Western Swing Gets Texas Town Scootin' Again Fiddlers, guitar players and singers gathered in tiny Goree, Texas, for a music camp. The camp is about equally divided between children and adults, even though the style of music was popular more than half a century ago.

Western Swing Gets Texas Town Scootin' Again

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The town of Goree, Texas, population about 300, is normally a pretty quiet place. But last week, it could have called itself the home of Western swing. Fiddlers, guitar players and singers from around the state gathered for a music camp named for a local music legend. NPR's Wade Goodwyn paid a visit.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

WADE GOODWYN: It's 7:00 A.M. in Goree, Texas, and if you don't know it's time to get up...

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

GOODWYN: ...the roosters do.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

GOODWYN: If you're not from Texas and you imagine what it's like, this is the Texas you think of: horses, cattle, rolling grassland that finally meets an endless blue sky at the far horizon. Here are people who step into a stirrup with the same ease that you press your keyless remote and climb into the car.

Out here, people are scarce, not plentiful. There's the unavoidable knowledge that the past was greater than the present is or the future ever will be.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ASHLEY WHEELER: (Singing) I want to be a cowboy sweetheart. I want to learn to rope and ride. I want to ride through the plains and the deserts, out west of the Great Divide.

GOODWYN: Seventeen-year-old Ashley Wheeler sings before a group of about 40 people, unabashedly. There might be a tendency to think, well, how much talent could there be out here? There's not that big a pool to begin with.

But it turns out, it's not just about raw numbers.

Ms. WHEELER: (Singing)...I love the best. O-da-lay-lo-o-lay-lo-o-lay-lo-o-lo-o-lo-o day-lay-o-da-lo-o-da-lay-o-da-lay-ay...

GOODWYN: Dozens of fiddle players, guitar players and singers of all ages come to the Bobby Boatright Memorial Music Camp to learn how to play Western swing. Boatright was a well-known local fiddle player who played with some of the greats.

(Soundbite of song, "Red River Valley")

GOODWYN: Western swing originated in the late 1920s and 1930s. While the rest of the country was boogieing to big band music or jumping and jiving in jazz halls, country music lovers could square dance - which was so last century -but that was about it, until Western swing. It was a cross between big band and jazz, a new sound meant to get cowboy boots scootin' across Western dance floors. And it did.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Bobby Boatright died of leukemia 18 months ago, but his Western swing music camp lives on. Johnny Boatright was Bobby's brother, friend and rhythm guitar player.

Mr. JOHNNY BOATRIGHT (Guitarist): We expose the kids to the Western swing songs, but they can take what they learn here and really apply it to any music in the world. If you're a good Western swing player, you can flat-out play anything.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CALLIE BERKE(ph) (Fiddle Instructor): Let's start at that third phrase, where you all are talking about right...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BERKE: Right there. OK, one, two, three, four...

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Twenty-five-year-old Callie Berke teaches advanced fiddle at the music camp.

Ms. BERKE: The thing that makes that so difficult is these three notes.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BERKE: Right there.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BERKE: Because that's what I was talking about before. That's that hemiola, where you've got three notes, but you're playing them in the space of two beats.

GOODWYN: The camp is for both children and adults, and this year, it's about equally divided.

Everyone here, teachers and students, comes from nearby small towns - some of them really small. Munday, Weinert, Knox City, Seymour, Benjamin and Pampa are the bigger towns. Fifteen-year-old Ryder Cude, cowboy hat atop his head, is from Goree - well, outside of Goree, actually.

Mr. RYDER CUDE: Well, normally, there's not many people around here, so I usually have to play by myself. But every now and then, we'll find a jam session, like, in Seymour or Knox City that I can go play with some people.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Ryder Cude has been playing for six years. This is his fourth year at the Western swing summer camp. There are three hours of instruction in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, then, after dinner, a group jam session.

Mr. COLE REDWINE: It's a little tiring sometimes, but it's still fun.

GOODWYN: Ten-year-old Cole Redwine has been playing fiddle for just a year.

Mr. REDWINE: The worst part is probably waking up early. And the best part is just doing what I love, playing the fiddle and hanging out with my friends.

GOODWYN: When you ask Redwine - or any of the other children here - why they have any interest in playing a style of music that was popular over half a century ago, the answer almost always involves family.

From the way they mimic their parents' style of dress and speech to the yes sirs and no ma'ams, playing Western swing is a kind of love letter from younger to older generation, a voicing of solidarity. If this cowboy music and cowboy way of life is slowly fading away, it seems no one here wants it to.

Mr. REDWINE: I just I probably like it because my dad's side of the family likes it, and my mom's side of the family likes it. And my dad likes it a whole lot, too. And I just - I've heard it a lot, and I like it now.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DUANE JOHNSON: I'm Duane Johnson, and I'm in the cattle business, and I play the fiddle. And I'm just down here trying to learn a few new tunes.

GOODWYN: Johnson is 69, and he grew up dancing to Western swing. Back then, you got dressed up, picked up your date.

Mr. JOHNSON: When we were young and before my wife and I married and then after we married, we went to rodeo dances and we had square dance clubs and did a lot of dancing. And it was the social thing to do.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GOODWYN: After dinner, everyone goes outside to the central courtyard to play and socialize. Some throw the football. Many play horseshoes.

(Soundbite of horseshoe hitting spike)

GOODWYN: This is what used to be the junior high in Goree - that is, until last September, when the school district gave the building and campus back to the town and said, good luck. That was a big blow, because the junior high was pretty much the only reason anyone still came to Goree.

Tammy Trainham looks out over the school courtyard and smiles. She is the mayor's wife, and this is her doing - she talked them into bringing the fiddle camp here. These five days are all that's left between Goree and oblivion.

Ms. TAMMY TRAINHAM: We're trying to rebirth a town. It was dead - graveyard dead.

GOODWYN: And the Bobby Boatright Memorial Music Camp needed a fresh start, too. For the first nine years, it had been on a ranch. But the beautiful junior high in Goree - with its expansive cafeteria, gym and big, window-filled classrooms, not to mention powerful air conditioning and new carpeting - seemed nice, a new beginning after the death of their namesake. So here they are: School, music camp and town, trying to keep each other - and Western swing - going.

Unidentified Man: One, two, a one, two, three...

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: I'm Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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