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Undercover Cowboys 

"The King of Niche" finds a home for Western music in Colorado Springs

The hitching post stands idle outside the Western Jubilee Warehouse. No horses' reins are hitched to the post today. But don't rule out the possibility of a trailer pulling up, driven by a singing cowboy dropping off a new lyric sheet or picking up a publicity photo.

There are three stops on the mainstream American musical expressway: New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. And if Scott O'Malley and his colleagues at the Western Jubilee Recording Company have their way, Colorado Springs will never be known as a fourth stop.

In an out-of-the-way warehouse on Cucharras, where the road hits the railway, Scott O'Malley runs four businesses, three of which have won him national recognition despite his stealth approach to keeping a low profile. The oldest of the three is Scott O'Malley & Associates, an artist- representation agency that O'Malley started in Conifer in 1982 with a core roster of Flash Cadillac, Norman Blake and Bryan Bowers (who will be appearing with Ian Tyson at Swallow Hill on November 27).

Next on the scene was the Western Jubilee Recording Company, fronted by Dane Scott and known as the most successful label focusing on Western music. Soon after opening the recording company and moving into the warehouse, O'Malley and Scott raised the curtain on the Warehouse Theater, an intimate space with pinpoint acoustics that hosts "private concerts" for friends of those named on various shingles hanging over the warehouse door.

Finally, in the one endeavor yet to gain national acclaim, the backside of the warehouse has been divided up to accommodate their new "cowboy storage" facility for people who "want to store stuff and not look at it very often."

"Usually, there's a manager on the East Coast and an agent on the West Coast and a record company somewhere, and then they all three try and coordinate," O'Malley said of the standard operations in the music industry. "We just kind of yell into the other room."

Home on the Range

O'Malley first came to Colorado in 1975 as part of a band called the Buffalo Brothers, a conceptualized "buckskin" band that set themselves in 1880 and found Colorado better suited to their style than their home state of Indiana. He moonlighted with Keith Case, booking acts like the Dirt Band, Steve Martin and Leon Russell while trying to keep his own band fed on the side. He recalls a standard phone conversation in which he'd tell potential promoters, "I'm sorry, Leon's booked, but have you heard of the Buffalo Brothers?"

It wasn't the music scene that drew him to Colorado Springs, but simply the promise of a good place where he and Kathie, his wife of 19 years, could raise their three children while he booked acts in his pajamas. "It's not on the hot list as far as New York, LA, Nashville or Colorado Springs," he explained with characteristic understatement. "What makes it work for us is that all our guys have this alternative these guys are not mainstream. They don't make us play golf and have lunch with the guys. We're just left of center in spades, the whole entire roster."

But if it seems incongruous to have a left-of-center reputation in a right-wing haven, keep in mind that incongruity has been their M.O. from day one.

Kathleen Collins, who left her post of 23 years as artistic administrator with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra to work with O'Malley and Scott, praises the freedom of working in Colorado Springs, where there's no set scene to constrict them and nobody looking over their shoulders ready to put the clamp down. "This place isn't chic," said Collins, "it doesn't follow fashion. Therefore, you can play 'what if' and put certain things together, and they don't fall apart."

Better than Bugs

O'Malley never envisioned himself making records, despite a deep-rooted love of cowboy and Western music. "I figured if I did what I loved I'd be going broke," he said. Western Jubilee had its roots in a brief relationship O'Malley and Scott had with the Warner Brothers niche label, Warner Western. "Those two famous initials, Bugs and the whole deal, that's kind of why I returned the call the first time," O'Malley said of the circumstances that led to a professional relationship with Don Edwards, the Sons of the San Joaquin and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell.

The artist and repertoire representative from Warner told O'Malley he had a reputation as "the king of niche booking," which O'Malley took as a compliment, though he'd never heard the term before. When told that he'd be getting a call from Waddie Mitchell, who wanted to talk to him, O'Malley's first response was: "What's a Waddie?"

According to Scott, the artists he came to represent didn't like "the typical Nashville 80-page contract that nobody could read." After three years of watching their artists collectively make six-figure sales without seeing a nickel in royalties, O'Malley and Scott decided to strike out on their own. "We didn't see anything that Warner Brothers was doing that we couldn't do," Scott continued. "In fact, we thought we could do a lot of things that they were doing a lot better, and our artists could be much happier."

O'Malley and Scott began working together on a Norman Blake video project. Scott had come to Colorado Springs from Albuquerque to help start up Windstar Studios. He was the vice president there for 11 years and a big Norman Blake fan all along. "I looked on his record one day and realized his manager lived in Colorado Springs. So I knocked on his door." The two became friends, and O'Malley convinced Scott to get out of his TV and video work and join forces with him to work with the cowboys.

Their unique success comes in understanding the nature and roots of Western music and in respecting the musicians and their artistic integrity. "When you see Don and Waddie and the Sons and Rich [O'Brien] it's like going to church," O'Malley said. These days, the warehouse by the tracks gets at least five calls a week from artists wanting representation or a label. Contrary to Nashville's "who's hot, who's not" approach, the roster doesn't change very often at Western Jubilee. "We have this grow old together attitude," O'Malley commented. "The artists trust in us, and we trust in them. We'll eat chicken together on a Sunday."

Part of the alternative approach to niche marketing includes looking at outlets other than music retail stores for record sales. Although they have a distribution arrangement with Shanachie that brings them into more traditional venues, Western Jubilee knows their core audience isn't going to wander into Tower Records looking for some cowboy music. Accordingly, they sell their music out of the shops where they know they'll find their audience -- Western-wear stores, tack shops, gift shops -- and on television. "It's real gras- roots," Scott observed, "hand-to-hand."

And the orders come in. From Mississippi to Japan and all points in between. "It fits well in the United Kingdom," Scott said, "because a lot of these old traditional cowboy songs, they came over with the emigrants, and they became Appalachian folk music, and then they moved West with the settlers. The music stayed the same, but the lyrics changed and the subject matter changed. That's what folk music is."

In the spirit of preservation, O'Malley and Scott have used their label to keep Western music somewhere in the industry's recesses of consciousness after the genre broke with the country music it used to be associated with. "It's like Norman Blake says, don't put your good eye out," Scott recalled. They found that many older fans of traditional country and Western music from the days of Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry were finding their niche in Western music. They're making inroads, getting Billboard magazine to recognize the distinct genre, and they even hope to one day have a Grammy category for Western music.

The anti-Nashville sensibility has helped them keep their roster happy while country music has gone "from being an artist-oriented industry to a song-oriented industry," according to Scott. "They're just looking for that big Garth Brooks hit. Our sound is just simple, it can be straight acoustic guitar. We try real hard not to overproduce things and not to try and produce for the mass market." By way of straight-faced understatement, O'Malley adds: "Don's not Garth."

They are equally alternative in their booking patterns. O'Malley assumed he'd be limited to learning the ins and outs of the rodeo circuit when he started working with cowboys, but a typical run of gigs for poet Waddie Mitchell would take him anywhere from the annual national convention of the FBI to the Superbowl, from a Wall Street retreat in Wyoming to the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.


If you build it, they will come'

The Western Jubilee Warehouse Theater has evolved out of a desire to make use of the space they've got. With seats from the El Rialto Theater in Florence -- packed into a rental truck for them by prisoners from Cañon City -- and a pure sound stumbled onto by way of walls covered with tapestries and string instruments and tweaked to perfection by engineer Butch House, the theater can be used as both a recording studio and a performance hall. Two albums have been recorded onstage in the warehouse, a Blake-O'Brien project and a live Waddie Mitchell album, and Don Edwards recorded his contributions to The Horse Whisperer soundtrack there, in the central Colorado Springs studio beside the railroad.

The "private concerts" have earned the warehouse an underground reputation as the best venue in town. In typical low-profile fashion, O'Malley, Scott and Collins have resisted the urge to upgrade the facility with the necessary improvements to stage public concerts, preferring the smaller "house shows" that replicate the living-room feeling that is essential to their brand of music and refreshing for the artists that come through. "There's a give and take and an intimacy that happens," according to Collins, and O'Malley affirms the feeling. "We're not just trying to get someone off the street to fill our seat. We want the same kind of person you'd have over to your living room."

Despite the attempt to keep it an informal setting for friends and folks, the upcoming Don Edwards show sold out three days after they sent out their invitations, prompting them to add a public show at the Smokebrush. (O'Malley calls the new schedule the Underground Tour, with Edwards playing Nederland's Acoustic Coffee House on Friday, the Western Jubilee Warehouse on Saturday, and Smokebrush on Monday -- leaving time to eat chicken on Sunday.)

Scott and O'Malley envision one day using the theater as the stage for a syndicated Western radio show, somewhere in between Riders in the Sky and Prairie Home Companion. For now, it's a playground where musicians can experiment, collaborate and maybe even roll tape. Recently, Michelle Schocked snuck into town to jam with Norman Blake and Nick Forster behind closed doors in the theater. O'Malley speculates that something will probably develop one day between Schocked and Blake, but with an eye to his fourth business venture he observed, "Maybe she just needs to store stuff."


Cowboy curveballs

Whether you think of them as "niche," "alternative" or "underground," O'Malley, Scott and Collins have always leaned toward the unusual, reveling in the overlooked corners of the industry, experimenting with their "what if" philosophy and steadfastly refusing to let their musicians compromise their art.

Collins recalls one of the first bold ventures, matching the good-time roots rock 'n' roll of Flash Cadillac with the Colorado Springs Symphony. "That was earth-shattering at the time," she said. "We sat there in that first rehearsal, and it felt so dangerous."

Years later, they haven't lost their edge. In 1999 alone, they've seen the release of Be Ready Boys, a Norman Blake/Rich O'Brien project recorded at the Warehouse in an attempt to bridge the musical span from Appalachia to Abilene; and A Prairie Portrait, the just-released collaboration between Don Edwards, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, with spur-flying renditions of "The Streets of Laredo" and "Deep in the Heart of Texas" to celebrate Fort Worth's sesquicentennial.

Lest anybody think they're skewing too heavily toward an older demographic, Western Jubilee will follow up the orchestra album with a young trio called Cowboy Nation, who Scott refers to as "cowpunk." The group features deep double-bass vocals on ambling ballads like "Blood in the Saddle," with non-traditional lyrics "Oh pity the cowboy/All gory and red/A bronco fell on him/And mashed in his head." The band may strike traditionalists as something of a curveball, but they come well-recommended. "You think of them as being totally alien," Don Edwards said of Cowboy Nation's connection to Western music, "but their understanding of the tradition is intact. They understand where the stuff came from."

Off in another direction, the agency has a new relationship with Cowboy Celtic, who played the Springs in October and now have a contract rider demanding "tartan," or plaid, M&Ms in the dressing room whenever they play, "to stump the poor operations manager," said Collins. Rather than play traditional Celtic-based music with guitars and fiddles in a Western style, the progressive band pushes things a step further by taking Western music and playing it with traditional Celtic instruments.

Another bridge-building project that O'Malley has in the works comes from his old love of baseball and his stumbling across a few musical baseball players. He's hoping to put his cowboys together -- especially Joe and Jack Hannah from the Sons of the San Joaquin, who played pro ball with the Cubs and the Braves -- with some well-known ballplayers for an ambitious recording featuring the likes of retired Dodger greats Carl Erskine on harp and Maury Wills on banjo.

"It's just believing in good music, really, in whatever form it takes," Scott summed up. "That's the fun part about this; we're not playing by any rules. We're just having fun and making records."

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