If you haven’t seen XKCD’s take on Christmas music, you should go look at it now.
It’s an amusing, and all-too-true, chart of when the most popular Christmas songs originally aired. The majority are from what’s colloquially called “the mid-century.” You know, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The guys and I were discussing this at lunch, as we sat in the most awkward seating in the world*, slurping down Thai food as Bing Crosby crooned over the restaurant’s speakers. Christmas music is mostly horrible. The lyrics are often forced, the tunes repetitive and lacking depth. But then, I argued, modern Christmas music consists of “Christmas Shoes” and Taylor Swift, so that’s not much better. (Side note: There’s something so bizarre about Christmas music in a Thai restaurant.)
*seriously, it was a raised platform with holes cut in it for tables. You had to climb over the platform to swing your legs into the hole.
After hearing so much horrible Christmas music, I needed to cleanse my palatte. Back at work I tried listening to various last.fm stations, but none of them satisfied. I knew there was only one song that would work. I also knew that that song was from an album that no one had ever heard of, by a band that had long disbanded. I googled the name anyway, as I had many times before.
I discovered an excellent John Denver song, but not the one I was fixed on. Perhaps because I was so desperate, I put the string in quotes.
My jaw hit the floor when Grooveshark popped up the entire Christmas album I was looking for.
Not only that, but they had two albums from the same band that I had been missing for at least four years. I emailed it to myself with exclamation points in the subject line.
The Flying W Wranglers were a cowboy band at a Colorado chuckwagon. Cheesy as it sounds, they were (and are, as some of them still perform) excellent musicians. Their harmonies are tight. Their rhythms are spot-on. It’s beautiful and clear and speaks to something deep within my soul. It’s not country music, though very occasionally country music will still echo strains of it when it remembers that it used to be “country and western music.” The themes of cowboy music — freedom and sacrifice and hard labor for no pay — are closer to the human heart than country music’s themes of cheating and flirting and waving around guns. It’s as if country is the “what,” but cowboy music is the “why.”
I first visited the Flying W when I was 13, which means I’ve been listening to some of those albums for half my life now. It was the first music I ever fell in love with. I read all the liner notes. I picked apart the harmonies until I could distinguish Wes English’s voice from Scott Vaughn’s. I taught myself how to yodel listening to those songs.
Over the years, my family and I visited numerous other chuckwagons, each with their own cowboy band: The Bar J in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the Bar D in Durango, Colorado stand out as my other two favorites. The Fresno-local Sons of the San Joaquin and the English Brothers are also excellent, but the Flying W always remained my favorite. Maybe it was that they were first. Maybe it was that they had the oneness that comes when you’ve been singing together for 20-some years. Maybe it was that they annoyed my brother most.
“You’re not going to make me sit next to her, are you?” he whined on one of our three trips to the ranch. “She never stops tapping her foot.”
I also often played and sang to their music during the two years we commuted to school together. It was especially bad when both Dad and I were in the car, because we’d both sing as loudly and off-key as we possibly could. (I’ve always been such a good sister.)
And now I’ve been listening to these songs so long that they’re just part of who I am. From orchards in Fresno to cactus in Phoenix, to clipped green lawns in D.C. to the steel skyscrapers of Chicago, these songs have gone with me. They feel like home. Sometimes, I even think I hear Dad’s voice (which always reminds me to call home more often).
No, I’ve never herded cattle. But I have seen a loose calf or two, spent nights marvelling at the stars, dealt with ornery horses, had dust up my nose and sweat on my face, and put in long hours for reasons no one else understands. Cowboy music is about following the thread of life even when it means you have to do things that mean other people think you’re crazy. It’s about passion. Maybe that’s why it will always resound with me more than any other music.
I leave you with my favorite Christmas song of all time, A Cowboy’s Rocky Mountain Christmas (#13): http://tny.gs/ru1Oyl To me, it’s full of a joy and richness and honesty that Taylor Swift can’t even comprehend.