Keeping it cowboy, as the new West savors songs of the Old West

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Mountain saddle band sang cowboy ballads for the North End Tent audience. (Photo by Shannon Kurlander)

On the wooden storefront of North End Tent right across from the Grand Palace Saloon, the Mountain Saddle band sang tales of the west with twanged harmonies.

While the band may hail from vast swath of the south and west known for country music, don’t call them country.

They’re cowboys, pardner. Keep in mind that the country genre is known generically as “country and western.”

Performers at the Old Tucson Cowboy Music Festival, Stephen Harrington, lead vocals and guitar, and Steve Taylor, harmonica and back-up vocals, are the dynamic duo of Mountain Saddle Band.

While new listeners may generalize the band as country music, Harrington and Taylor are quick to make the distinction between popular country music and their brand of western cowboy music.

“As a kid I used to like country music because it was the old cowboy singers of the time back in the forties and fifties, but that kind of music has gone away to where it’s actually a type of rock music now. I don’t call that cowboy music,” Taylor said.

Carolyn Martin sings her brand of 'western-swing' songs. (Photo by: Shannon Kurlander)
Carolyn Martin sings her brand of ‘western-swing’ songs. (Photo by: Shannon Kurlander)

Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift, and Rascal Flatts are the faces of country music today. Many moons ago country and western music were one. However commercial country music today, which is more pop and rock crossover, is much different than the country Taylor recalls.

Set in the saloon-and-ranch backdrop of Old Tucson Studios, the festival showcased artists like Jon Messenger, Bill Barwick, and the Mountain Saddle Band to give concertgoers a taste of the Old West and how it once sounded, not even so very long ago. This Old West landscape defines cowboy music.

“Cowboy music is anything about the western way of life, ranching, cowboy life, the land, and the living of it today,” Harrington said.

The genre is both a preservation of the western past and the model of cowboy today. More than anything, it is a way of life.

Gene Autry, a Singing Cowboy
Gene Autry, a Singing Cowboy

Harrington and Taylor were “wannabe cowboys” in their youth. Growing up they were both influenced by watching the Gene Autry Show on television, featuring the cowboy singer and western movie star, but Harrington says it was much deeper than that. He said it is about loyalty, a love of the land, working with animals in wide-open spaces, and a sense of pride that truly lassoed him in.

Mountain Saddle Band, whose members call Show Low, Ariz., home, formed nearly fourteen years ago. The original members were members of the house band for the Old West Chapel, a cowboy ministry created by Harrington. The Old West Chapel has since closed its doors but the Mountain Saddle band continues to record and perform.

On the rickety planks of North End Tent stage, the band performed western standards and songs off their latest album, The Heart of a Cowboy, which shared the message of the cowboy way of life.

“His heart is at home when he’s out on the roam, on the prairie on the mountain on high. But when he’s stuck in the city, like a bird in the cage, he longs for the wide open sky” Harrington sang.

The audience sang-along to familiar tunes and swayed to the Harrington-Taylor creations. For audience member Nancy Smith, this was a first time introduction to cowboy music.

The Old Tucson Studios crowd filled up Hotel Del Toro to see Bill Barwick perform. (Photo by: Shannon Kurlander)
The Old Tucson Studios crowd filled up Hotel Del Toro to see Bill Barwick perform. (Photo by: Shannon Kurlander)

“I love all country music but I never thought I would enjoy this traditional western music,” Smith said, “ but these people are good people who believe in the cowboy life.”


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