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Western music
Stylistic origins Traditional American and immigrant music
Cultural origins American West
Typical instruments (See String band)
Fiddle - Mandolin - Guitar- Bass fiddle - Cello - Banjo - Harmonica
Derivative forms Western swing
Other topics
Western arts

Western music originated as a form of folk music. Originally composed by and about the people who settled and worked throughout the Western United States and Western Canada. Directly related musically to old English, Scottish, and Irish folk ballads, Western music celebrates the life of the cowboy on the open ranges and prairies of Western North America.[1] The Mexican music of the American Southwest also influenced the development of this genre. Western music was associated with country music only because of Billboard chart classification. For the artists that wrote and performed Western music, this association as a sub-genre of country music is erroneous. Western music shows no historical origination with the music that came from the southeastern parts of the United States (e.g. Appalachia).



Most people are under the impression Western music began with the cowboy, but this is not the case. To cite Doug Green's recent book, "Singing in the Saddle" the first "western" song was published back in 1844. The title was "Blue Juniata". The song was about a young Indian maid waiting for her brave along the banks of the Juniata River in Pennsylvania (at that time, anything west of the Appalachian Mountains was considered "out West".) The song was recorded and sung by the Sons of the Pioneers over a hundred years later and is still being sung today. Subsequent "western" songs down through the years have dealt with many aspects of the West such as the mountain men, the '49ers, the immigrants, the outlaws, the lawmen, the cowboy, and, of course, the beauty and grandeur of the West. Western music is not limited to the American Cowboy.

Western music was directly influenced by the folk music traditions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and many cowboy songs, sung around campfire in the nineteenth century, like 'Streets of Laredo', can be traced back to European folk songs.[2]

Reflecting the realities of the range and ranch houses where the music originated, the early cowboy bands were string bands supplemented occasionally with the harmonica. Otto Gary, an early cowboy band leader, stated authentic Western music had only three rhythms, all coming from the gaits of the cowpony—walk, trot, and lope.[3]

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. Most of these cowboy songs are of unknown authorship, but among the best known is "Little Joe, the Wrangler," written by Thorp himself.[4][5]

In 1910, John Lomax, in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, first gained national attention for Western music. His book contained many of the same songs as Thorp's book (he collected most of them before Thorp's was published). However, Lomax's compilation included many musical scores. Lomax published a second collection in 1919 titled Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.

With the advent of radio and recording devices the music found an audience previously ignored by music schools and Tin Pan Alley.[6] Many Westerners preferred familiar music about themselves and their environment.

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.[7]

Mainstream popularity

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 Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, 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 as well as starring in 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

By the 1960s, Western music was in decline. Relegated to the Country and Western genre by marketing agencies, popular Western recording stars released albums to only moderate success. Rock and Roll dominated music sales and Hollywood recording studios dropped most of their Western artists. Caught unawares by the boom in "Country and Western" sales from Nashville that followed, Hollywood rushed to cash in. In the process, Country and Western music lost its regionalism and most of its style. Except for the label, much of the music was indistinguishable from Rock and Roll or popular classes of music. Some Western music traditionalists oppose the association of Western music with the Country and Western genre, which does not reflect the spirit of true Western music.


Still, many Westerners prefer music about themselves, their culture, and the land around them. Older music is still available at retail stores in major population centers, through mail-order, or by the Internet. New Western music is constantly written and recorded and performed all across the American West and Western Canada.

In recent years, Michael Martin Murphey (b. 1945) has almost single-handedly resurrected the cowboy song genre, promoting Western singers and groups and cowboy poets. The singing group Riders in the Sky recorded a mix of Western and Western Swing and have won Grammy Awards for their work with Disney on Toy Story 2 (1999) and Monsters, Inc (2001).

On a more personal level, there are still active communities of Western music performers, attempting to familiarize new generations with their beloved music. The Chuckwagon Association of the West is an organization of six affiliated Western supper and show venues throughout the United States, specializing in providing positive Western music experiences. The members are the Bar -J Chuckwagon in Wilson, Wyoming Bar -J Chuckwagon, the Flying W Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colorado Flying W Ranch, the Bar -D Chuckwagon in Durango, Colorado Bar -D Chuckwagon, the Circle B Supper Show in Branson, Missouri Circle B Supper Show, the Flying J Ranch in Ruidoso, New Mexico Flying J Ranch, and the Circle B Ranch in Rapid City, South Dakota Circle B Ranch. There are other notable Western bands playing live music regularly as well, including the Diamond W Chuckwagon outfit Diamond W Chuckwagon, the remnants of the once-successful Prairie Rose Chuckwagon, in Wichita, Kansas, and Roy "Dusty" Rogers, Jr., at his own theatre & museum honoring Western icon Roy Rogers in Branson, Missouri Roy Rogers, Jr.. Many of the above-mentioned acts perform original and new Western music, as well as newly arranging classic Western tunes, with the hope of endearing new audiences and other performers with Western music.

List of Western songs

List of Western singers


  1. ^ Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, Collector's Note: "Out in the wild, far-away places of the big and still unpeopled west—in the caňons along the Rocky Mountains, among the mining camps of Nevada and Montana, and on the remote cattle ranches of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona—yet survives the Anglo-Saxon ballad spirit that was active in secluded districts in England and Scotland even after the coming of Tennyson and Browning. ... In some such way have been made and preserved the cowboy songs and other frontier ballads contained in this volume."
  2. ^ L. M. Spell, Music in Texas a survey of one aspect of cultural progress (Austin, TX, 1936), p. 131.
  3. ^ Shirley, "Daddy of the Cowboy Bands", p. 29: " 'There were only three rhythms to the real songs of the range—not the distorted versions you hear today,' Otto pointed out. 'They came from the gaits of the cowboy's horse—the walk, the trot and the lope.' "
  4. ^ Thorp, Songs of the Cowboys, 1921, p. 96: "'Little Joe, The Wrangler', by N. Howard Thorp. Written by me on the trail of herd of O Cattle from Chimney Lake, New Mexico, to Higgins, Texas, 1898. ... It was copyrighted and appeared in my first edition of Songs of the Cowboys, published in 1908.
  5. ^ Thorpe, N. Howard "Jack" (1921). Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.  
  6. ^ Quay, Westward Expansion, p. 179, "Finally, the popularity of radio stations like 5XT, KFRU, and KVOO, all out of Oklahoma, which featured western bands like Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, brought the sound of western music to greater number of Americans."
  7. ^ Early Cowboy Band: "While Gray has long been acknowledged as an important figure, genuine respect for his achievements and acknowledgement of just how influential the Oklahoma Cowboys were has been grudging. This is partly due to the understandable tendency among country music historians to focus chiefly on recordings as a measure of an artist's importance."


  • 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". Kansas Historical Quarterly. 8:1 (February 1939) 35-60 (accessed November 29, 2007).
  • 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. Greenwod 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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