A Cowboy Crooner Returns

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers '86 / July / August 2005
April 28th, 2007

Dogie Music by Skip Gorman '71 and the Waddie Pals (Old West, skipgorman.com).

As a Rhode Island native who crafted his own concentration in Latin American studies and later taught in a fancy prep school, Skip Gorman has a mighty unlikely resume for a cowboy musician.

Yet on Dogie Music, Gorman sounds as if he was born to play the songs of the wide-open American West. That's because Gorman has been digging down to the roots of American music, from the blue yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers to the hard-driving mandolin of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe, since he was a kid. Gorman's first record of cowboy ballads and old-time fiddle tunes came out in 1977, and he has brought both musical and musicological sophistication to the world of American traditional song ever since. (Not too many cowboy records include, as Dogie Music does, a bibliography in the liner notes.)

Gorman's take on western music is much broader and deeper than the glossy repertoire associated with Hollywood's cowboy crooners. On Dogie Music, Gorman rides "The Old Chisolm Trail" with a "ten-dollar horse and a forty-dollar saddle" and walks the "Streets of Laredo" in one of several dying-cowboy laments. But many of the CD's highlights come from less obvious sources, like the feisty Texas tune "There's a Brown Skin Gal Down the Road Somewhere," led by the barnstorming twin fiddles of Gorman and Ruthie Dornfeld. Elsewhere Gorman and his first-rate band play a yodeling square-dance tune, a contemporary song written in a traditional vein (Utah Phillips's lovely "The Goodnight-Loving Trail"), and a couple of Mexican-flavored waltzes.

Gorman has a natural voice for this music - smooth yet casual, supple as old leather - and bandmates Mary Burdette, Tom Sauber, and Patrick Sauber add sweet vocal harmonies. On the CD's most haunting track, "Utah Carroll," Gorman pares down to the primal sound of voice and fiddle to tell the mournful tale of a cowboy lost in a stampede. This ballad dates from around 1880, and Gorman's performance takes us as close to a frontier campfire as most of us are likely to get.

In addition to singing, Gorman plays guitar and fiddle, andÊ his Waddie Pals complete the vintage string-band sound with bass, mandolin, and fiddle, plus a touch of banjo and accordion. For all the fine playing here, though, Dogie Music has no trace of instrumental flash or showmanship. Old-time music is all about groove, melody, and storytelling, and Gorman's love and respect for tradition shine through.

"You may forget the singer," he suggests in the closing line of "Bad Companions," "but don't forget this song."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 2005