An old Santa Fe Railroad warehouse sits along the tracks in what looks like a forgotten corner of Colorado Springs, Colo. This aging relic of a bygone era, however, is actually home to some of the best-known names in western music, including Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, Rich O’Brien, Red Steagall and Sons of the San Joaquin.
These and more are represented by and record under the agency and label based in this old building: Western Jubilee Recording Company. “Look on the back of the album cover. . .’Oh, recorded at the Western Jubilee studio,'” remarks owner Scott O’Malley. “Well no one probably has any clue it’s in the 1887 Santa Fe warehouse by the railroad tracks.”
Studio on the Tracks
The studio itself is right next to those tracks, just one wall separating it from the regular schedule of locomotives passing by each day. O’Malley says if you listen closely to some Western Jubilee recordings, you might actually hear a train in the background.
The sound booth is a big warehouse room that’s been converted into what looks like a small, old-time theater. One hundred or so old movie theater seats sit in front of a stage strewn with chairs and stand-up microphones. A variety of aging guitars, other instruments and a collection of quirky memorabilia hang on the walls. A small, adjoining room contains the recording gear.
Not every compact disc released by the label is recorded here. But Don Edwards did his songs for The Horse Whisperer movie soundtrack in this room, and Katy Moffatt’s Cowboy Girl CD was produced on this stage. Edwards, O’Brien and bluegrass legend Norman Blake backed up Mitchell’s poetry for a live CD recorded before a studio audience.
But why—in an age of technology that allows professional-sounding recordings to be made in any basement—would world-class artists choose to record in an old railroad warehouse?
“This is one option that a lot of my guys seem attracted to,” O’Malley says. “Flattering. . . but it’s optional.” The explanation might lie in the music itself – what O’Malley calls “western tradition.”
Many songs Edwards and other Western Jubilee artists record had already been around for a long time when this railroad warehouse was built. Unlike much of today’s country music, western or cowboy music is primarily acoustic-based tunes of range and ranch life. Many melodies have roots in Ireland and Scotland. The lyrics changed as those songs moved overseas and then west with the pioneers, first through Appalachia, and then farther west with the wagon trains and cattle drives. Edwards has spent his life studying, performing and recording such songs. The studio even markets a book he produced about them.
“Don has spent 40-some years researching the right words, the right attitude, the sincerity of it,” O’Malley explains. “I’d rather see Don and one guitar than a 10-piece band and smoke bombs.
“We try to preserve a piece of American history,” O’Malley continues. But just because the songs have been around a while doesn’t mean the music’s stale. On the contrary, the master singers and musicians at Western Jubilee produce compelling and critically acclaimed records that reinterpret this classic music in fresh ways.
Capturing the Sound
A good example is High Lonesome Cowboy, a collaboration between Edwards and bluegrass pioneer Peter Rowan, with major contributions from acoustic-guitarist icons Blake (featured in the multimillion selling soundtrack O, Brother Where Art Thou), wife Nancy and Tony Rice, another famed bluegrass player. The five musicians didn’t bother with any studio tricks to embellish or sanitize their performance. They simply shared the stage, played and recorded live.
“I enjoy recording in there because it’s so non-studio,” Blake told the Colorado Springs Independent. He said the sessions were like those in the early days of the recording business, “when records were made in hotel rooms. . .or wherever they could set up.”
Edwards said that while most recording studios try to create a sound, the High Lonesome sessions attempted to simply capture what was happening.
“If there are some little idiosyncrasies here and there, so be it,” he says without even a hint of regret.
If there were any, apparently they only added to the album’s appeal. The remarkable recording received Western Jubilee’s first-ever Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2002. Edwards also earned a Wrangler Award (Outstanding Original Western Composition) from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in 2004 for “Chant of the Night Songs” from his cd Saddle Songs II, Last of the Troubadours.
With both genres sharing similar roots, blending bluegrass and cowboy music might seem like a natural in hindsight. But Western Jubilee also takes cowboy music and poetry in some very unexpected directions, such as A Prairie Portrait. The CD features Edwards and Mitchell teaming up to record with the Fort Worth (Texas) Symphony Orchestra.
“Well, it’s all music isn’t it?” points out A Prairie Portrait co-producer Kathleen Fox Collins. “And it’s classic music, it really is.”;
Now O’Malley’s partner at Western Jubilee, Collins spent 25 years as the artistic administrator with the Colorado Springs Symphony. She believes there are many possibilities for bringing the studio’s western-music artists to new audiences. Another unique collaboration involved the Opera Theater of the Rockies and Sons of the San Joaquin, on the last track of the Sons’ CD, Sing One for the Cowboy.
“We had 50 opera singers here on stage,” she marvels. “I just think there are more crossovers that haven’t even been explored yet.”
With a nationwide distribution partner, Western Jubilee CDs are getting onto the racks of major retailers nationwide, including Best Buy. Interest is growing slowly but steadily overseas.
“There’s probably not a day that we don’t get an inquiry from a foreign radio station,” says Collins. “And that includes Czechoslovakia, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong. There’s cowboy-music interest worldwide.”
Collins also sees a growing interest in cowboy music in such unlikely U.S. regions as the Southeast and Northeast, where the Sons of the San Joaquin and a number of other western-music acts recently played a sold-out show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Western Jubilee also does what it can to preserve the cowboy way of life its music celebrates. In 2003, the label co-sponsored Colorado Springs’ first Working Ranch Cowboy Association-sanctioned rodeo. Mitchell helped found the association, whose mission is to preserve the lifestyle and heritage of the ranching industry, plus assist cowboys in crisis and provide scholarships for ranch youth.
An Intact Vision
But despite all those exciting developments, don’t expect to see Western Jubilee signing a bunch of new artists or relocating to Los Angeles, New York or Nashville anytime soon.
“We’re just in a little ‘nichey’ deal,” confides O’Malley. “I want to stay small, and I want to keep quality and keep our vision intact. . . You know, we put out four records last year. . . that was a big year!”
And just what is that vision? In the post Sept. 11 world, “I think it goes beyond music,” muses O’Malley. “We’re trying to preserve a real western tradition. . . And I think a lot of folks are looking (to) listen to something with good raw talent, and guitar…. and be entertained, you know?”