Western music is a form of country and hillbilly music composed by and about the people who settled and worked throughout the Western United States and Western Canada. Western music celebrates the life of the cowboy on the open ranges, Rocky Mountains, and prairies of Western North America. Directly related musically to old English, Irish, Scottish, and folk ballads, also the Mexican folk music of Northern Mexico and Southwestern United States influenced the development of this genre, particularly corrido, ranchera, New Mexico and Tejano. Western music shares similar roots with Appalachian music (also called country or hillbilly music), which developed around the same time throughout Appalachia and the Appalachian Mountains. The music industry of the mid-20th century grouped the two genres together under the banner of country and western music, later amalgamated into the modern name, country music.
Western was directly influenced by the folk music traditions of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and many cowboy songs, sung around campfires in the nineteenth century, like "Streets of Laredo", can be traced back to European folk songs.
Reflecting the realities of the open range and ranch houses where the music originated, the early cowboy bands were string bands supplemented occasionally with the harmonica. The harmonica, invented in the early 19th century in central Europe, arrived in North America shortly before the American Civil War, as the United States was just beginning to expand westward; its small size and portability made it a favorite among the American public and the westward pioneers.
Otto Gray, an early cowboy band leader, stated authentic Western music had only three rhythms, all coming from the gaits of the cow pony: walk, trot, and lope. Gray also noted the uniqueness of this spontaneous American song product, and the freedom of expression of the singers.
In 1908, N. Howard "Jack" Thorp published the first book of Western music, titled Songs of the Cowboys. Containing only lyrics and no musical notation, the book was very popular west of the Mississippi River. Most of these cowboy songs are of unknown authorship, but among the best known is "Little Joe, the Wrangler," written by Thorp himself.
In 1910, John Lomax, in his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, first gained national attention for Western music. His book contained some of the same songs as Thorp's book, though in variant versions (most had been collected before Thorp's book was published). Lomax's compilation included many musical scores. Lomax published a second collection in 1919 titled Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.
With the advent of radio and recording devices, the music found an audience previously ignored by music schools and Tin Pan Alley. Many Westerners preferred familiar music about themselves and their environment.
The first successful cowboy band to tour the East was Otto Gray's Oklahoma Cowboys, put together by William McGinty, an Oklahoma pioneer and former Rough Rider. The band appeared on radio and toured the vaudeville circuit from 1924 through 1936. They recorded few songs, however, so are overlooked by many scholars of Western music.
It is a common impression that Western music began with the cowboy, but this is not the case. The first "western" song was published in 1844. Titled "Blue Juniata", the song is about a young Indian maid waiting for her brave along the banks of the Juniata River in Pennsylvania (at that time, anything west of the Appalachian Mountains was considered "out West"). The song was recorded and sung by the Sons of the Pioneers over a hundred years later and is still being sung today. Subsequent "western" songs down through the years have dealt with many aspects of the West, such as the mountain men, the '49ers, the immigrants, the outlaws, the lawmen, the cowboy, and, of course, the beauty and grandeur of the West. Western music is not limited to the American cowboy.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Western music became widely popular through the romanticization of the cowboy and idealized depictions of the west in Hollywood films. Singing cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, sang cowboy songs in their films and became popular throughout the United States. Film producers began incorporating fully orchestrated four-part harmonies and sophisticated musical arrangements into their motion pictures. Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of that time, recorded numerous cowboy and Western songs and starred in the Western musical film Rhythm on the Range (1936). During this era, the most popular recordings and musical radio shows included Western music. Western swing also developed during this time.
By the 1960s, the popularity of Western music was in decline. Relegated to the country and western genre by marketing agencies, popular Western recording artists sold fewer albums and attracted smaller audiences. Rock and roll dominated music sales and Hollywood recording studios dropped most of their Western artists (a few artists did successfully cross between the two, most prominently Johnny Cash, whose breakthrough hit "Folsom Prison Blues" combined a western theme with a rock-and-roll arrangement). In addition, the Nashville sound, based more on pop ballads than on folk music, came to dominate the country and western commercial sales; except for the label, much of the music was indistinguishable from rock and roll or popular classes of music. The resulting backlash from Western music purists led to the development of country music styles much more influenced by Western music, including the Bakersfield sound and outlaw country.
In 1964, the Country & Western Music Academy was formed in an effort to promote Western music, primarily in the Western United States. The Academy was formed in response to the Nashville-oriented Country Music Association that had formed in 1958. The Academy's first awards were largely dominated by Bakersfield-based artists such as Buck Owens. Over time, the Academy evolved into the Academy of Country Music and its mission is no longer distinguished from other country music organizations.
The Western Writers of America was formed in 1953 to promote excellence in Western-style writing, including songwriting.
Older music is still available at retail stores in major population centers, through mail-order, or by the Internet. New Western music is constantly written and recorded and performed all across the American West and Western Canada.
In recent years, Michael Martin Murphey (b. 1945) has almost single-handedly resurrected the cowboy song genre, promoting Western singers and groups and cowboy poets. The singing group Riders in the Sky recorded a mix of Western and Western Swing and have won Grammy Awards for their work with Disney on Toy Story 2 (1999) and Monsters, Inc. (2001).
Western music also plays a large role in the video game Fallout: New Vegas. Furthermore, the Red Dead series of games heavily features Western music, since it takes place in an Old West setting. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's modern spin on an Old Western game would not be complete without their carefully assembled score; what they call their best project to date