March 29, 2006 - He was no ordinary cowboy who walked into the restaurant. He was perhaps a bit less worn out than a circuit cowboy just off a weekend of rodeo work, but still a bit stiff and sore after a long week. This cowboy was not entering an arena wearing chaps and carrying rope, he was heading for a small stage with a guitar in one hand, a bag of electrical mics in the other and a head full of songs.
Bill Camp is no stranger to the West or the entertainment world and certainly no novice when it comes to the songs that were once the trademark of the singing cowboy era. It is as much a heritage for him as a vocation, not to mention a love affair with a genre that is far from dead.
"Cowboy music is one of those things you can do in front of a family or church group," Camp said. It's safe, uncomplicated and as much a part of their souls as it is entertaining, though Camp said he loves to entertain people.
"I'm the first to admit that I am not the world's greatest guitar player or the best vocalist, but with Western music you don't have to be," he said. "Western music does not require you being a serious professional."
Here Camp is being modest, considering he does nine shows per week at Old Tucson and The Last Territory at the Hilton El Conquistador Resort. On Friday nights his show focuses more on country, playing with a band that includes his younger son. But Saturday night is strictly Western, dance hall girls included. And Camp can carry a tune and play guitar as well as the next person raised in a family with strong musical traditions. "I enjoy entertaining so much," he said. "You have to be a little more pronounced or exaggerated when" appearing before a crowd of people.
For those who have been in Tucson at least 20 years or more, Bill Camp, his dad Chuck and mother Mae were the proprietors of the Triple CCC Chuck Wagon shows that entertained snow birds and locals alike each winter. In the summer, the show made its way up to Colorado and entertained the families passing through on summer vacation. In fact, it was Bill Camp who in the television ads told us all to come in for "food, fun and a taste of the old West."
And that was what the West was all about - eating, being entertained and learning to live the good life. For Bill Camp, he was not just pretending to be a cowboy, he was raised that way.
Camp was born in Colorado in the latter 1950s, not really having lived through the singing cowboy era that began its descent in that decade just as the early wave of the Baby Boom generation were adolescents. But he needed no prodding from fads since he lived the lifestyle. "My dad's family were ranchers, farmers and God-fearing people … I was raised that way," he said. He was taught to be polite and respectful, a trait that still shows today as he tips his cowboy hat to ladies; it's not a part of any act.
And not only was his family a Western ranching family, but entertainers as well. The Triple CCC was hardly their first endeavor. Bill's father was a founding member of the Flying W Chuck Wagon in Colorado Springs, and a contributing force with the Flying W Wranglers. Along with Buck Teeter, Cy Scarborough, Babe Humphrey and Bob Minser, Chuck Camp was the guitar player and a singer of the group.
And the Flying W Wranglers were just another example of a long line of cowboy musicians who started back in the days when radio was young, a decade some historians refer to as the Jazz Age; that couldn't be further from the truth.
Today when thinking of singing cowboys, many recall the movies and television shows of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Tex Ritter, Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers, just to name a few. The fact is, you would be right if these entertainers were the ones you thought of because they were not only established figures of the genre, but founding members of the movement.
But the singing-cowboy phenomena was much deeper and not just about commercial success or a passing fad. It was about a nation's heritage and the makeup of its people. It could easily be referred to as our nation's folk music, as much as bluegrass or jazz. And at one time it was as much a part of the airwaves and stage shows as arena rock was in the 1970s.
But it didn't start out as an idea suddenly coming to life one night in a smoke filled saloon in some dusty, wilderness berg.
No, it was hardly one person's idea or even that of a few; it was a tradition started when Americans began to move from what was perceived as the crowded East to the open, unsettled lands of the West.
As a people, we had already adapted the music of the former Old World to the experiences and tempo of the new. As the nation grew and matured, so too did the poetry, stories and music grow and expand in every city, county, state and territory. Out West, the advent of cattle and horse ranching and the wranglers that went with it produced a long line of individuals who would tell a good story or yarn. At first it might be just spoken ballads of experiences or figures of interest, such as John Wesley Hardin or Billy The Kid, or even the end of an era, the last breath of a passing moment.
"Hickok rests by Calamity Jane,
John Hardin sleeps in thuh dust,
Billy thuh Kid's fast forty-fours
Are toys long silent with rust."
Singing Rawhide, 1923
But even this rough-sounding poetry was not the main ingredient for a singing-cowboy tradition. It all started out as something much simpler than this, a need to be entertained.
The cowboys often quietly sang homespun ballads to keep the cattle calm at night during drives across desert and open prairie. Or their music consisted of the popular tunes of that day. With the advent of machine-powered printing, sheet music from back East or a neighboring town could make its way into the hands of just about anybody with a sense for music. Douglas B. Green in his book "Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy" points out that, by the 1840s, our nation was developing its own popular music instead of importing from the Old World, and by the 1850s we had our first sheet music superstar, Stephen Collins Foster. Songs that many still hear today, such as "Beautiful Dreamer," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," and many others, were the works of this talented songster.
If the '40s and '50s of the 19th century were the years when our music tradition first showed signs of life, the Civil War decade guaranteed its survival. Though both sides of the conflict worked to destroy each other, this musical tradition found a home amongst the soldiers and campfires, sometimes even crossing the battle lines.
And it was this tradition of evening music by a fire that moved from a wartime setting to a peaceful era where often former enemies were now fellow wranglers working together to assure an uneventful cattle drive. And it was music that often helped whittle away the tedium of night work.
In Green's book he quotes from a primary document by E.C. Abbott that was entitled "We Pointed Them North." In it, Abbott, better know as Teddy Blue, says "One reason I believe there was so many songs about cowboys was the custom we had of singing to the cattle on night herd. The singing was supposed to soothe them and it did. … I know that if you wasn't singing, any little sound in the night - it might be just a horse shaking himself - could make them (the cattle) leave the country; but if you were singing, they wouldn't notice it."
And unbeknownst to those participating in this simple act of song and comradeship, whether it be with each other or the cattle, a tradition was being created that would have long lasting effects even to the dawn of the 21st century.
It was Dr. Brewster Higley who gave us "Home on the Range" in 1873, as some new, Western lyrics were put to the music of older English and Scottish folk music. By the early 1900s, these and many other songs were compiled in song books with such titles as "Songs of the Western Cowboy," "Songs of the Cowboy," "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads," just to name a few.
By the 1920s, a certain amount of the nation was suddenly looking back to "those good ole days" of the pioneer West. The nation had just come through a World War, the nastiest pandemic to ever hit our planet, as well as the leaps and bounds of new technology. Western and Cowboy songs seemed to represent a calmer, more manageable world. And so within a matter of a few short years, radio stations in towns and cities were playing cowboy music by such artists as Carl T. Sprague, Otto Gray & His Oklahoma Cowboys, Johnny Marvin, Goebel Reeves, and by the 30s Patsy Montana, The Girls of the Golden West, Louise Massey & the Westerners, and of course, Gene Autry.
There is a picture of Gene Autry from the movie "The Big Show" being backed up by a band that would very shortly come into its own limelight. Originally known as the Pioneer Trio, a radio announcer in Los Angeles had privately told them they were too young to be pioneers and looked more like sons of pioneers. When it came time to announce them over the mic he mistakenly used that name "Sons of the Pioneers" and the name stuck. Two of the members would eventually have a profound effect on the Western music genre, Clarence Robert Nobles, or Bob Nolan, and Len Slye, who we all came to know as Roy Rogers.
Now Roy Rogers needs no introduction, but Bob Nolan does, since he wrote so many of the songs we are familiar with today as part of the Cowboy music genre. Born in Canada, the Nobles family made their way to Tucson after their mother had abandoned them, where his father Harry changed their name to Nolan. Though Bob and his brother Earl were both built like linebackers, it was Earl who took to football and Bob to poetry.
"Inspired by the poetry of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, young Clarence Nolan applied their lofty language, and rhythms to the astonishing beauty of the desert," Green wrote in his book. Followed by Nolan's own statement that "I was brought up in the back woods of Canada. … right from the tall timber, out to the desert. It was awe-inspiring, to say the least, to wake up in the morning to see the desert beauty, with the sun shining through millions of drops of dew." Unlike this current year, that must have been one of Southern Arizona's more productive rainy seasons.
It was Bob Nolan who happened to place the Southwest in so many of the Cowboy songs that were written in the 20th century, and who wrote the song most of us have heard at least once in our lives, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." And it is probably no mistake that a great deal of Western singers today happen to live in Arizona, a good deal of them right here in Tucson.
John A. "Buck" Ryberg has called Tucson home since he was in his early teens. His dad had worked at the Thunderhead Ranch as a cook and he would go out to the ranch on weekends to "do the cowboy thing." It had a profound effect on him since he has been a member of a singing cowboy group, "The Desert Sons," for nearly 17 years. The group specializes in the four-part harmony that many of the earlier groups were noted for. But the genre runs much deeper than just getting in front of people at concerts and festivals to reveal a part of our history.
"It really is a sub-culture out there," Ryberg said. "For me, the Western culture and Cowboy culture was and is very compelling, and it's not dead, it's very much a part of the American culture."
Ryberg, who hails from Northern Wisconsin, arrived in Tucson in the early 1950s just as the children of this nation were embracing the culture of the West and the Singing Cowboy in a big way. But he not only embraced what he saw on television and at the movies, but by personal experience as well. Moving to Tucson helped cement what he was already feeling when he left Wisconsin.
Ryberg said there was still large-scale ranching in the Santa Cruz basin and in what is now Oro Valley. For the first few years, he and his family lived in an area that is now part of the Catalina State Park. In later years his father purchased some acreage near the Twin Peaks area. His father, who was doing a lot of wrangling work out at Old Tucson, purchased a horse for him right off the movie set of Audie Murphy's film, "Walk the Proud Land."
"The horse still had war paint on it, that's how quick my dad obtained him," Ryberg said. Dice, the horse, had been one of Geronimo's men's horses, thus the war paint. Fact was Ryberg now had his own buddy to travel about the area. Ryberg said he and Dice traveled all over the Tucson Mountains and would even ride from his home to Old Tucson, riding down the dusty streets of this make believe Western town that seemed more real than movie set. When he rode in the open rangelands, it was not uncommon for him to come across a cow giving birth.
And so this left an impression that has lasted a lifetime. As Ryberg said, there may be a tremendous amount of myth and legend surrounding the cowboy and the old West, a place where you could make good on your dreams. But the singing cowboy and the Western music tradition that came out of these shadows are very real. It may sound a bit romantic, but through the music these times live on in many hearts and souls.
When very young, he and his friends in Northern Wisconsin would trade off being Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or the Lone Ranger. Today Ryberg is still trading off the parts, but now with their music or with the band's original Western-themed songs.
Tom Chambers is an early wave Baby Boomer who also happened to live the cowboy lifestyle, first in Colorado and later in Arizona. The founding president of the Western Music Association in the late 1980s and a singing cowboy working out at Tanque Verde Ranch, Chambers has been involved with the genre since knee high to a pony. Though he says he was somewhat influenced by the beach party movies of the 1960s and ended up earning a bachelors of science degree and an MBA from the University of Tampa in Florida, it was the stint in the Navy which brought him back to his roots.
If asked, Chambers can produce a certificate stating that he is a USS Explorer since he spent a good many months down under; not in Australia, but Antarctica. And it was here this 22-year-old Navy man did as much deep thinking as Henry David Thoreau and realized that life is what you make it; you only get one chance to contribute to the betterment of yourself and others. Chambers came to the conclusion that singing Cowboy music and writing songs was a good way to live.
"My college degrees taught me how much money I've lost being a cowboy singer," he says with a laugh.
Having lived in Colorado not very far from Durango, life in the 1950s as a kid almost mirrored Ryberg's. Though he left New Jersey long before he would speak, his father still had a business there making "Bunkhouse furniture." In Colorado his dad had a cattle operation and as Chambers grew up he developed many hats of employment: dude ranch wrangler, cattle operator, hunting guide and ski instructor.
Being too far from television or radio signals, the Chambers learned to play music and were "voracious readers."
Chambers and many of the other Western singers who formed the Western Music Association did so in hopes of not only preserving this genre, but of expanding it and introducing it to new generations. Of nearly 30 members in Arizona, more than half are in Southern Arizona. And there are probably as many members in this state as there are in California.
Not only does Chambers do a lot of singing and entertaining, he loves to work with animals, especially horses. With the blessings of Tanque Verde Ranch, Tom developed a program entitled "Harmony with Horses," a "hands-on clinic" that teaches all levels of riders that one need not use "harsh or inhumane methods" to train a horse, but to learn to speak the language of this wonderful animal. He is also part of a program entitled "Women of the West," which is a "ladies only" learning session about the ways of the West held at the Reddington Pass Bellota Ranch.
And whether its poetry or singing, the genre is the same - story telling. Often, the cowboys sitting around a fire after a hard days work with cattle would try to spin some of the best yarns they could. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and Tom Chambers has a good old fashion yarn that falls under this category.
Whether the story is about themselves or someone else, the poet, writer or singer (and sometimes all three) can draw up a vision so pristine one can easily read it from a distance. For Chambers and many of the other Western singers, this is what the music is all about. It is not only there to tell a story, but to reveal a history, the character of a people, a roaming, musical trail of folklore passed on from one generation to another. A positive note of what a group of people have bequeathed to a nation. And there is nothing commercial about it; there is just no way to put a price on it.