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Western music (North America)

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Western music is a form of music composed by and about the people who settled and worked throughout the Western United States and Western Canada. Western music celebrates the lifestyle of the cowboy on the open range, along the Rocky Mountains, and among the prairies of Western North America. The genre grew from the mix of cultural influences in the American frontier and what became the Southwestern United States at the time, it came from the folk music traditions of those living the region, those being the hillbilly music from those that arrived from the Eastern U.S., the corrido and ranchera from Northern Mexico, and the New Mexico and Tejano endemic to the Southwest. The music industry of the mid-20th century grouped the western genre with that of similar folk origins, instrumentation and rural themes, to create the banner of country and western music, which was simplified in time to country music.


Western music is said to be influenced by the folk music traditions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and cowboy songs sung around campfires in the 19th century, such as "Streets of Laredo", can be traced back to European folk songs.[1]

Reflecting the realities of the open range and ranch houses where the music originated, and the earliest cowboy bands were often string bands supplemented occasionally with a handheld free reed aerophone.[2] The harmonica, invented in the early 19th century in central Europe, arrived in North America shortly before the American Civil War; its small size and portability made it a favorite among the American public and the flood of pioneers heading westward,[3] while squeezeboxes (such as the concertina and accordion) also enjoyed popularity in the Old West, moreso than guitars according to folk singer Peter Bellamy.[4]

Otto Gray, an early cowboy band leader, stated authentic western music had only three rhythms, all coming from the gaits of the cow pony: walk, trot, and lope. Gray also noted the uniqueness of this spontaneous American song product, and the freedom of expression of the singers.[5]

In 1908, N. Howard "Jack" Thorp published the first book of western music, titled Songs of the Cowboys. Containing only lyrics and no musical notation, the book was very popular west of the Mississippi River. Most of these cowboy songs are of unknown authorship, but among the best known is "Little Joe the Wrangler" written by Thorp himself.[6][7]

In 1910, John Lomax, in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,[8] first gained national attention for western music. His book contained some of the same songs as Thorp's book, although in variant versions (most had been collected before Thorp's book was published). Lomax's compilation included many musical scores. Lomax published a second collection in 1919 titled Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.[9]

The first successful cowboy band to tour the East was Otto Gray's Oklahoma Cowboys, put together by William McGinty, an Oklahoma pioneer and former Rough Rider. The band appeared on radio and toured the vaudeville circuit from 1924 through 1936. They recorded few songs, however, so are overlooked by many scholars of western music.[10]

Various musicians recorded western songs in the 1920s and early 1930s, including Carl T. Sprague, John I. White, Jules Verne Allen, Harry McClintock, Tex Owens, and Wilf Carter alias Montana Slim. Many of these early western singers had grown up on ranches and farms or had experience working as cowboys. They typically performed simple arrangements with rustic vocal performances and a simple guitar or fiddle accompaniment.

Mainstream popularity[edit]

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, western music became widely popular through the romanticization of the cowboy and idealized depictions of the west in Hollywood films. Singing cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, sang cowboy songs in their films and became popular throughout the United States. Film producers began incorporating fully orchestrated four-part harmonies and sophisticated musical arrangements into their motion pictures. Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of that time, recorded numerous cowboy and western songs and starred in the western musical film Rhythm on the Range (1936). During this era, the most popular recordings and musical radio shows included western music. Western swing also developed during this time.

Decline in popularity/1950s-70s[edit]

The Western Writers of America was formed in 1953 to promote excellence in western-style writing, including songwriting. Late 1950s, Frankie Laine recorded TV drama Theme "Rawhide".[11]

In 1964, the Country & Western Music Academy was formed in an effort to promote western music. The Academy was formed in response to the Nashville-oriented Country Music Association that had formed in 1958. The Academy's first awards were largely dominated by Bakersfield-based artists such as Buck Owens.[12] Over time, the Academy evolved into the Academy of Country Music and its mission is no longer distinguished from other country music organizations.

By the 1960s, the popularity of western music was in decline. Though western television series were at an all-time peak in popularity,[13] other than a handful of theme songs, this did not buoy the western music genre as a whole. Popular western recording artists sold fewer albums and attracted smaller audiences. Rock and roll dominated music sales and Hollywood recording studios dropped most of their western artists (a few artists did successfully cross between the two, most prominently Johnny Cash, whose breakthrough hit "Folsom Prison Blues" (1955, live in 1968) combined a western theme with a rock-and-roll arrangement).[14] In addition, the Nashville sound, based more on pop ballads than on folk music, came to dominate the country and western commercial sales; except for the label, much of the music was indistinguishable from rock and roll or popular classes of music. Country and western were among many genres whose popularity was drowned out by the British Invasion.[15]

The resulting backlash from western music purists led to the development of country music styles much more influenced by western music, including the Bakersfield sound and outlaw country. The seminal compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws carried a Western theme and songs sung by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jennings's wife Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, revitalizing the image of western themes in popular music.[16]

Cowboy pop[edit]

Authors such as Barry Mazor, Richard Carlin and John T. Davis have used the term cowboy pop to describe the music of cowboy singers in western films.[17][18] Jimmy Wakely, for example, was described by Mazor as a cowboy pop singer, and he has written that "when singing cowboy movies ruled, Hollywood hardly made a distinction between the sounds of cowboy pop balladeers and another sound entirely, born in Texas, in which Jimmie Rodgers had a formative role."[19][20] Several writers have emphasized that historically country music and cowboy music were not considered the same genre; for example, in her essay "Cowboy Songs", Anne Dingus wrote that "cowboy music is not country music, though the two are often lumped together as 'country and western'."[21] In 1910, John Avery Lomax anthologized over a hundred cowboy songs in his collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.[22]


Older western music is widely streamed on major platforms, with music by Marty Robbins and Al Hurricane being more easily accessible. Newer takes on western music are constantly written and recorded and performed all across the American West and Western Canada, thanks to the popularity of New Mexico music within New Mexico and the success of Michael Martin Murphey throughout the western scene, they have resurrected the cowboy song genre, promoting western singers, Route 66 rockabilly, and cowboy poets. The style has even seen a popularity resurgence globally, thanks to the western genre's new-found popularity on streaming services and video games.[citation needed]

The Western Music Association was established in 1989 to preserve and promote western music. Western music in video games can be traced back to The Oregon Trail series, early Nintendo title Sheriff/Bandido, and arcade games like Sunset Riders. Fallout: New Vegas relies on a atmospheric western music style, but it also features old mid-20th century popular western musicians such as Marty Robbins along with pop music of the day. Furthermore, the Red Dead series of games heavily features western music, since it takes place in an Old West setting. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's modern spin on an Old West game would not be complete without their carefully assembled score; what they call their best project to date[23] Independent video games SteamWorld and Gunman Clive also make use of western music, as do other larger productions such as Dillon's Rolling Western.

The music of Colter Wall is a part of this revival.[24]

List of western music songs[edit]


  1. ^ Spell, L. M. (1936). Music in Texas: A survey of one aspect of cultural progress. Austin, Texas, p. 131.
  2. ^ "Music of the Old West". aliveeastbay.com. Retrieved 2023-12-28.
  3. ^ "HOHNER - enjoy music". Hohner.de. Archived from the original on 27 January 2007. Retrieved 18 April 2021.
  4. ^ "According The Accordion Its Historical Due » Early Music America". Early Music America. 2023-12-18. Retrieved 2023-12-28.
  5. ^ Shirley, Glenn. "Daddy of the Cowboy Bands", in Oklahoma Today, Fall 1959, Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 29.
  6. ^ Thorp, N. (1921) Songs of the Cowboys, p. 96.
  7. ^ Thorpe, N. Howard "Jack" (1921). Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
  8. ^ Online edition
  9. ^ Online edition
  10. ^ Early Cowboy Band
  11. ^ Interviewed in "Frankie Laine: An American Dreamer", video documentary, 2003.
  12. ^ Leeds, Jeff (March 25, 2006). "Buck Owens, Country Singer, Dies at 76". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
  13. ^ "The Six-Gun Galahad". TIME. 1959-03-30. Archived from the original on 2008-02-14.
  14. ^ "The Real Story Behind Johnny Cash & Folsom Prison Blues". folsomcasharttrail.com. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  15. ^ Barnes, Ken (February 9, 2021). "Did the Beatles kill America's radio stars?". Radio Insight. Retrieved February 20, 2021.
  16. ^ "Flashback: Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson Make Music History". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2016-04-09.
  17. ^ Carlin, Richard (November 2002). "Carter, Wilf". Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary: 60.
  18. ^ Davis, John T. (2000). Austin City Limits: 25 Years of American Music. Billboard Books. pp. 55. ISBN 9780823083039.
  19. ^ Mazor, Barry (2014). Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. Chicago Review Press. p. 228.
  20. ^ Mazor, Barry (2012). Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. Oxford University Press. pp. 143–144. ISBN 978-0199891863.
  21. ^ Dingus, Anne (November 1989). "Cowboy Songs". Texas Monthly. 17 (11): 120.
  22. ^ "Who Were The Cowboys Behind 'Cowboy Songs'?". NPR.org. Retrieved 2019-04-07.
  23. ^ "Rockstar Games Presents: Red Dead Redemption". www.rockstargames.com. Retrieved 2018-01-24.
  24. ^ Wicks, Amanda (September 10, 2020). "Colter Wall: Western Swing & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs Album Review". Pitchfork. Retrieved December 24, 2020.
  25. ^ "Ghost Riders In the Sky: The Wild Hunt and the Eternal Stampede", Esoterx.com, December 9, 2012. Retrieved 26 February 2021
  26. ^ a b Greg Ryder, "Blue Shadows", Frontier Records of Durango, Colorado, 1994


  • Cannon, Hal. Old Time Cowboy Songs. Gibbs Smith. ISBN 0-87905-308-9
  • Green, Douglas B. Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy. Vanderbilt University Press, August 2002. ISBN 0-8265-1412-X
  • Hull, Myra. "Cowboy Ballads".
  • Johnson, Thomas S. "That Ain't Country: The Distinctiveness of Commercial Western Music". JEMF Quarterly. Vol 17, No. 62, Summer, 1981. pp 75–84.
  • Lomax, John A., M.A. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The MacMillan Company, 1918. Online edition (pdf)
  • O'Neal, Bill; Goodwin, Fred. The Sons of the Pioneers. Eakin Press, 2001. ISBN 1-57168-644-4
  • Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys. Early Cowboy Band. British Archive of Country Music, 2006. CD D 139
  • Quay, Sara E. Westward Expansion. Greenwood Press, 2000. ISBN 0-313-31235-4
  • Shirley, Glenn "Daddy of the Cowboy Bands. Oklahoma Today (Fall 1959), 9:4 6-7, 29.
  • Thorp, N. Howard "Jack". Songs of the Cowboys. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1908, 1921.
  • White, John I. Git Along Little Dogies: Songs and Songmakers of the American West. (Music in American Life) series, University of Illinois Press, 1989 reprint. ISBN 0-252-06070-9

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