Cowboy Jam Session: Western Culture News & Reviews |

Cowboy Jam Session: Western Culture News & Reviews

Since the early 60s, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, has recognized individuals whose work preserves the stories of the West. Winning entries in literature, music, film and television are awarded the museum’s prestigious Western Heritage Award – the Wrangler.

This month I’m spotlighting two of the 2007 recipients. (Look for more in my Christmas gift-giving suggestions.) A complete listing of past winners, interesting in itself, is available at “Events & Exhibitions,” “Western Heritage Awards.” Guidelines for submitting entries are also posted. Should you prefer, call the museum at (405) 478-2250, Ext. 221.

Timothy Egan, New York Times National Enterprise Reporter, won for nonfiction book with The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Mariner Books, 2006, 352 pages, b/w photos, softcover; ISBN-13/EAN: 9780618346974). It also received the National Book Award and was named a best book of the year by both the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. The Seattle Times called it “a flat-out masterpiece of historical reportage.” And for good reason.

Egan dug deep for the story buried beneath the disaster, seeking out tenacious survivors’ firsthand accounts. Focusing on a dozen families and the communities where they lived, Egan enhanced the stories through diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles, books, and museum archives. This is not an account of those who left, rather the tale of those who persevered against all odds and stayed.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been so totally swept up in a book. From the moment I studied the map outlining the Dust Bowl region, through the last acknowledgment, it tore at my emotions – just as the dusters themselves tore at soil laid bare by well-intentioned homesteaders and suitcase farmers looking to make a quick buck. Both succumbed to a wheat-farming frenzy, plowing under fragile grasslands where cattle once grazed – including the famous XIT.

After several prosperous and productive years, weather patterns changed. Rain ceased to fall. Temperatures vaulted well into triple digits. Crops failed. Trees died. And the wind began to blow. Animals and humans suffocated and went blind from dusters. Farmers fed thistles and yucca to their cattle; farm wives prepared the same to feed their families. Storm-generated static electricity shorted out automobile starters. People breathed through masks and sponges and tried in vain to keep the dust out of their homes. Babies, adults, and livestock succumbed to dust pneumonia.

And yet, people stayed. With the Depression gripping the country, moving was more frightening than not.

Egan deftly slips his readers’ feet into the shoes of his characters. Native Americans, cowboys, con artists, hoodwinked homesteaders, compassionate businessmen, students, and government officials tread across the pages. The reader is helpless but to follow. A fictional plot could not have been more spellbinding.

The Worst Hard Time retails for $14.95.

Don Edwards earned his sixth Wrangler for Moonlight and Skies, named best traditional western music album. The Grammy-nominated Edwards had me from the start with “My Blue Heaven.” I spent hours at the piano practicing the tune for a recital when I was in grade school.

You may wonder how “My Blue Heaven” made the cut on a Western music album. Edwards explains, “It was a monster number one hit in 1927 for America’s number one pop singer Gene Austin.” Austin served as a significant role model for Jimmie Rodgers – considered the father of country music.

Rodgers’ title track, and his “Land of My Boyhood Dreams,” turn the album back toward its Western classification. Others among the baker’s dozen that I especially like include “Boots and Saddle,” “The Long Trail,” “Coyotes,” and “Can’t Shake the Sands of Texas from My Shoes.”

A musicologist, historian and author, Edwards is well versed in cowboy lore and musical traditions. The son of a vaudeville magician, he grew up listening to classical, jazz, blues and Western-swing. He was drawn to cowboy life by the books of Will James.

Moonlight and Skies, and a fistful of other Edwards’ releases, are available from Western Jubilee Recording Company, PO Box 9187, Colorado Springs, CO 80932; 1-800-707-2353; Single CDs sell for $15; double sets are $25. (Shipping to U.S. addressees is free on website orders over $50).

Submit items for consideration to Jeri Dobrowski, 1471 Carlyle Road S, Beach, ND 58621;

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