Pop Wagner: vocals, shingo, guitar, National Triolian; Dave Hull: National Steel guitar, National Baritone guitar
Hittin’ the Trail Tonight, Drive Them Critters, Roving Cowboy, Tennessee Stud, Stewball, Bravest Cowboy, Doney Gal, Choppo, Manitio, Buddies in the Saddle, Platonia, Tarry Not, Strawberry Roan, Old Paint, Palomino Pal of Mine
This truly gorgeous, and gorgeously spare record reflects the ongoing state of the recording biz, as Pop has forgone labels and recording companies altogether it would seem, just putting this one out with the able engineering of Dakota Dave Hull, and figuring to hawk it off the various stages, virtual and real. Fine with me, partner. Fight the power. I am delighted, as a perk of getting to review this and listen to it, to get to keep the CD in my collection. It contains some of the best cowboy songwriting there is, and Pop Wagner is a hell of a fine interpreter of these great songs.
There’s a theme too. It’s all about nags. The booklet features pictures of Pop and several horses he’s friends with, and the project is dedicated to the late Sean Blackburn (also shown riding in the photos), a fine troubadour himself and gone far too soon.
Songs about horses, cows, injuns, caballeros, the trail, the desert sky, doggies and “Doneys”—did I mention horses—need to be simple. Well yes, there’s the Sons of the Pioneers, the Farr Brothers, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, even Riders in the Sky. But that’s to these songs as the movies are to the Great Plains. Back at the start it’s the dust itself, the squeak of leather, the pissed off steer, the rope burns and sore ass and wood smoke and beans and stars. And woven into all that, in these songs, is the poetry that makes all that, just memories, ideas on the page, live again. And here’s Pop and a guitar, that’s it—or an assortment of guitars and pickin’ styles—telling these stories we’ve heard before, making us feel like the kid at bedtime, “Nooo, I want to hear the one about the Strawberry Roan again, Daddy. Puleeze. He bucked to the east, he bucked to the west.”
The best of these songs, I think, have a Moby Dick kind of quality. Real details are woven in, true stuff you hear as true whether you’ve been there or not. In one, the cowboy tells you about his horse that knows the game of roping a cow, knows how to keep the cow from having him roped instead, knows “once he’s crossed the string he’s down.” In “Platonia,” which is a predecessor to Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” in some ways, an Indian scout returns at a gallop, shot with arrows as is his horse. Both collapse, and although we are quite sure the horse has breathed his last, the poet gives him a reprieve and he lives on, happily, for many more years. (I think Ben Johnson played this narrator in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”)
The best of the best is probably “Old Paint,” which I’ve read on the page and heard here and there through the years. I don’t think I had a sung version on the shelf till now. “Old Paint” in this rendition, Pop tells us on the sleeve, was collected by John Lomax from “Jess Morris who learned it from a black cattle driver who in turn learned it on a trail drive to Cheyenne in the late 1880s.” There are a lot of these wonderful songs which flow out like Robert Service poems, but “Paint” goes to another level, a kind of magical realism where you don’t know in the end if the song’s about a horse, a town, a woman, a family, the failure of faith, or all of the above. The assertion by the singer that the “green tree in the middle of the ocean” is as true as his love: what an image that is to ponder and visualize! The music of it adds to the mystery, the mist curling around the ideas, the sad emotion of the minor chord deepening the images. Pop picks something that sounds like a ‘20s Gibson to back himself up (maybe it’s the Triolian or the National Baritone?), and doesn’t run from just enough tempo retards and pauses to make the poetry work. It’s the opposite of bluegrass (Doctor Ralph being the exception), and not so far from the kind of magic Bob Marley works when he rhymes “rat race,” “dog race,” and “human race.” I could sit and listen to this one for an hour and keep finding new things in it.
I reckon Pop put in “Palomino Pal of Mine” because that one kinda brings us full circle, back to Autry and Rogers and that other kind of cowboy. (He tells us Sean had suggested he learn the song, so it’s also fulfilling a wish from an old pal.) Were all these tough guys, squinting into the sunset, pushing on and on, really heading in the end to the palms and bungalows, to bikinis on rollerskates and fat men with big cigars and martinis? Gene ended up with a lot of real estate and a baseball team. What a long strange trip it’s been, huh? Gentlemen, we have left Cheyenne.
To Order: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.popwagner.com
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December 15, 2006