Various Artists

When I Was a Cowboy, Vol. 1

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These are the records that gave everyone from Gene Autry through Marty Robbins the basis for their careers, bridging the gap between 19th century reality and 20th century nostalgia. These 23 songs are the real article from the mid- to late '20s, a time when the singers had ridden the range, and the events they sung of were often within living memory. This material is the white equivalent of recordings by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Papa Charlie Jackson, et al., and anyone owning their records -- even if they don't like cowboy songs -- ought to own this as well; J.D. Farley's "Bill Was a Texas Lad" could even pass for blues. Alas, there is no information included about Farley, the Cartwright Brothers, Harry McClintock ("Sam Bass"), Edward L. Crain ("Bandit Cole Younger"), the Crowder Brothers, Taylor's Kentucky Boys ("The Dixie Cowboy"), Carl Sprague ("The Last Longhorn"), Billie Maxwell, Watts & Wilson, Lonesome Luke & His Farm Hands (who give listeners an authentic square dance), or Patt Patterson & His Champion Rep Riders, and the only name that will be recognizable to modern listeners is rider/actor Ken Maynard, whose "The Lone Star Trail" is one of the best things here. All of it is stripped down, sometimes with no more than a guitar accompaniment; the singing is raw and unaffected, but some of it displays surprising virtuosity, most notably the Arkansas Woodchopper's dexterous guitar playing on "I'm a Texas Cowboy" and "Texas Ranger" by the Cartwright Brothers, with a droning fiddle accompaniment that emphasizes the British origins of the melodies behind some of these songs. The sound is also unusually good.

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