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Western Jubilee's Scott O'Malley turned a childhood fascination into a larger-than-life legacy 

Singing cowboys and runaway trains

click to enlarge BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller

'You can't sing and be mean at the same time," declared Gene Autry in Springtime in the Rockies, one of the late-1930s westerns that earned the movie actor, musician and rodeo performer his reputation as America's "singing cowboy." A former telegraph operator for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, Autry rapidly became one of the biggest stars of the silver screen and, in the process, created a genre of music that would make him a millionaire.

For Scott O'Malley and others like him, Autry was part of a holy trinity of cowboy singers, alongside fellow silver-screen do-gooders Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. By the early '50s, Hollywood's horseback heroes had ridden off into a Technicolor sunset, but a kid growing up in Indiana could still watch them on the black-and-white TV in his parents' living room. The fact that the Midwest wasn't exactly full of cowboys and rodeo riders made the old Wild West morality tales that much more exotic and intriguing.

Today, at the age of 72, O'Malley is owner and proprietor of the Western Jubilee Warehouse, a former freight house located in what was once known as Colorado Springs' historic Santa Fe Railway district. He renovated and repurposed the building in the mid-'90s, and it's from here that he continues to manage, record, and release albums by a roster of artists whose common thread is that they draw upon old-time musical traditions. Among his clients are Pueblo-based Americana act Haunted Windchimes and Colorado Springs progressive bluegrass band Grass It Up, as well as internationally known country-western balladeer Don Edwards and acoustic legend Norman Blake, who picked up a Grammy for his music in the Coen brothers' 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

While the trains rumble elsewhere through town these days, Western Jubilee still feels like a flashback to a more innocent era, with just as much of a vintage vibe as Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium. The performance space inside this unassuming building also doubles as a recording studio for most of the artists O'Malley manages. Its unusual alchemy of corrugated tin, vintage quilts, and wall-mounted instruments results in acoustics that are as clear and resonant as the Pikes Peak Center's, but with much more warmth and intimacy.

Outside, the building is surrounded by old-time artifacts: roadside Burma Shave signs, an old railroad signal, and tarnished metal silhouettes of cowboys and buffaloes. Inside, vintage Western-themed treasures cover virtually every inch of wall space. There are also rows of old theater seats that were driven up from the historic El Rialto Theater in Florence, as well as church-style pews from Old Colorado City's Simpich Showcase puppet theater. The performance space has served as the setting for numerous private concerts featuring Western Jubilee Records artists like Sons of the San Joaquin, The Bryan Bowers Band, and Flash Cadillac, as well as less-expected performers like John Doe of the pioneering punk-rock band X.

On a recent spring day in the Rockies, O'Malley sits in Western Jubilee's front office, multi-tasking in the most gentlemanly way imaginable. For a music veteran who's witnessed most every facet of the industry — he first came through Colorado in the mid-'70s while playing in a country-western band called the Buffalo Boys — he shows no trace of being jaded, although he does possess a wry, easygoing sense of humor.

"I played music for 15 years full-time, and I hated every agent I ever worked with," he says with a grin. "And now I am one."

Dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, blazer and jeans, he sits across the table answering questions about his past, while periodically welcoming clients who show up at the door. It's easy to imagine O'Malley as the trusted friend of a Jimmy Stewart character in one of Frank Capra's 1940s movies, or as the small-town mayor in a much cooler version of The Andy Griffith Show.

Early in our interview, a member of the '50s-style act Flash Cadillac picks up some CDs and chats about upcoming gigs, including a vintage car-show and a special youth-symphony performance. Haunted Windchimes members Desirae Garcia, Inaiah Lujan and Mike Clark later file in to do a soundcheck for the first of two sold-out shows. Shortly afterward, we're paid a visit by Scott's son Tyler, who's one of the associates in O'Malley & Associates, as was his brother Brendan until just recently.

click to enlarge O'Malley at the controls during a Haunted Windchimes soundcheck. - BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller
  • O'Malley at the controls during a Haunted Windchimes soundcheck.

"Brendan's in Nashville now," says Scott with more than a hint of fatherly pride. "He's spreading royalties for the Warner Bros Music Group's Legacy series. Well, they're calling it Legacy, but it's artists like the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin. So I'm sure he's adding zeros to everything he did here."

A couple of decades ago, Scott had his own connection to Warners — the company that launched Gene Autry's early career — when his client Don Edwards signed on to its record division's Warner Western imprint. In an era of grunge-rock and gangsta-rap, Warner Western turned out to be a short-lived venture, but Edwards' involvement did lead O'Malley to other business relationships, and friendships, that have stood the test of time. The Hollywood experience also triggered O'Malley's subsequent business approach: Whatever the music industry conglomerates do, O'Malley doesn't.

"We took this 83-page contract from Warner Brothers and did the exact opposite in two pages," says O'Malley of his artist contracts. "I just tell them whether it's good news or bad news; I just shoot straight with them. And they don't make me play golf or do lunch, you know? And that's why I've worked with Norman and all these people now for 36 years."

Cowboy music, as anyone who's listened to Marty Robbins' "El Paso" — all 14 verses of it — can tell you, is all about the storytelling, usually with a moral lesson slipped into the mix. One of the best contemporary practitioners of that art is Waddie Mitchell, a former working ranch herder who has been hailed for decades as the greatest living cowboy-poet storyteller.

"When Scott O'Malley talks to his artists before they leave for a gig, he always says 'Bring me back a story,'" says Mitchell. "Often, I'll fill him in on what happened, then promptly forget it, only to have O'Malley remind me, sometimes years later. The stories are often funny, but he'll always have some piece of wisdom he derived from what happened."

click to enlarge Mitchell and O'Malley back in the Ride for the Brand days.
  • Mitchell and O'Malley back in the Ride for the Brand days.

Mitchell, who also served as "emcee on horseback" for the six-year run of Ride for the Brand (a working-cowboy rodeo that O'Malley co-founded with Kathleen Collins in 2003), tells one of his favorite O'Malley stories: "Once, shortly after I signed with Scott, I had been to Tennessee for a large festival," recalls Mitchell. "A fella backstage came to me and asked if I was the cowboy that Scott O'Malley was working with. I affirmed, and he immediately asked if I had seen the collection. I didn't know what he meant, [and] it showed, so he started in. He tells me Scott has collected forever. Everything cool, diverse and Western. He said to plan a week to see it all, but don't plan to see it all in a week, it's that big."

When he got back from the road, Mitchell called O'Malley and mentioned the conversation: "It turned out he was a big time New York agent who was also a passionate collector. He told me that Scott had inspired him in both those endeavors. He believed Scott is, and will always be, the best at both of them. When I told this all to O'Malley, he responded 'You know, I never did have much respect for that guy's opinions.'"

It's that sort of deadpan, self-deprecating comment that you'd never hear from an agent based in Hollywood, New York or Nashville, where inflated egos are as common as short attention spans.

"When I first started working with Scott, I would make sure I had time to talk before I picked up the phone to call," says David Jeffrey of Grass It Up, who recorded a live album at Western Jubilee two years ago. "If you know Scott, you know he loves to tell stories, and especially about managing artists and his collection of antiques and art. Like the time I told him I love old pennies and he asked if I have the 1909-S VDB [a Lincoln cent, minted in San Francisco]. We talked for an hour about how he collected coins as a kid."

Jeffrey says O'Malley is one of the people in his life that he considers a hero, right up there next to his dad, actor Tom Hanks and bluegrass artist Sam Bush.

The Haunted Windchimes' Inaiah Lujan agrees: "Everything with Scott is a story, his memories are living things. Whether it's a box of old baseball gloves, or a turn-of-the-century banjo, he is a true collector in every sense of the word. He's also a well of knowledge and a scribe for all things Americana, folk and cowboy, like a modern day Mark Twain."

One of the more sublime joys of creative endeavors is that, in their best moments, they can satisfy our nostalgia for a more innocent time and place that may or may not have even existed. Go to the Universal Studios lot and sit on the porch steps where your favorite childhood sitcoms were filmed, and don't be surprised if you feel more at home than you do when you visit your own hometown. Spend some time inside the Western Jubilee Warehouse, and the feeling is much the same.

click to enlarge There's a computer in there somewhere, but paper remains O'Malley's medium of choice. - BRYAN OLLER
  • Bryan Oller
  • There's a computer in there somewhere, but paper remains O'Malley's medium of choice.

While O'Malley has amassed an array of artifacts that encompasses five decades of collecting, the most priceless and personal among them is not on public display. It's an elaborate scale-model railroad with an O Gauge engine that Scott's grandfather originally gave as a Christmas present to his niece, who died three days later from a disease that was still incurable back in 1936.

The train runs on electric rails through a beautifully crafted small-town neighborhood, complete with street lights, a baseball diamond, a church, a motel, a graveyard, and dozens of handmade homes, each illuminated from the inside. The houses were constructed — some by his grandfather, others by Scott himself — from old cigar boxes, and the level of detail is astonishing. Most of these houses are populated by toy people, some of whom can't be seen from the outside. But even then, you can still sense that they're in there.

"My grandpa wired it all up, and labeled everything, and willed it to me," says Scott. "So I take it real serious, you know? I keep working on it, and I don't think I'll ever finish."

As with his large-scale creations, O'Malley's small town serves as a reflection of a distant past, however idealized, that can perhaps bring some measure of comfort and joy to the present.

"Being at the Western Jubilee is like being in church," concludes the Haunted Windchimes' Desirae Garcia. "Not just any church, but the depiction of church in a movie, where it's warm and comfy, and free of judgment. Scott layered the room in paintings, instruments and all of his love, until it felt this way. He'll hand you an instrument off of the wall to see it played, and if you ask, he's got a story for each and every item he's collected there. I've never felt so much a part of a family at a venue as I do there."

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