Old West CD 003
Skip Gorman: guitar, fiddle, slide guitar, lead vocals; Mary Burdette: acoustic bass, harmony vocals; Tom Sauber: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, harmony vocals; Ruthie Dornfield: fiddle; Patrick Sauber: mandolin, accordion, harmony vocals
The Old Chisholm Trail; Streets of Laredo; Streak of Fat, Streak of Lean; Goodnight-Loving Trail; There's a Brown Skin Gal Down the Road Somewhere; Ain't Got No Use for the Women; Wyoming Home; Cowboy Takes in a Square Dance; Windy Bill (The Old Black Steer); Santa Fe Folks Fiesta; La Golondrina (The Swallow); Bad Companions; Utah Carroll; Noches de Fiesta; The Cowboy's Dream; Buddies in the Saddle
The myth of the west looms so large that it demands two or three movie genres and several different genres of music (western swing, Hollywood cowboy music a la The Sons of the Pioneers and Bill Boyd's band, cowboy story balladeering), all of which can in turn be "revived" and "restored" and "authentized", still grounded in the great myth which stands in for the far too complicated story of America, which is after all a whole continent moving majestically through time and space. Riders in the Sky have done a fine job reviving the Hollywood side of the soundtrack. The cowboy balladeers find new life in every generation and merge at one end of the spectrum with the great folksinger/songwriters: Woodie Guthrie, a real Oklahoma boy from Okemah even if he did end up on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island; Ramblin' Jack, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Utah Phillips. Then there are singers like Glenn Orlin, and Skip Gorman, who brush away the various veneers with which artists and producers shined up the old songs and try to look deeper into the songs themselves, more as they were to the extent that's possible, conceivable.
Skip can do a fine solo show, but here he's joined by the "Waddie Pals," and so presents this western myth in string band form. Because he's got a wider view than some, he includes some of the instrumental music that was always part of the trail, the dance, the cavalry fort and the saloon--fiddle tunes. Skip and the Waddies also nod to the great chunk of culture that is grounded in the Spanish/Mexican side of our history, something often ignored when the myth is over-polished or spun into some political fantasy or other. Just as the myth tries to make comprehensible the vast real story of America, so too the myth itself is too big for any simple CD, this one included. And so the story here is ultimately about individual songs and tunes which evoke the myth or bits of it.
I really love this CD. It's so solid, from start to finish. Primarily songs, it nonetheless contains two of the best tune performances you could find anywhere. "Streak of Fat, Streak of Lean," featuring Ruthie Dornfield, is just wonderful, blazing fiddling, a slightly quirky version of Gid Tanner's "Hell Broke Loose in Georgia." Ruthie and Skip fiddle "There's a Brown Skinned Gal..." which evokes some of the black history that's part of the west, and the John Miller penned "Noches de Fiesta," which sounds like it came from the heart of Cleofes Ortez. Then there's "La Golondrina," which I'll come back to.
The tunes are sprinkled amongst the songs and serve in the whole as seasoning, places where we can just listen and not think about words. But the songs are just excellent. "Streets of Laredo," which is probably over recorded, is still fresh here, and Skip tells us in the notes of its origin in the British Isles and its relationship to "Saint James Infirmary," which in turn evokes blues and Josh White and the Van Ronk/Dylan "House of the Rising Son." The Pals include "Goodnight-Loving Trail," Utah Phillips' masterpiece, with a slightly different melody from the one I remember (and sing myself). There are great songs that reflect the curmudgeonly reality of a lot of old cowpokes. "Ain't Got No Use for the Women" is another part of the myth, the lone rider, expressed in movie art from Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood: "High Noon," "One-eyed Jacks," "The Wild Bunch," "Junior Bonner," "Unforgiven." The women reappear in "Cowboy Takes a Square Dance" and "Santa Fe Folks Fiesta," if only as dance partners. "Buddies in the Saddle," the closing track and a Carter Family song, might be a kind of love song though, and the Carters were from a time before Annie Proulx (who has praised Skip's work) deconstructed cowboy love in "Brokeback Mountain."
"Utah Carroll" is the ballad that, to me, most stands alone for it's pure poetic merit. The story of a dead cowboy, a fallen hero who dies in a stampede while saving a little girl, "Utah" is more because it is told by his living friend, his "buddy in the saddle," who tells us it was he who tied the scarlet saddle blanket to the pony--the blanket that attracted the "thousand hooves." The picture is a tsunami of animal power, with Utah rescuing the girl and shooting the lead animals to no avail while the narrator stands to the side, watching, unable to change anything, and the song is sung by Utah's lonesome grave to the accompaniment of a chording fiddle. There is further depth in the specific language utilized in the poem: "when the cattle saw the blanket, their brains were crucified," "the back cinch snapped beneath him," "In a far off western country, where spirits dare to fly, I know my partner Utah has a home beyond the sky." Can't you hear the whistle of the redtail in that cold blue extremity, or see the contrails of Columbia?
My all-time favorite movie is Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." Its theme music is "La Golondrina," a Spanish waltz "traditionally played in both Spain and Mexico to honor a toreador's final fight." The tune is even better here, heard purely in itself, without the slow-motion exiting procession as the Bunch ride out to meet their doom, and again features wonderful Dornfield/Gorman harmony fiddling. And like "The Wild Bunch" (or good bluegrass), this CD is by no means all darkness and implication. Many tempos are happy, the harmonies tight, Skip and the Pals obviously had fun making this record, and the fun is infectious. You can enjoy it entirely without understanding that it does speak intelligently to the great myth. This is what old-time CDs can be. I can't praise it enough!
To Order: Old West Recordings, P.O. Box 307, Grafton, NH 03240 and www.skipgorman.com
This review was printed in the Winter '06 issue of the Old Time Herald.
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February 13, 2006