Traveling west along country roads that cut through rolling hills, one hardly needs the radio on, for the quiet romanticism is already built into the vast landscape. Yet for those who wish to hear those same sounds in an urban setting, the Briscoe Western Art Museum‘s inaugural music salon series, Sounds of the West, will give a rare look inside the cultures and conspirators that painted the soundtrack of this place, its people, and its pride.
A three-part series that highlights the musical arts of the American West in an intimate setting, Sounds of the West kicked off on Jan. 7 with an afternoon entitled “Settling the West in American Popular Songs.”
Music scholar Michael Lasser featured all the greats – Mercer, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Berlin, and Gershwin – through the voices of musicians Alan Jones and Cindy Miller. After Lasser’s thorough explanation of the whereabouts and “why-abouts” that informed the music, Jones, with his full-range bass drawl and levity on the piano, provided the cavalier complement to Miller’s soprano as they explored the region’s sounds.
“Songs of the West have always had a strong sense of place – I don’t need to have been there to write a song,” Lasser said of the nature of the Western songbook, written primarily by Broadway-type folks who never left the boroughs. “The good songwriters had a way of vivifying the experience that reenergized it all.”
Filling the room with his comforting voice, Lasser told stories that were informative without being droll, academic without being esoteric. He gave just enough context, yet was still light enough to float with the whimsy of the music.
The breakdown of the program featured titles such as “Across the Alley from the Alamo”, “Cow-Cow Boogies,” and classics from the defining Western musical Oklahoma! Jones jumped from piano to guitar when necessary as Miller playfully decorated the air with tongue-in-cheek sweet nothings and the feminine take on a cowboy’s lifestyle.
While people may define it in their own terms, they always have an idea of what the West is, said Jenny Chowning, head of education and programming at the Briscoe.
“The West is a sacred premise for many, many people. It’s built into our national character and national identity,” Chowning said. “When folks are asked what the American West is, you’ll get lots of answers, but they’re pretty quick to tell you what they think.”
Chowning is particularly excited about this series – the Briscoe’s first musical take since its opening – as the platform lends itself to the conversation on how we connect with this part of our culture.
“This all started when a colleague at the McNay had the idea, but believed it best fit into our programs and mission,” Chowning said. “Michael (Lasser) and Ruth (Friedberg) both reached out and it developed organically from there.”
While the Briscoe tends to attract out-of-towners, the formulation of this program was intended for locals.
“We wanted to set something up that was relevant for the local community, creating programs that people that live here want to go to,” Chowning said. “Eva (Ybarra) did a program before and was a huge hit, so we wanted to bring her back.”
On Feb. 21 Ybarra – dubbed “the queen of the accordion” – will lead the second installment of the series in an evening entitled “Conjunto Meets Country Western.”
“Eva will be following the roots of the accordion in the West and how it integrated into music such as conjunto, which is such a [big] part of our region,” Chowning said.
The final installment of the series, “The Texas Woman, Her Heritage In Song,” set for March 21, will feature pianist and lecturer Ruth Friedberg and soprano Flicka Rahn. Together, they will explore the diverse musical traditions – Native American, Spanish, Mexican, French, German – that showcase women in song from this region.
“The mission of the museum is to showcase and celebrate the arts, culture and heritage of the American West, and a program like this ties into the cultural heritage,” Chowning said. “There is so much more than one conversation to be had – we plan on having more [music] in the future.”