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True West

The summer sizzles with ballads, Western swing, and cowboy poetry

By Greg Cahill

It's no secret that Sonoma County is a hotbed for mainstream country performers--fans of Texas troubadour Tracy Byrd will be kicking up their boot heels this Saturday night to his "Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous" when the big-hat star co-headlines the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma. But the region also boasts a long and close connection with numerous wonderful Western acts, all of whom steer clear of big-time success, riding their own two-lane blacktop that cuts through the Americana heartland. Three such acts--country crooner Don Edwards, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, and Western swing greats Asleep at the Wheel--ride in from Texas during the next couple of weeks.

Edwards and Mitchell--hailed as the Bard and the Balladeer--celebrate the Old West through story and song. Theirs is an unabashedly romanticized version of a bygone time and place--a peaceful, earthy vision so heartfelt that it can soothe the soul of the weariest city slicker.

For Edwards, it's a sentiment he first encountered through the classic Western movies that captured his imagination growing up as a New Jersey farm boy. At age 10, Edwards bought a guitar and started yodeling and learning the songs of Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers. Later, Edwards headed West, working the Texas oil fields and concert halls in search of the true Western experience. By 1980, he was recording with members of Autry's band, as well as the legendary Western vocal group the Sons of the Pioneers.

Both Edwards and Mitchell gained wider fame in the early '90s with their appearances at the hugely popular Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., and later recorded several fine albums on the short-lived Warner Western label.

Mitchell, who cofounded the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, grew up just 30 miles away from the eventual site of the event on a ranch where he often listened to hired hands spinning cowboy yarns. At 16 he quit school to become a wrangler and chuck-wagon cook. He later solidified his cowboy credentials busting broncos for the U.S. Cavalry.

As for his poetry credentials, suffice to say that Mitchell is an inductee in the Cowboy Poets and Singers' Hall of Fame.

On Fourth of July weekend, Asleep at the Wheel bring their Grammy-winning Western swing to the Rancho Nicasio for a two-day stint (July 4 and 5) at the venue's afternoon BBQs on the Lawn series. In addition, Asleep at the Wheel singer Ray Benson, who recently released his solo debut, Beyond Time, will appear at the Friday night dinner show with the Rancho All Stars.

Benson, a Virginia native, cofounded the band 33 years ago and hopped onto the Western swing bandwagon after hearing Merle Haggard's landmark 1970 album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the Whole World (or My Salute to Bob Wills). But it was country rocker and longtime Marin County fixture Commander Cody (George Frayne) who helped Asleep at the Wheel land management and a record deal, putting them on the road to becoming one
of the most popular Texas bands of the 1970s.

In 1999 the group scored its biggest hit with the album Ride with Bob, their second Bob Wills tribute. The album won multiple Grammys and featured guest appearances by the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Vince Gill, Manhattan Transfer, Willie Nelson, and, oh yeah, our old friend Tracy Byrd singing a Benson duet on "You're from Texas."


Don Edwards and Waddie Mitchell perform Saturday, June 28, at 8pm at the Healdsburg Cowboy Gathering. Raven Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg. Tickets are $20-$50. For more details, call 707.433.6335. For more information about Asleep at the Wheel's performances at Rancho Nicasio, call 415.662.2219. Or catch the band at the Marin County Fair on Sunday, July 6, at 6pm at the fairgrounds on the Avenue of the Flags in San Rafael. The concert is included with admission to the fair. For details, call 415.499.6800.

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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