You see Taylor Swift standing on a stage before a thousand adoring fans, singing an upbeat song about never, ever getting back together with an ex-boyfriend. Here at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon on Allen Street, Rusty Atherton sits on a stool in front of the crowded restaurant singing in a deep baritone voice about how all his exes live in Texas.
The two singers could not be more different from one another, but they’re connected by one significant similarity.
They’re both country. As in country-western music.
In Old West towns like Tombstone, classic country music is a staple and you won’t be hearing much Taylor Swift. Around the country, though, the genre is evolving and in all its forms, is “alive and well,” according to Marsha Short, the executive director of the Western Music Association. She adds, “There is a huge surge of popular western music right now, with the new groups coming up.”
But it won’t be easy to get everyone on board with this revolution, which includes fusions like electronic DJ’s who mix techno with country.
I’m not a diehard country-western music fan. Actually, I’m not even much of a lighthearted one, though I do like the occasional spin through Johnny Cash. Still, I am certainly concerned by the idea that, 50 years from now, someone requesting a “classic” country song might be referring to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” or Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” – and not , for example, Gary Stewart’s “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles”).
At Big Nose’s one recent afternoon, Rusty described to me the boys in his band. The intro was not exactly big-stage M.C. smooth, but it did the job in one long, long sentence:
“Oh Jimmy, he’s a fiddle player from Colorado; he knew Buck first, knew of him, and I knew Buck and after he came down here, Jimmy, he said he was gonna come back down and when he did, I said, ‘You bring your fiddle?’ and he said, ‘Yes I did,” so we got him in here and he hasn’t left since.”
That would be the introduction to Buck Rhodes and Jimmy Craighead.
Anyway, I can at least hold out hope that in my dotage, I still might be able to remember ol’ Rusty Atherton and the boys singin’ at Big Nose Kate’s.
Still, ready or not, the country music scene is changing through collaborations and the influence of rappers, pop artists, R&B singers and rock stars.
In its transition, it is becoming more mainstream, which in turn both loses and gains fans of the genre.
Some singers will always “keep it country,” as the saying goes. For example, do not expect local musicians like Rusty Atherton to be swayed by the evolution in the genre. Heck, ol’ Rusty won’t even sing Billy Ray Cyrus, let alone Taylor Swift.
“Well, if somebody comes up and asks me to play ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ I’m not doing it,” Rusty insisted. “And then there’s ‘Blame It All On My Roots,'” he said, referring to the Garth Brooks hit. “Yeah, if I don’t like a song, I’m not going to do it.”
Outspoken, with a slight twang, wearing a brown, flat-brim cowboy hat, denim shirt, denim pants, a handkerchief around his neck, a who-cares attitude and with a Taylor guitar in his hand, Rusty is the image of cowboy country singer.
He’s been playing in Tombstone since 1998, with a brief hiatus in Colorado from which he returned in 2007. He walked into Big Nose Kate’s, asked the performer on stage if he could sing a song, did that, and was offered a job on the spot.
Previously a one-man show, Atherton now shares the stage with Buck and Jimmy. They perform every Monday through Thursday from noon to 4 p.m.
I asked Rusty, what did you do before you were in Tombstone? And in his reply, he kept it country.
“Oh, I did a lot of things,” he said, chuckling. “Some things I can’t tell ya, little lady.”