Last weekend, for the eighth consecutive year, we kicked-up our heels at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The pilgrimage to Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch at Santa Clarita, California, never fails to rejuvenate its large audiences through music and cowboy “poetry,” all tantalizingly served-up by some of the best professionals in the genre – anywhere!
This feast for the audio (and visual) senses takes place on the Melody Ranch movie lot, formerly long-owned by that most iconic of all movie cowboys, Gene Autry. There are several sizeable venues located around the scenic ranch whose central feature is the obligatory old “Main Street” of town, the scene of countless cowboy films and television productions. Many of Autry’s old films were shot there; the iconic and very popular television series, Gunsmoke, was filmed there as well.
The very “best of the best” entertainment at Santa Clarita takes place on the Melody Ranch Stage, situated in a gigantic tent which is capable of seating a very large audience. There are several smaller, partially-covered venues scattered around the grounds which offer a rarely- encountered intimacy between performers and audience.
Our first time at this festival, eight years ago, triggered flashbacks in my memory of the very first cowboy/western music I ever heard – at six years of age, back in Chicago. Anticipating last weekend’s festival, I wrote of those impressions made by the Circle-J Ranch group, way back in 1946 (See my recent post of April 20, 2014, Cowboy/Western Music – from Chicago).
The Messick family is one of the perennial favorites at Santa Clarita – a local family group that exudes both musicality and joy at each performance. That is the patriarch, Wayne Messick, on the bass fiddle, extreme right. He is in his eighties and still going strong. Being local and family, they perform only occasionally compared to the busy yearly schedules of virtually all the other professional acts. They lend such a nice touch to the musical festivities at Santa Clarita. It appears there are Messick grandchildren involved in music who may continue the tradition!
The California Battalion is a period “band” from the days of the U.S. Civil War. The group specializes in re-creating the music and researching the traditions that are on display during their performances. They play authentic period brass instruments, and they do so in stirring and often humorous fashion. You might notice that the trumpets and other brass pieces seem to be pointing in the wrong direction – backwards! The battalion leader explains that, because the regimental bands always marched up-front of the troops, the instruments were pointed south for the benefit of the soldiers and their morale.
The trumpets also have rotary valves, not the “plunger” type valves we see today. My wife and I encountered one of the trumpet players and a few other band members who were strolling about the premises between performances. Being a trumpet player myself, I asked about their instruments and how they acquire them. We had a nice discussion on antique band instruments.
The point to be made, here, is the informality of the event and the venues. One often encounters even the “star performers” casually strolling about the grounds; we have often greeted them and engaged them in conversation. They have always been gracious and pleased to meet the public. There are few such venues anymore, sports or entertainment, where audiences can meet and even get to know the performers they come to watch.
Main Street, early in the morning before the crowds arrive!
“The Old Chuck Wagon” and “The Blacksmith” on Main Street
There is a lot to see at Melody Ranch during the festival. In addition to the live entertainment, one can stroll about and absorb the aura of a real western film location complete with numerous and eclectic movie props scattered about the premises. For a closer look, one can visit the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Museum located just a short stroll from the entertainment venues.
Cowboy Cobbler (peach) and Cowboy Coffee
They make a big deal over cowboy cobbler…and no wonder – it is absolutely delicious! Try to limit yourself to only one bowl per each of the two days of the festival…good luck! And we always opt for an endless, two-day supply of cowboy coffee by buying the mug for eight dollars. The coffee is served, cowboy style, from pots hung over coal fires – by authentic- looking cowboy volunteers. Note: fans of weak coffee need not bother! The mug in your hand is your endless coffee pass for the entire festival; each year the cup changes color. Great fun!
The Steel Guitar is Back This Year!
This year we saw a group called “The Lucky Stars” which had not been at the festival since we started attending. They were great – a nice surprise, especially since they featured a swinging steel guitar. For me, nothing accentuates cowboy/western music like a steel guitar. The first one I had seen since the Circle-J Ranch back in Chicago so many years ago surfaced here, last year, in the person of Bobby Black, one of the venerable legends in western music on steel. He was not here this year, but Rusty of The Lucky Stars did a fine job on the instrument. Pure joy!
We, once again, saw two performances that are an annual “must” at the Cowboy Festival. The “Sons of the San Joaquin” (as in the California valley, north of here) have resided at the top of the list of best acts in cowboy/western for some time. Joe Hannah joins with his younger brother, Jack, and Joe’s son, Lon, to produce the sweetest harmony this side of …anywhere. Jack and Lon play guitar, but Joe has relinquished his base fiddle to newcomer Dan Kahler. Rounding out the Sons is Richard Chon who plays the most beautiful fiddle accompaniment one could possibly image. Richard can effortlessly “saw” and stomp his way through the most challenging up-tempo pieces in the program, then turn around and play the most plaintive, singing fiddle imaginable; I think he must have a Stradivarius masquerading as a fiddle! When you listen to his musical interplay with the Sons on the slower pieces, it is difficult not to tear-up – it is that beautiful. Jack Hannah is the consummate voice and leader of the group. His deep baritone voice is truly something to behold. He is also a renowned songwriter with many fine ones to his credit.
Last, and simply the best at what he does, is Don Edwards. His performances involve just him, his guitar…and the whole audience. His vocals always deliver a message, a message which connects with every person in the tent. That genuineness along with a great voice, diction, and superb guitar playing are the essence of Don Edwards. He chooses his songs carefully and well. He is never a “showman.” He is always a consummate professional who has researched much of the cowboy lore of which he speaks and sings. Seeing and hearing him perform on the big stage in the big tent – yet still up-close – is a memorable experience. One more thing about Don: He hates yodeling, but he does it well and usually inserts one short segment to please the crowd. Thanks, Don.
Thanks also to our dear friends, Gil and Linda (on the right) for convincing us to attend our first festival. They waxed so enthusiastically about the music…and the cowboy poetry? That poetry part scared me off, initially. There are a few performers who deliver soliloquys on cowboys and life on the range. They tend to have ranching backgrounds and know of what they speak. Some of the recitals are very touching; some are downright hilarious. I will admit that I go for the music which predominates and cannot be beat. Thirty dollars per person will admit you for both days, allowing access to the several venues which operate all day. What a deal! Cowboy cobbler and cowboy coffee are extra!!
Disclaimer: No, I am not a marketing front-man for the festival or for any of the performers or their products. I am merely a happy consumer of what they offer who would like to share the joy. That is my idea of what a blog should be. See you next year at Santa Clarita!