the affair and surrendering the evening's soundtrack to the crickets and cicadas.
Cowboy Swing 2 starts daringly with "Back in the Saddle Again" -- daringly because this is probably the one song that makes the uninitiated grimace when they hear the term "Cowboy Music." Not because there's anything wrong with the Gene Autry / Ray Whitley chestnut itself, but because it was so over-played it became a flavorless chestnut, bereft of any meaning like most over-played top 40 songs. The Trailhands infuse it with a new freshness and add whimsy, yet retaining a dollup of poignancy in their 'whippy-tai-aye-yays' a la Sons of the Pioneers (in addition to Autry, Wills, Patsy Montana, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and perhaps Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, the other grandparents of the Trailhands; Johnny Cash would be the uncle). Rodeo Kate's fiddle recuperates the song's authenticity from its commercial dilution, and Dawson adds a sonorous yodel. And the male singer, Hoot Al or Red River Rick (it wasn't entirely clear which had which lead from the liner notes) -- inflects the standard with deep affectionate warmth and, again, whimsy, in a twang that hooks without sounding hick.
Speaking of chestnuts, and lest you get the idea that these cowgirls and cowboys never range far from the range, the Trailhands' version of "(Gold) Minor Swing" proves you shouldn't fence them in (sorry), giving a Western swing to the Django Reinhardt classic, right down to the coyote / dog howls that open their rendition. Typical of just about every song they take on, the Trailhands don't just re-hash things but make them new, even as they hold up the standards of the original; Rodeo Kate's fiddle here would do Stephane Grappelli proud. The bass also gives the it a nice swing oomph, fit for dancing.
After "Hootin' Owl Trail," follows the "Gypsy Moon," with Dawson its troubadour, "feeling skittish as a filly in Spring," "about to snap like an old fiddle string," and "flying high as a hawk on the wing -- under a gypsy moon." In her and Allan Chapman's lyric, she's "getting forgetful, losing things everywhere; when I throw my lasso, it just catches air. I'm getting reckless, but heck, I don't care; must be that gypsy moon." And here's why:
"Cowboy I don't mind if you get the news
that I'd like to gaze into your baby blues.
Please don't blame me if I shiver in my shoes
under that gypsy moon."
Red River Rick's lead guitar helps it race by adding spicy jingle jangle; this is one of the tunes from all three albums that I couldn't get out of my head (in a good way).
A cowboy's life also has its blues, or, as Hoot Al moons in Chapman's "Carhartt Browns," "not the blues or the greens or the reds, just the browns," their oppressiveness deepened by the plodding guitar and Chuck Wagon Chuck's mournful harmonica: "I got the knuckle-bleeding, calf-feeding Carhartt browns."
"Arnold," on the other hand, in the ballad named after him, has the lovesick blues; you might too if you were an armadillo gone a-courtin' with a concertina, as recounted in the Trailhands' rendition of the Les Barker / Tom Pittman lyrics:
"If only his glasses were cleaner,
cuz he was an armadillo,
and she was a concertina.
Well he struggled to make conversation.
He leap-frogged from topic to topic.
If only she'd say something back.
If only he weren't so myopic."
"San Antonio Waltz" -- thrice-nominated for Grammy awards and the Western Music Association's Western album of the year in 2005
-- certainly delivers the most catchy song of the three Trailhand albums Dawson provided me with (in addition to the most bouncy rendition of a standard, "Jingle Jangle Jingle"), the one whose lyrics I find myself repeating regularly in my head whenever I'm down and need a pick up -- or a pico-ing up -- in Emily Kaitz and Marilyn Cain's "Pico de Gallo": (okay, might sound funnier in Hoot Al's straight-ahead delivery):
"Pico de Gallo,
Ya oughta give it a try-o.
Even if you're from Ohio,
it'll get you by-o.
But don't get it in your eye-o
unless you want to cry-o.
So come on don't be shy-o
try some pico de gallo."
And as if this pico wasn't already piquant enough, Dawson spices it up with a signature Wills falsetto-like "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh."
The side of "Pico" aside, where San Antonio Waltz ups the ante and completes the picture of the cowboy's -- or cowgirl's -- life is in adding the dimension of pathos, notably in two songs and their interpreters, Hoot Al on Chapman's musicalization of "Red Silk Bandana," apparently based on a letter written by cavalry-man John B. Westbrook to his sweet-heart from the trail, and Dawson on the traditional "I'll be All Smiles Tonight." Imagine the title words of the first spaced out for maximum poignancy:
"A red ... silk... bandana
she gave him as he rode away.
It must have come from China
he heard another cowboy say."
|Devon Dawson. Promotional photo courtesy Devon Dawson.
"I'll be All Smiles Tonight," a traditional tune arranged by the Trailhands, is a first-person declaration by a woman to the man she loves the night before he marries another, made more haunting by Dawson because the sadness is barely an undercurrent; as any great actress knows, the most authentic way to portray sadness is not by letting it all hang out, but by evidently trying to surpress it. This is what Dawson does here:
"Though my heart may break tomorrow
I'll be all smiles tonight.
And when the dance commences
oh how I will rejoice.
I will sing the songs he taught me
without a faltering voice.
When flattering ones come 'round me
they'll think that my heart is so light.
Though my heart may break tomorrow,
I'll be all smiles tonight."
This is a song of determination; you don't realize until the end of the song reveals the impending wedding of her beloved to another just how much the brave front is costing the narrator, the price of her grace:
"And when the groom he enters,
with bride upon his arm,
I will stand and gaze upon him,
as though he were a charm.
And when he smiles upon her,
as once he smiled at me,
oh he'll know not what I suffer.
But there'll be no change in me.
I'll be all smiles tonight."
If listening to Dawson's interpretation of this song suggests any criticism, it's that she does it so well I'd like to hear her take on more songs like this, songs of pathos and tragedy, in which she knows just how to rend the heart and move the listener to tears. My sense from seeing her perform and chatting with her is that she's so optimistic, suffering may not be in her personal inclinations, but the nightingale doesn't just bring commisseration, it can also deliver catharsis, and I have a feeling that those among her auditors who have suffered their own tragedies, major or minor, might find it a liberating tonic to hear Dawson apply her brand of grace to tales of trial and tribulation, and a welcome respite from the cry-baby divas who just indulge in it.
Those songs are not too frequent on her solo album,
"Keepin' Your Head Above the Water," which, except for the title song -- about a horse who survived the great flood of '49 by keeping his haunches up on the gate of his stall, proving you can find a way to keep your head above the water too -- is decidedly lighter, both musically and topically, than the three Trailhands discs. This may be because the album had a specific mission, being presented in honor of the 100th anniversary of Cowtown Coliseum, home of the world's first indoor rodeo; most of the songs are about cowboy or cowgirl or rodeo heros, including trick riders. They no doubt merit the tributes, but it makes some of the songs sound like school lessons. But rodeo stars are not immune from tragedy, and one of the two most moving songs captures one such, the death of champion rider Old Bill Picket, who finally met a sorrel stud he couldn't break, and who bucked him and stomped him to death at the age of 63 in 1932. The story is plaintively told by Rich O'Brien, whose rusty voice (by which I don't mean out of practice, but nicely grizzled) makes him sound like an old-timer who might well have known Ol' Bill.
The other stand-out exception to the lightness is Dawson's yearning take on "Wild Stick Horse Remuda," credited to Hill/Dawson, in which a grown-up woman recalls the stick horses she rode as a girl, and the man who crafted them, her father, who taught her that "sometimes you have to let things go, some times you have to stand and fight."
"I still have his sweat-stained Stetson,
his boots and his old knife.
Sometimes I take 'em out just to measure up my life.
And I hold him closer to my heart and know I have to try
and live up to the honor of the wonder days gone by....
And my wild stick horse Remuda."
"Family values" can't be a set of rules imposed by self-righteous Bible-*thumpers.* (I emphasize 'thumpers' to distinguish them from Bible openers, Bible readers, Bible practitioners, and Bible teachers, with whom there's nothing to reproach, and I use 'Bible' in a broad sense, to implicate thumpers of any persuasion.) They need to be passed on directly from parents to children, with teachers, friends, and other relatives getting involved and invested as called for and appropriate. As I consider "Wild Stick Horse Remuda" I think of the television series "The Rifleman," which was about a lot more than rifles, and where the hero's kid wasn't just along to look cute and provide a character for children to identify with. Sometimes Chuck Connors's Lucas McCain taught lessons to his son, usually extracted from that week's episode, occasionally explained by a passage from "the Good Book." Sometimes his son Mark (Johnny Crawford) taught lessons to his father. Sometimes Lucas explained the difference between a particular right and a particular wrong to Mark, Mark said he understood, and Lucas said, 'No you don't," the implication being that he would when he got older.
In its deceptive simplicity -- for it's not just about a stick horse, it's about a grown woman's persistent relationship with an icon of a father -- "Wild Stick Horse Remuda" also reminds me of Carly Simon's "Embrace me You Child":
"At night in bed I heard G-d whisper lullabies
While Daddy next door whistled whiskey tunes.
And sometimes when I wanted, they would harmonize.
There was nothing that those two couldn't do."
Carly Simon -- in this song anyway -- may not reach the same conclusions as Devon Dawson might about G-d, but the centrality of the father lower-case in a girl's life extending to long after she's no longer a girl is the same. And Dawson brilliantly extends her story by making it (putatively) about not a real horse, but a stick horse, something city girls will find much easier to identify with than a real horse. While I admire Dawson's dedication to the 'Rodeo Rascals' in relating the exploits of the cowgirls of days gone by elsewhere on her solo album, the lessons seem much more broadly applicable in "Wild Stick Horse Renuda," a minor masterpiece.
|Kristyn Harris. Promotional photo courtesy Devon Dawson.
There's blood family and there's artistic family. Incredibly, eerily, preternaturally, and perhaps supernaturally, Kristyn Harris, barely 18, is both the pupil of Devon Dawson and Janet McBride, who weaned her in the Cowtown Opry's Buckaroo program, and the resurrection of Patsy Montana and perhaps (in her upper range), even Patsy Cline. "Throwback" may be a cliché, but it's the most precise way to describe Harris's voice, which uncannily conjures that high-pitched tone popular in the Western music of the late '20s and 1930s. (And, across the Atlantic, in France.) We don't even have the ear for such high notes today, so much so that they can sound jarring and aren't even what we consider 'pretty' any longer. But imagine hearing them without the interference of a scratchy record and the erosion of time -- imagine Montana in effect recording today -- and you have Kristyn Harris. What high voices -- or if you like, upper reaches of the soprano -- exist today are usually confined to particular, eccentric vocalists like Sinead O'Connor and Bjork, boiling in their own angst as they sing about personally wrenching or obscure themes. Imagine such a voice, then, applied to songs like "Roll on Texas Moon," "Swing Time Cowgirl," "Ridin' Away," and "Twilight on the Trail," drawn not from severe emotions and over-wrought personalities but simple living and ideals. Then you have an idea of Kristyn Harris, who is all these things already. If you need a visual, imagine her in cowgirl blue jeans, leather vest, and plaid shirt, Heidi-like blonde tresses wound in two ponytails cascading from under her cowgirl hat. And for good audio measure, add a smooth yodel that Harris doesn't cheaply exploit but parcels out at choice musical moments.
Even from the first notes of the first song, "Roll on, Texas Moon," of her debut album, "My Mustang, my Martin, and Me," Harris's voice -- faraway and immediate at the same time -- and lyrics evoke another time, resurrected:
"When shadows come stealing,
and you get to feeling crazy as a loon
Well that's just the moonlight in your eyes, roll on Texas moon....
It's like a slice of Heaven,
starts 'round about seven."
About here Matthew Walton's crisp steel guitar twangs in to seal the bind between Harris's music and the cowboy/girl music of an earlier era.
For the Patsy Montana classic "Swing Time Cowgirl," the chorus, in which Dawson joins Harris, also helps make the connection, and helps understand why "the cowboys all fell in love with" "that rootin' tootin' swing-time cowgirl," the tootin' evoked directly when Harris soars into higher range on certain notes.
One might think an 18-year-old girl might have difficulty rendering Carson Robinson's "Carry me back to the Lone Prairie" with the necessary sense of forlorn loss and yearning, especially in lines like, "And when I die you can bury me beneath the western skyyyyyyyy (she also knows the right words to elongate) on the lone prairie," but Harris manages to carry it off, slowing the tempo and lowering the octave of her voice to lend it added maturity and weight. She's helped with setting this more contemplative pace by the other musicians, notably the patient lead guitar of Jack Walton but also the mournful harmonica of Chuck Dawson and the sad-melodious fiddle of Rodeo Kate.
But the winner is "Ridin' Away," where Harris shows herself beyond her years, in the authorship of -- and confidence with which she delivers -- lyrics like:
"And I know somewhere folks are tearing out their hair
cuz they've had way too much of that city air.
So i'll ride 'til the blue turns a sunset hue
and meantime i'll just ride right away...."
Young people -- and performing artists in general -- can often seem so self-absorbed, and girl singers can be (or made to seem, by crass record company executives) -- so boy-absorbed that, aside from the vocal phenomenon she represents, a voice from another time singularly imbuing ancient and new lyrics with the (outdoors, simple living) values of that earlier epoch, and that's before we even get to her technique (in her vocal stretches and pitch-perfect yodeling, just to mention two of her many gifts) -- aside from all these gifts, the arrival of Kristyn Harris is also to be applauded for the way she stretches way beyond her years in presenting songs all of which are not about herself but about living. And mentors like Devon Dawson and Janet McBride are to be applauded for providing a forum that weans and nurtures unusual and atypical voices like Harris's in an era that puts a prime on generically pretty singing, as well as providing a place where this kind of music is esteemed.
For my part, I've half a mind to paste a sign up at the next "Dance Hall of Fame Challenge" announcing, "Dance competition cancelled! All parents directed to take children to the Stockyards and sign them up for the Buckaroo program of the Cowtown Opry."
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