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November 27, 2008

Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 All-Time Great Cowboy Songs

by John Oseid

If you're a die-hard city slicker like me, you wouldn't know a rodeo from a rugby match. But I'm slowly getting there. Some years ago, I really took to early-century country music. So, I recently found myself letting out a few whoopi-ty-aye-ohs listening for hours to Sony BMG's new Boots, Buckles & Spurs. The fifty songs in the handsome three-CD set were selected to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas December 4-13. You might throw your hat in the ring--the NFR puts over $5 million in purse money on the line.

Disc One starts off right where it should with Gene Autry crooning his 1930s standard "Back in the Saddle Again." The Jessi Colter tune, "My Cowboy's Last Ride," was my introduction to the top seventies female Outlaw singer. The last cut is a Johnny Cash song off his little-known 1979 album Silver. The Man in Black was such a genius that even an obscure song like "Bull
Rider" eclipses the best work of his contemporaries.

In 1985, Cash formed The Highwaymen with fellow legends Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. On Disc Two, "Silver Stallion," from their album Highwaymen 2 knocked my spurs off. Listen to them harmonize in the live video above--"And we're gonna ride, ride like the one-eyed jack of diamonds with the devil close behind"--and you realize Jennings' baritone was a national treasure, and the song a piece of pure American music history.

One of the greatest discoveries for me in this collection comes on Disc Three. Known as the "Pavarotti of the Plains," the late Texan Don Walser was a modest guitarist and yodeler who worked to keep roots music alive. Very late in life, he became so widely embraced that his fan base curiously included punk rockers. His version of the traditional "Cowpoke" is absolutely lovely. And his life reminds us that, like our jazz greats, a generation of pioneering talents is fading. Boots, Buckles & Spurs gives them their due.

More Music:
* The upcoming National Rodeo Finals are held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas. Performing before each day's rodeo events will be leading country stars such as Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, and Brooks & Dunn, whose new tune "Cowboy Town" is the rodeo's official anthem.
* Some years ago when I visited Nashville for Condé Nast Travelers Deals page, I spent a good five hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The exhibitions are so well curated, and the interactive displays so fun, that I'd go back in the crack of a whip.
* The Texas yodler Don Walser passed away in 2006. His obituary makes for a great tale. Here he is performing Cowpoke, and here, the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song "Shotgun Boogie."
* In an engaging thirty-minute NPR interview, Jessi Colter talked in 2006 about her late husband Waylon Jennings, their musician son Shooter, and the strong links between country and rock. Her 2006 album Out of the Ashes was her first in twenty years.

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