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December 06, 2001 News » Cover Story

Cowboy Crossroads 

Appalachia meets Abilene in a Colorado Springs recording studio

To many outsiders, Colorado Springs remains a community defined by its divisiveness. But there's another, more harmonious corner of Colorado Springs, tucked away in an old warehouse down by the railroad tracks that run through the city's center.

At the Western Jubilee Recording Company, a well-kept secret locally but the recording studio of choice for many of America's traditional musicians, the focus is on bringing about a reconciliation between musical traditions that have too long been culturally and geographically segregated.

This past August, in a tin room papered with musical instruments, vintage posters and road signs, a half dozen world-class musicians stepped out of their element and into the crossroads. They pull up their chairs and set to pickin', and the end result may prove as significant a musical milestone as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken bluegrass project or T-Bone Burnett's astonishing old-timey soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

High lonesome cowboy

The working title for the project is High Lonesome Cowboy, and it has the potential to be the defining album in Springs music entrepreneur Scott O'Malley's Appalachia to Abilene series -- a recording project anchored in the heritage of traditional music of the Western ranges, examining the role Appalachian mountain music has in that heritage, and celebrating the common ancestry both genres share with their musical roots across the sea.

"It's that old-time progression that came into the West," explains cowboy crooner Don Edwards. "It came out of Appalachia. It came from the old country first with the Celtic tradition and as it came across the country, Appalachia was the frontier. Then it went on to the Ozarks and that was the frontier."

Edwards is a living link to the singing cowboy tradition of Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers. A three-time winner of the Western Heritage Awards' prestigious Wrangler Award for his albums Chant of the Wanderer, West of Yesterday, and Prairie Portrait, which he shared with WJRC producers O'Malley and Kathleen Collins. But he is also a champion of the unknown cowboy. He plays the folk blues of the black cowboys, the working songs of the range hands, and ballads penned by diehard heroes whose stories live on long after they lay down to die in the desert.

High Lonesome Cowboy, scheduled for release next spring, was recorded over the course of two sessions, one held this past summer and the second currently in progress at WJRC's Warehouse Theater. Edwards was joined by bluegrass pioneer Peter Rowan, legendary guitar virtuosos Norman Blake and Tony Rice, and Austin-based husband and wife team, Billy Bright on mandolin and Bryn Davies on bass. Rowan is a bluegrass pioneer with his own musical branches linking him to everyone from Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Vassar Clements and Jerry Garcia to Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident. If Edwards' songs are the inspiration, Rowan's interpretations serve as the project's vision.

Rowan filters rough-hewn ballads and up-tempo band numbers through the dream state that informs so much of his work. In his hands, gritty songs of life on the trail turn to ethereal journeys drifting through a world of mysticism and magic. The cowboy landscape is a land of legend for Rowan, and he is best known for populating it with characters of his own creation like Panama Red, Tumbleweed, and Running Elk and One-Eyed Jack from "The Land of the Navajo."

"I like the mythology of the West," Rowan explained to the Independent when these sessions were still a distant fantasy. "I thought I was continuing a great tradition that nobody else was even thinking about, which was to populate the imagination with myths that we don't have."

While Edwards captures the authenticity of the song with his spare guitar work and his rich baritone voice, Rowan's interpretations push the songs into a new, cross-pollinated dimension.

The idea to collaborate on this project first came up years ago, and Rowan and Edwards have been brainstorming ever since, whether sharing songs over the telephone, scribbling notes here and there, or running over songs backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It was a stroke of accidental fortune that turned the duet into a band project backed up by Blake, Rice, Davies and Bright.

Adding Blake and Rice to the project established a dream band of unquestionable credentials, all "steeped in tradition," as Edwards says, and each capable of summoning the spirit of countless musicians they have played with and studied. To play alongside Blake is to play alongside the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, John Hartford and Ralph Stanley, and to incorporate Tony Rice in the mix is to tap into a tradition of bluegrass, newgrass, spacegrass, and jamgrass that touches on past partners like Grisman and Garcia, Bush, Fleck, and Douglas, and two previous collaborations with Norman Blake.

A flurry of last-minute logistical wrangling by O'Malley, and an historic recording session was off and running.

Bunches of funk

In the studio the first day, there's an unspoken agreement to seize whatever moments the musicians can reach and capture them quick. Their sense of urgency is fueled by an understanding that the technology is tenuous, and there's an undercurrent of anxiety, with nobody really knowing how much of the music is sticking to the tape.

The impromptu sessions forced a juggling of engineer duties at WJRC, leaving Flash Cadillac's Sam McFaddin (now deceased), volunteering at the controls. As the technology refused to cooperate, it looked like the best anyone could do was cross their fingers and pick their licks.

Norman and Nancy Blake arrive in late afternoon, having played to a crowd at an Anasazi ruin in New Mexico the night before. Norman is stooped over from carrying too many guitars throughout his Southwestern sojourn, and his dog, Bascomb, jangles in the background as Don and Pete sing a quiet duet they have spent hours complicating, only to deconstruct it back down to its simplest components -- two soft guitars and a tireless voice.

"Too much tech can kill it sometimes," said Blake of his aversion to the modern-day recording studio. "Or a person who doesn't understand the music."

But O'Malley's warehouse is an altogether unique recording environment, so comfortable that the intrusion of technology is rarely evident. "I enjoy recording in there because it is so non-studio," said Blake of Western Jubilee. "I relate to the time when records were made in hotel rooms in the early days. When they were carrying around portable equipment, making them in hotel rooms and warehouses or wherever they could set up. [This is] more like the old days. You're just sitting in a tin building, a listening room, an old thea-a-ter with a bunch of funky stuff around."

Among the funk in the studio/general store/antique shop/theater/picking parlor, are the nostalgia inducing "walls of sound," a collection of old instruments decking the walls on either side of the stage.

"This is what I learned on," Rowan tells Edwards, picking a metal banjo uke off the wall. "This is my axe." The instrument reminds him of Spike Jones, a singer of novelty songs from the days of 78s, a songwriter whose inventive humor can be traced into Rowan's own songs and interpretations.

One thing they don't have in the house is a quality dobro. "Can we send out for a dobro with everything on it?" asks Rowan, and WJRC executive Dane Scott picks one up from the Folklore Center, bringing back the "funkiest one on the wall." It's not "funky enough, or dirty enough" according to Blake, and several days later he replaces it with a Regal Hawaiian guitar off O'Malley's wall, grungy 30-year-old strings and all.

The baffles are removed from the stage to adapt the studio to the needs of the ensemble. The sound baffles create little cubicles for each musician, allowing each microphone to be isolated from the other sounds. "The modern school of recording says that you baffle things where you can isolate it," Blake explains, "where you can fix things, that's the reason. I don't believe in fixing that much."

As the baffles come down, the group comes together. Rowan and Edwards look straight at each other as they sing, and there is a palpable connection between the two men, coloring their distinctive styles with each other's influence.

"That's when the magic happens," says Edwards, recalling the way the group came together as the barriers were dropped. Thoughts of overdubbing are scrapped. "If you could just get in a big semi-circle and just say 'capture this,' I'll go for that every time," Edwards says of his preference for recording a live performance over the more common practice of editing together separate tracks. "That's sort of like piecing it together. It's creating as opposed to capturing something. Capture what we're doing -- that's what we're trying to do. If there are some little idiosyncrasies here and there, so be it."

Sing into the can

Nevertheless, frustrations mount and anxiety peaks late on the first day of the sessions. They equipment is finally turned off for the night.

McFaddin goes home frazzled as Nancy Blake offers simple, straightforward advice in dealing with technology: "Just get a bigger hammer."

"A better thing couldn't have happened Wednesday night than that the equipment wouldn't work," Bright said later, echoing the sentiments of everybody in the band. "We just got to sit around and play songs a little bit." Away from the troublesome microphones, in a back corner of the warehouse with rocking chairs, benches and a cooler of cold drinks, Blake, Rice, Rowan, Edwards, Bright and Davies sit and play songs, relaxing into old friendships, bonding as a band and getting a handle on tunes.

When the sessions resume, the first song up is "Buddies in the Saddle," a bright, upbeat Carter Family number about saddle pals on a round-up ride. The song gives Blake, Rice and Bright plenty of opportunity to stretch out and warm up their fingers. After taking flight with a flat-pick propelled version, Edwards marvels that nobody's ever recorded it.

"Let's record it tonight," suggests Rice from the circle of pickers. "Hell, we can put it on a cassette machine ... . One stereo mic right there," he says, indicating where a mic could hang down in the middle of the group, capturing the music the way they did in the old days.

O'Malley crystallizes the sentiment with a favorite line from O Brother, capturing the simplicity of the old-style recording technique: "Sing into the can and make ten dollars."

The music would be polished and practiced the next day, but for one late-night session, energy and "spontanuity," as Edwards calls it, rules. The songs begin taking shape with a fearless sense of exploration and experimentation. It's the kind of thing Edwards has envisioned throughout his career, but when he brings up the idea of collaborations with hot bluegrass instrumentalists, the Cowboy industry looks at him "like I'm a runover dog. ... I think I'm too radical [for them]," he says.

But radical reigns supreme in the artist-friendly comfort zone of WJRC. That sense of experimentation is at the core of each of these musicians, pioneers in the musical wilderness who ultimately come back home to their roots with a wandering hero's bounty of new knowledge. As Nancy Blake put it, "Any time you get this batch of folks together, something that's never been in the world is about to be burst."

When Blake signals that the "campfire's burning down tonight, folks," the band decides to do one more number, "Take Me Back to the Range," before calling it a night. The session evolves into equal parts music and laughter, with Nancy Blake leading the way and playing class clown.

"Get off the stove, Grandma," she jokes, "You're too old to ride the range."

Rowan catches the bug, and when Edwards sings about longing to "hear my bronco nicker," Rowan thinks he's singing about his horse's knickers.

"Get out of that horse's knickers," Nancy chastises, and the room erupts again. But horses are everywhere in the cowboy songs, including in the cadence, taken from the horse's gait. When Rice observes, "It's drifting up," Rowan responds: "They all want to go to the same place. The horse wants to gallop." He jokingly asks if anybody has some coconuts they could bring in for horse-trot sound effects. O'Malley, a collector of everything from baseball gloves to timepieces, confesses he has 360 of them in his basement.

Rice describes the music as "easy on my nerves." A consummate flat picker, his biggest challenge is reining in his crisp, clean, lightning-fast licks to play at the gentler lope of the cowboy pace. "It's a tempo that I'm certainly not used to," he says. "It's almost like you gotta retrain the brain to play just a little bit slower than normal."

"That's the best fun I've had in a long time," Edwards bubbles.

"Yeah, this stuff'll sound good," Rice assures him, packing his guitar up for the night. "I guarantee you."

Whispers in the wind

Davies says that more than anything she's picked up a sense for mood by playing with Rowan over the last several years, learning to play in the mood of the song, the mood of the session.

"We're just whispering the story," Rowan tells the band at the next session as they settle into "The Nightguard," a quiet, starlit song that makes him envision them all sitting around camp after dark, leaning into the story. "It's like everybody sitting around listening to the person sing."

Rowan and Edwards lay out a few of the songs that will serve as the centerpiece of the album. There are at least four songs that share a common melody, though the lyrics place them in vastly different settings. "Trail to Mexico," "Gonna Leave Old Texas Now," "Midnight on the Stormy Deep," and an old British ballad, "Early in the Spring," will all be woven together throughout the album, grounding the project in the recurring themes of the journey and the echoes of a familiar musical motif.

"This is the dream," Rowan says as they amble into "Gonna Leave Old Texas Now," Rice's guitar riding atop Blake's foundation. Blake feels his introduction might be too long, but Rowan loves the natural feeling of it. "We want to hear Norman really lay that melody right out," he affirms.

Blake and Rowan go back a long way together, and they know more than a body ought to about tapping into the mystery and pulling it out six strings at a time. Blake is clearly enjoying the groove, tapping into a tank of musical joy at this water hole somewhere between Appalachia and Abilene.

"He's pulling a lot out of the air," Blake says of Rowan's approach to bringing the musicians into the world of the songs. "If you're going to make magic, you have to get it from somewhere."

Blake has been on his own magical run of late, riding O Brother, his own string of five straight Grammy-nominated albums, and a forthcoming album backing up Ralph Stanley. "We made some [magic here]," he says. "There's some great stuff in there."

"These songs are about the lyrics," Bright says, acknowledging that here he is surrounded by musicians who believe in the power of stories, of lyrics. "Bluegrass is no longer about the words."

"Everybody just sits there and waits for the solos," Bright continues.

"That's not what this is about. Cowboy music is one of the few surviving storytelling forms. My mission on this album was just to let the story happen."

"I couldn't wait to finish 'The Blizzard,'" Davies says of a song following a man and his horse stranded 100 yards from home. "Hearing it over and over again just made me want to cry. Not many songs in music do that any more."

At the other end of the spectrum, "round 'em up" songs like "The Chisholm Trail" loosen everybody up. After drilling the melody through a handful of repetitions, the musicians takes off at a free-spirited lope before unraveling in "ki yi yippies" and a burst of twin yodeling from Edwards and Rowan. The musicians can hardly contain themselves as they hold still at the end of the songs, waiting for the acoustic instruments to finish resonating, silently wondering who'll blink first before letting loose with whoops and hollers. It's the kind of cut you want to towel off after, full of a paradoxical loose energy as precise as it is explosive.

Karmic Cowboys

During the sessions, Davies demonstrates a bright touch on her stand-up bass. Like Rice, she has to "retrain the brain" to find the right gait, and she keeps songs swinging that might feel a temptation to meander. With the headphones inoperable, she worries that the group isn't hearing each other play.

"In every band I've ever played in, the bass is the rock; it's what you're supposed to listen to. It's where the time is," Davies says after a frustrating session. "And when people aren't listening to me it starts driving me crazy." Rather than continue trying to corral pickers into following her lead, she comes to the next day's session determined to get in their groove if they aren't going to get in hers.

"I said [to myself] I'm going to play it really soft. I went into basically a little trance. And it worked. I didn't think about anything. I didn't try to keep the time. I was just kind of floating there. I think that was right for that song."

That song is "Midnight on the Stormy Deep," a spacious, oceanic cut that is fitting to play in the first and only legitimate morning session, before the first cup of coffee has fully taken hold. With Rice back on the road, Blake and Rowan have to find the high guitar parts themselves. "You never know what's going to happen up there," Rowan says of playing in the upper register.

"I usually know what's going to happen," Blake counters. "I'm going to screw up."

They push on, failure junkies as Blake refers to them, addicted to the thrill of going out on a limb. A few cuts into it, however, Rowan tries to get them to pull back a little, explaining that "the tune is becoming a little more developed than I'd like."

"Play it like we don't even know the song," Rowan says, and he sings it like he doesn't know the words. "This is the Karmic Crossroads," he tells the group of the song he previously recorded with Bill Monroe. "After 35 years I return to 'Midnight on the Stormy Deep,' and I'm forgetting the same line Bill did."

Rowan reexamines the troublesome lyric, arriving at a new interpretation of the mixed message the song's heroine offers to her lover before he goes off to war at sea. When Rowan slips into Edwards' empty chair to add an alternate vocal, he gets yet another new insight when he sees a poster on the wall that he'd had his back to up until then. "Talk about an innocent age," he marvels at the Coca-Cola ad, a young man in uniform, a young woman in a fur coat, their expressions all Norman Rockwell. "Kids dressed up like big folks," Rowan says, and the wartime image in front of him blends into the image of the song for one of the album's most haunting moments.

Back to the range

"This is going to be an album that they might want to play in stables of troubled horses," Rowan jokes, referencing Edwards' role in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. "Put 'em on good feed and play 'Midnight on the Stormy Deep.'"

It's hard to tell how far beyond the stables of troubled horses High Lonesome Cowboy will reach. It's full of magic, and full of the power borne out of reunification of two long-separated forms. Nobody anticipated the triple-platinum success of O Brother, and the industry is more than poised to accept another landmark offering from the world of traditional music.

But this historic convergence of musicians is occasion enough for celebration in Colorado Springs. Word of mouth has already made Western Jubilee Recording Company an important whistle stop on the musical trail, and the unique atmosphere and vision evidenced by this project could raise the warehouse to landmark status.

"I really still think that music is one of the truly amazing phenomena of the universe," Rowan explains, the glow of enthusiasm lighting him up. "What else is there that has no shape, no form, yet can be heard and felt and transmitted through the air between people? Thoughts. Mental energy. Spiritual energy. Music.

"Every generation of musicians has sought to make a definitive movement with music that either points to the nature of music as this magical thing or uses that magical thing to create a subject matter," he concluded. "That's the challenge. How to let music say what is has to say. Can it say it without us? I don't know. Seems like we're needed there."

Recording Projects done at Western Jubilee Warehouse Theater for national release:

Don Edwards
"The Cowboy Love Song" on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, 1998

Waddie Mitchell with Don Edwards, Norman Blake and Rich OBrien
Waddie Mitchell Live, 1998

Norman Blake & Rich OBrien
Be Ready Boys, 1999

Sons of the San Joaquin
Sing One for the Cowboy
(April 2001 awarded Album of the Year by the Western Music Association)

Katy Moffatt
Cowboy Girl, 2001

Don Edwards & Peter Rowan
High Lonesome Cowboy, Scheduled for 2002 release

Don Edwards with Norman and Nancy Blake Cryin for Daylight, Future release


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