Author: Alvira, Marco

Horse Opries and Their Music

Saturdays just have not felt the same since we left DishTV and went over to cable. That has meant no Marty Stuart, Ronnie Reno, or Larry’s Country Diner. Ya, I’m supposing that you’re thinking, “Good. Maybe Marcos will get a life and get out some.” I would not disagree that, but there has been an unexpected benefit to my household switching over to a cable provider: we now have the Encore Western Channel. I have worn that channel out the last four days that I’ve been holed up sick at home. I’ve watched it all—from TV serials made in the days when television screens glowed blue hue to the worst of the mid-seventies spaghetti westerns.

Westerns appeal to that bit of Americana in all of us; that part that relishes open spaces, rugged individualism, and great heroics from common people with an indomitable to survive and make a better life. Westerns have another appeal, as well — i.e., their music. For example, John Sturges’ 1962 film, The Magnificent Seven, is a seminal western, changing the way westerns would be made for years. It’s theme song, more than the movie, will live our collective memory. The strong rhythm and melody conjure images of wide vistas of arid cattle country and tough men on horse cutting herds. The theme song was eventually used as the music for the Marlboro commercials.Italian director Sergio Leon leaned on Sturges’ grittier image of the southwest, and then took grit to a dirtier level when he introduced the world to his epic spaghetti westerns, A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. His characters and edgy new antihero were seared into our memories with the equally potent soundtracks composed by Ennio Morricone. His use of bells, choirs, horns, sound effects, and the electric guitar blended with the on screen amoral, dirty, sweat soaked, ragged characters. Even aging, classic movie stars took there shot at this new subgrenre of horse opry. The most successful of these was the brilliant Once Upon a Time in the West featuring Henry Fonda. Equally brilliant was Morricone’s score with “Man with a Harmonica” as its center, blending all themes of the west into a modern sonic masterpiece. The west, indeed, had been rebranded.

Unfortuantely, the western degraded in the seventies into low budget knock-offs of Leon/Morricone. By the end of the decade, the genre was all but dead. In 1980, the Carradine, Keach, and Quaid brothers teamed together to make yet another film about the infamous James-Younger Gang. This movie gave us a deep breath of American realism in western filmmaking. The colors were deep, the soundtrack thunderous. Emotion was raw as the movie depicted the struggles of the Jesse James and his equally famous cronies. Ry Cooder scored and produced the sound track utilizing his roots based compositions and songs from the traditional American folk. For many theatergoers, this was their first experience in traditional Americana music. The western was back home, being treated with respect and love.

Of course, when one thinks and western and music together, the first thoughts that come to mind are Gene Autry, Text Ritter, and Roy Rodgers, King of the Cowboys. Even in Spanish language westerns, there is a pantheon of singing cowboys. In Mexico, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and Javier Solis are legendary. In fact, with their perfectly trimmed pencil thin moustachios and silver buttoned black charro outfits, these vaqueros dominate the screen and looked a lot tougher than Gene, Roy and Tex. Westerns featured many other fine voices and songs that have become part of our movie consciousness: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “Do Not Forsake Me” (High Noon sung by Tex Ritter), and “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) easily come to mind. My favorite western film vocal duo is Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in 1965’s Cat Ballou. Their narratives and musical interludes borrow from period theater and some of the more benign traditions of the minstrel shows of the early 19th century.

One cannot complete a column on this topic without touching, at least, on the music of television westerns. Some of these songs are forgotten by today’s television audiences. The theme songs from Have Gun Will Travel and Johnny Huma are largely only remembered by folks of a certain age group. Ironically, songs from Bonanza, Rawhide, and Davy Crockett are still recognized by many kids today, though the child may have no knowledge of their respective television shows. New western shows, like AMC’s Hell on Wheels, the dobro and fiddle are ubiquitous in the soundtrack. The show often features music by Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, and artists steeped in American roots scene.

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether our vision of the American west shapes music and film, or if film and music shape our vision. Any artistic remaking of the old west will be indelibly stamped by the zeitgeist of the director or composer. Maybe this is important, for the western frontier was a place where people went to remake themselves. It is a place where people go today to remake their artistic vision.

Posted:  2/5/2012

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