Essence of a Real American Cowboy
by Michael Lohr
Cowboy music has been making a strong resurgence in recent years and the man at the forefront of this movement is R.W. Hampton. His rich, baritone voice and exceptional songwriting skills have made him a living legend.
A real, American Cowboy through and through, R.W.’s lived this life. As an ex-cowpuncher on ranches from Texas to Wyoming, he certainly knows what he sings about. With thirteen albums to his credit, including his latest, “Austin to Boston,” he’s won almost every Western music industry award available including the Western Music Association’s Outstanding Male Vocalist award. Most recently, R.W. won a Western Heritage award for “Shortgrass,” the final song on “Austin To Boston.” “Shortgrass” was also named Outstanding Original Western Composition.
Now having been inducted into the Western Music Association’s Hall of Fame at the WMA’s annual Awards Show and Convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past November, R.W. has reached the pinnacle of his profession. In light of this great accomplishment, American Cowboy sat down with the man himself to discuss the ‘path taken’ thus far.
ML: Your music brims with uncompromising authenticity. In your opinion, what constitutes the idea of the American Cowboy?
RWH: To me the American Cowboy represents freedom, pride, independence and determination. Although it’s been a while back, I can still recall the feeling of sitting on a colt I broke, traveling across what seemed like an endless expanse of West with a job to do and the pride just knowing you’re mounted and have got (the stuff/what it takes) to get it done. This is what we write, sing and talk about. This is what America and the world love about the cowboy.
ML: Tell us about your latest album Austin to Boston?
RWH: My new album Austin to Boston is different (from my past projects) because it has no pre-conceived theme. It also has no boundaries sound-wise. Each song was treated as an individual in order to make it live and stand on its own. If a particular song needed to portray sweetness, then I sang and played sweet; on the other hand, if it needed to rock, we rocked it. I was determined to not get too hung up on what folks or even I think is or isn’t “Western.” In other words, it’s Western ‘cause I am, not because it sounds a certain way. The song selection was exciting because I was not limited to my
own material and so I often chose tunes that were vocally challenging and stretched me to new limits. Many times in the past I would think, “Man I love that song and would love to record it, but I don’t think I can pull it off.” This time I just went for it and I am both proud and pleased with the results. I am at a place in life where I’ve got as much or more livin’ behind me as I do ahead so it felt good to take some risks and musically it’s where I am today and now.
ML: What is a typical day on the Clearview Ranch like?
RWH: There is no such thing as a typical day here at Clearview Ranch and it can change with a phone call or an unexpected visitor. For instance, this morning a movie producer and the star/director and other staff stopped by to say hello and get a cup of coffee on their way back to civilization. A few days before, the wranglers and their horses from that same production crew stopped overnight to rest and water their mounts. Our cattle rep, Nick, and his horses have been stayin’ down at the barn/bunkhouse, too, because he’s got steers scattered all over the country, including our place, and its shipping time. All that traffic doesn’t sound like much, but a week ago we didn’t know about any of it.
Lisa and I both enjoy having folks stop by. It’s a chance for us to share what the Lord has blessed us with. But you know, there are always horses to be exercised, water tanks to check, and this time of year if the grass is getting short in one pasture where the steers are grazing, then they’ve got to be moved. We have a colt that I’ve got to get a halter on and handle some. The other day I came in from a trip to town to find about 20 head of steers trottin’ down the highway so I had to get them back in. And then there’s always fence to be fixed due to the large elk population around here. When they travel from the mountains and mesas to the prairies and back every day they’re sure hard on fences. After this interview I must get down to the barn, Hank and Chester, two of our geldings, need shoeing.
When we bought this place over 10 years ago, we had three boys who were always horseback and looking for a job with cattle. Those same boys have now grown and are pursuing their own dreams: as a college student, a rope horse trainer and a US Marine. Our two youngest boys are still a little small to be of much help with young horses and cattle, so Lisa and I find ourselves at a stage right now where we are doing a lot more of the work here on the place squeezed in between music gigs, school events and running a busy office. It makes things hectic at times but Clearview is still the place of our dreams, just the mountains and big empty spaces.
ML: What is your favorite type of horse to work with?
RWH: I like just about any horse that goes back to Three Bars. That infusion of Thoroughbred blood into the Quarter Horse program way back was a good move. They are smart, kind, and seem to have a lot of endurance as well as some ranginess that I like. As I get older, I enjoy a long-strided horse because they are smoother to ride and easier to rope off of.
I remember years ago, some of the more cold-blooded horses we were breaking and doing a day’s work on. We started them at 4 or 5 years old. They were big and tough and would really try you. You could get ‘em going and lined out pretty well and then come the next day it was all new again. We started using them for work after just a few saddles and we would make a lot of miles on them. They wound up making good solid mounts, but they were sure tough to break at first.
Like everyone else, my wife and I thought we would raise a few good foals right about the time the market went to heck. We have a lot less horses on the place now, but have kept a couple of broodmares and our saddle horses for each of us and the boys. We are both Lifetime members of the American Quarter Horse Association and also ranch members of the American Paint Horse Association.
ML: Every year RW and his family are gracious enough to host several ‘Horseback Adventures’ including horse training clinics and the ‘Steak Dinner Under The Stars’ event. How did you begin the Horseback Adventures retreat at Clearview Ranch?
RWH: Lisa came up with the great idea to host a select handful of fans and friends here at the ranch a few summers ago. The idea was that we would have these people come and we would treat them to our lifestyle, bring in a well respected horse trainer to give clinics, feed them top notch ranch food from our kitchen on our porch, and each evening enjoy live music on the patio or out around the campfire and chuckwagon where we have everyone camped. We bring in a local writer and historian, Steve Zimmer, who gives a great talk on the area’s history; then the next day everyone rides up to an old cowcamp high in the mountains on the Historic CS Ranch where we have dinner and spend the night at over 10,000 feet. The end of the ride wraps up with everyone at our local 4th of July Parade followed by an afternoon of fun at one of the oldest continuous rodeos in America, the Cimarron Maverick Rodeo, which just celebrated its 87th year.
ML: When you recorded the Western Music Association and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum ‘Album of the Year’ “Oklahoma…Where The West Remains” did the thought of having the Enid Symphony Orchestra perform the music seem strange?
RWH: Honestly the use of the symphony just seemed right to me all along. Simply stated, we needed “Big Music” to convey the vastness of a new frontier. The Symphony Orchestra along with Rich O’Brien and his guys sure got that job done. We’ve performed the album live several times and I always get a huge lump in my throat when that great musical intro starts. My dear friend, Edna Mae Holden, of Enid, Oklahoma wanted to do a tribute to Oklahoma for the state’s 100th birthday. We started 3 years early with a dream and she along with Rich O’Brien and the Enid Symphony turned that beautiful dream into a beautiful reality. I had some artistic input but was proudest to be the vocalist. The story of Oklahoma is very much America’s story.
ML: You’ve been in several movies including a couple with Kenny Rogers and Kris Kristofferson. What has your cinematic experience been like up to this point?
RWH: Yes, I enjoy movie making. Just wish I could do more. My first movie was a Kenny Rogers CBS Movie of the Week where I played a ridin’, fightin’, singin’, guitar strummin’ cowboy named R.W. That was easy, you just had to be yourself on cue. This was at a high point in Kenny’s popularity and I had worked with him on a TV special once before. Kenny was great, but for me the real stars were Ben Johnson, Dick Farnsworth and Buck Taylor because they were my heroes. That role of “R.W.” got me my Screen Actors Guild Card 23 years ago. Since then I’ve been shot down by Kris Kristofferson, served as Rod Steiger’s evil henchman, and rode with Antony Zerbe’s gang only to be blown up by John Bennett Perry. I got quite a bit of work back then because I could do dialogue and ride so they didn’t have to double me when it came my time to die on screen. I have the likes of Dave Cass and Neil Summer to thank for these opportunities.
ML: I hear that you were involved in filming an Italian Western where you had the opportunity to play a bad guy. Was such a role fun to play and maybe just a bit cathartic?
RWH: I played an hombre named “Scar” opposite Terrance Hill’s good guy hero, Doc West. It was great working with and being directed by Neil Summers again. Neil is a stuntman’s stuntman and knows how to direct action. There was a bit of a language barrier between the Italian crew and me, but Neil knew what they wanted out of me and my character “Scar,” and he was able to get me into villain mode. He also talked me through a tricky fight scene where I got my butt kicked. Yes, it’s fun playing a bad guy, but I can’t help but wonder after all this time if I’m just being “type cast”?
ML: When you recorded your seminal album “The Last Cowboy-His Journey” did it feel like you were making something special? “The Last Cowboy” both the music and the play, is one of the best Western centric music events ever put out for public consumption and has been recognized a so, by a plethora of Western-focused organizations.
RWH: Yes, I knew it (The Last Cowboy) was going to be something different and special because the play is both of those things. But the challenge was to take a play which is both visual and audio and try to sell it with just audio. My producer, Rich O’Brien, totally understood what I was trying to do and we made the listeners see with their ears. Old time radio did this and it was magic. In many ways the theater of the mind is better than watching an actor from a theater seat because the imagination has no limits. The play is great because its one man telling the story of the cowboy. One man who’s lived it all. The album hits the high points but you have to see the play to get it all. I guess that’s what makes the album so special is because it stands on its own apart from the play. It’s also special on a personal level because the record project was totally my wife, Lisa’s idea. In fact I first balked at the idea, but after some gentle prodding I found myself in the studio and the rest is history. I think we make a pretty good team. Thanks, Lisa.
ML: You’re very involved with the Cowboy poetry movement. What was it about Cowboy Poetry that first attracted you?
RWH: Cowboy Poetry is very subjective so I only know what I like. I also know and admire many of today’s living legends like Waddie, Wallace, Joel, Baxter, Randy and Paul. But Bruce Kiskaddon has a way of by-passing my head and going straight to my heart. He has been and probably always will be at the top of my list. I was still punching cows for a living when I was invited to my first cowboy poetry gathering. It was at my 2nd gathering that I met Waddie who was still cowboying in Idaho at the time while I was working up on the Belle Fourche in NE Wyoming. That was about 1980 I think and the gathering was in Littleton, Colorado. That was my first inclination that there was any interest in cowboy poetry or music outside of the ones of us who were just living it. So I don’t know whether it attracted me or I attracted it, but I do know this movement gave guys like me a stage and an audience that we’d never had before. It’s been fun being part of an historic movement.
ML: What is your favorite brand of Cowboy boots?
RWH: My choice of boots are “made to measure” by the likes of Paul Bond, Blucher, M.L. Leddy, Ray Dorwart and Brent McCaslin. I always order a narrow square toe, high undershot heel with 14-16” tops. But my favorite brand of cowboy boots are the free ones!
ML: If you had to choose one song that you feel best exemplifies your musical identity what would it be? Why?
RWH: I can’t choose just one, but I can answer with two. It may surprise folks to know that the one song people ask for and about the most is my rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” This even surprised my wife, but as I travel across this great nation, wherever I go, folks invariably ask “Are you gonna sing “How Great Thou Art?” ” Would you please?” And then after the show many more will thank me for it or tell me how much it meant. This happens at the big festivals and small venues as well. That particular song has power because it’s not a man singing about God, it’s a man singing to his God. Many years ago, high on a peak overlooking the rolling plains, a buddy of mine reverently said “Don’t it make you want to sing “How Great Thou Art?” ” I don’t think I answered him because the view left me speechless, but ever since I’ve used that song as my encore. I’ve made it my own and I always feel it no matter how tired or “sung out” I am.
My song, “Donnie Catch a Horse,” seems to strike a positive nerve with folks. It feels good when I play it at a show and people applaud from the very first chords. I don’t know quite what nerve it strikes, but the song seems to mean different things to different people. It can be taken literally by the cowboy crowd or metaphorically by the town and city folks, but they all seem to get it on some level. I’ve been through a whole lot since I wrote that song and in many ways it tells my story and keeps telling it, or as I say, “There’s a whole lot of me in that song.”
ML: You once had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Institute. Was this an odd gig to do?
RWH: Yes, it was odd, but sometimes odd is good. It was the 1992 American Folklife Festival held on the National Mall. You know that long strip of grass between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building. Well they chose to host New Mexico and so the National Mall was made home to New Mexican cowboys, Indians, horses, cattle and sheep. I was doing double duty as their “cowboy singer” on the sound stage and then I’d get on my horse and give cattle roping demonstrations using Mexican steers in corrals that they had put up and then I’d stick around to help the Charros give their demonstration before I’d climb the stage to bang out another set of cowboy songs. It was the middle of July and HOT and HUMID in D.C., but it was a blast and there were literally thousands of people that showed up every day to get a taste of our little corner of the West. We rode the subway with our spurs on and rode our horses to the Capitol and White House for receptions. This went on for two weeks and almost every evening after supper we’d gather in our hotel ballroom for Mexican, Spanish, Hopi, Navajo and yes, cowboy music. It was a once in a lifetime experience and the memories will last forever.
But speaking of odd, the oddest was the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam with the Charlie Daniels Band, Little Richard, Roy Acuff, Ted Nugent, Marshall Tucker, Kris Kristofferson, the Righteous Brothers and little ol’ me. This was back before music was my career and I was scared and excited all at the same time, but big Charlie and his manager, Dave Corlew, pushed me out in front of 15,000 people and I started to sing and loved it. It seemed surreal to have such a diversity of talent on one show; I mean the stretch between Roy Acuff singing the “Wabash Cannonball” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” – Wow! And there was this whole back stage scene. All these folks I’d grown up hearing on radio and records and seeing on TV were milling around back stage waiting their turn just like me. I remember walking up to Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley and asking him what time it was. He said he didn’t know and asked me for a light. I said I didn’t have one but there I stood chatting with one of the great male voices of all time. It just didn’t seem real and was so odd to me because everyone but me acted as though it was all perfectly normal. The Nashville paper mentioned me as Charlie Daniels’ new discovery, but as the limo drove away I went back home to my cowboy job at $35.00 a day. That was a ‘heady’ gig with a reality check thrown in for good measure. Yes it was odd, but the memory still makes me smile.
ML: How has your faith helped you as a Cowboy Troubadour in the perilous 21st century?
RWH: My faith is very personal, but not private, and while I don’t try to push my spirituality on anyone, it is such a strong force within me that it can’t be compartmentalized, and so, naturally, it has a tendency to show up in the words of my music and the songs I record and sing. My ability to sing, entertain and move people emotionally is not of my doing, it is a gift from God to be shared and I am merely the vehicle to share it. I must add that I am truly blessed to be able to make a living doing something I enjoy that also brings others joy. On a more practical and tangible note; my faith has, many times, gotten me through the trials of life. God has been with me through death, divorce and cancer; giving me peace when life didn’t make sense.
R.W. has played everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to Washington, DC, from Europe to Australia, and all points between. When he’s not on the road performing, he’s living and working on his own ranch, the Clearview Ranch, in New Mexico with his wife and family. An honest-to-God Cowboy in the truest sense of the word, thank you for all these years of greatness!
To learn more about R.W. Hampton’s life, music and the Cowboy way, go to his website, http://www.rwhampton.com/