Riding Along on the Cowboy Music Train

The Cowboy Train is a rolling folk festival, three days and four nights across 2,500 miles of Canada. Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center offers an audio portrait of a musical celebration on the rails.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

What's your definition of a dream vacation? Setting up a tent in a primitive campground or sampling wines on a five-star cruise? For a group of Western enthusiasts, the definition of a good time is traveling across Canada by rail with a group of cowboy singers. The Western Folklife Center's Hal Cannon got off the train last week and reports.

HAL CANNON: The Cowboy Train is rolling folk festival - three days and four nights across 2,500 miles of Canada. For organizer Charlie Hunter, the recipe for a good time is very simple.

Mr. CHARLIE HUNTER (Organizer, Cowboy Train): There's nothing better than trains, and there's nothing better than music, so what could possibly be better than combining the two?

(Soundbite of song)

CANNON: Sourdough Slim is already building a head of stem, even before the train pulls out of the station. There's champagne and a bunch of people with guitars and cowboy hats.

(Soundbite of applause)

CANNON: We're here at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Unidentified Man #1 (Train Conductor): All aboard!

(Soundbite of cheering)

CANNON: As we climb aboard, most folks are ready to mingle and party, but not everybody.

Mr. TOM RUSSELL (Cowboy Train Performer): It's hard, because to me the stage is sacred. You know, there's a reason made dressing rooms, I'll tell you that.

CANNON: That's lead performer Tom Russell. I'm sort of feeling shy and just want to find my private dressing room, so I go looking for my accommodations. What I find are four bunk beds in under six feet of hallway, a curtain for privacy. Here's David Walker.

Mr. DAVID WALKER (Passenger, Cowboy Train): I thought this is not possible to get four people and guitars and everything else in that very small space. But luckily, one of our bunkmates, his luggage hasn't arrived.

(Soundbite of music)

CANNON: There are 65 paying guests, nine musicians and the crew, with intimate music sessions and concerts scheduled into the wee hours of the night.

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) Two men rode in from the south, a rainy autumn night, the sky above, the mud below. They walked into the deacon's bar, they were Mexican by sight, sky above, the mud below.

CANNON: The performance car is a long, narrow concert hall with a tiny space at the front. You'd only know it was the stage by the mike stands. We spend the evening herded in like cattle with the featured bellowers up front, ending with that classic ranch-protest song against confined.

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) Oh yeah. Daughters, don't you fence me in.

(Speaking) Thank you very much everybody. Woo-hoo. Have a great night's sleep.

(Soundbite of applause)

CANNON: Day two. Surprisingly enough, I spent a fairly comfortable night in my berth. My leg was draped over a mandolin and some luggage. It's okay. We're in British Columbia, peaks newly covered with snow.

Ms. ELSA BEE(ph) (Naturalist): Kind of a beautiful and terrifying landscape, and cold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BEE: Here in the Rockies, I think...

CANNON: Naturalist Elsa Bee tells us about geology. She even promises big horn sheep and moose if we keep our eyes peeled. The fact is, the only wildlife I saw was a trio of half-clad hunters mooning the train somewhere in the woods of Manitoba.

(Soundbite of yodeling)

Mr. SLIM: Okay, here we go.

(Soundbite of yodeling)

CANNON: Speaking of wildlife, how about 65 people trying to learn to yodel from the master of the bellowing bray, the blustering bark, Sourdough Slim

Mr. SLIM: All right, give it a try. Here we go.

(Soundbite of yodeling)

Mr. HUNTER: A lot of people have the interest in taking a transcontinental train ride, but I think they fear that they're going to be onboard with a bunch of people with whom they have no shared interests.

CANNON: That's Charlie Hunter again, our heady rail boss reviewing the halfway point, a trip with three different plots.

Mr. HUNTER: You've got the programmed entertainment, you've got the landscape, and you've got a group of strangers becoming a working little community, and I think it's wicked cool.

(Soundbite of yodeling)

CANNON: Let me introduce you to my fellow travelers. Here's Chris Jenkins, a veterinarian by day and a guitar-maker by night. He doesn't play much anymore.

Mr. CHRIS JENKINS (Passenger, Cowboy Train): I set my hand down on a table saw about 25 years ago, my left hand, and when you're already a bad guitar player and you become slightly more disabled, you're a really bad guitar - so I don't play anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CANNON: Michael Lawson(ph) is a firefighter from San Francisco.

Mr. MICHAEL LAWSON (Passenger, Cowboy Train): You hear about how people work on a ranch. It's similar to what we do. You know, we cook together, we work together.

CANNON: Dunes(ph), a clothing designer, appreciates the down-to-earth qualities of the journey.

DUNES (Passenger, Cowboy Train): I am a very good mingler, and I want to meet a lot of people, and there's not one snooty person here.

CANNON: Then there's Susan LeBock(ph), a retired schoolteacher from Reno, Nevada.

Ms. SUSAN LeBOCK (Passenger, Cowboy Train): I'm on this train because Rosalee Sorrells is on this train, and I was a fan of Rosalee Sorrells when she started singing in a basement coffee house in Salt Lake City in 1960.

Unidentified Man #3: Please welcome the great Rosalee Sorrells. Put your hands together.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. ROSALEE SORRELLS (Singer): (Singing) I'm gonna make a good one, boys. I'm gonna sing it mean and sad. I sing about the hippies and the honky-tonk chippies and the hard-luck times ahead. And when my song is over...

Ms. LeBOCK: In Rosalee, I saw another way to be a woman. I was on the tracks that my family expected me follow, have lots of children and keep my opinions to myself and so on, and she gave me the courage to stand up for what I believed. All the rest of my life evolved from that decision to be that kind of woman.

Ms. SORRELLS: (Singing) Yeah, they may not like my style or voice, but they know who I am.

(Soundbite of applause)

CANNON: I seek out Rosalee after the concert.

Ms. SORRELLS: I'm very intimate and personal when I perform, so they think they know me, and then they want to get close to me. But I intend that to happen. I intend to be up close, and most performers try very hard to not have that happen under any circumstances.

Unidentified Man #4: One, two and vocal.

CANNON: We've been on the rail three days. Folks now squeeze by each other easily in the tight places as we barrel through the mist, all to the accompaniment of fine music. It's the last evening concert, and as we file in, I see the performers are already at the front, but without the usual banter.

Mr. SLIM (Singer): (Singing) I want to ride with real cowhands who can look you in the eye. I want my .44 in my holster, I want my boots on when I die...

CANNON: Sourdough channels the vaudevillian cowboy. Stephanie Davis and Rosalee Sorrells sing heart-felt ballads of the range; Wiley of the Wild West as cowboy, from hat brim to pointy-toed boots. Then Tom Russell, a mischievous look on his face, takes the stage.

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) I rolled out of bed, threw some water on my face, 25 sit-ups, run in place. I put the coffee on, but the pot ain't clean. Hell, you little devils of alcohol and caffeine.

CANNON: What is when everything comes together in a performance, when an artist pushes something from within, when the fans fan the flame? Tom Russell, the guy at the start of the trip who worried about his sacred stage, is now leaving the epic cowboy ballad behind for something quite different, quite personal.

Mr. RUSSELL: I tend to try to be somebody I'm not by doing solely cowboy folk material, which I have a lot of. But in the past five years, I've not only done that, but I've grown away and done records like "Love and Fear," which was a very deeply personal record about aging, dealing with passion, and so I finally said I've got to just go out and be who I am.

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) ...and the rock and the roll, and the fight for your soul goes on and on. Yeah, you put on the gloves, you're always ready for love, but your passion and youth have been gone. Roll out of bed, water on your face...

(Soundbite of train)

CANNON: Cocooned in this shiny metal snake, we cut through the black night of Ontario, our little rolling village headed towards the end of the line - Toronto. It's hard to remember my discomforts now. I wish this train would just keep on going. For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon.

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) I said oh you little devils of alcohol and caffeine.

SEABROOK: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) I said oh you little devils of alcohol and caffeine.

(Soundbite of applause)

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