One of the few types of music that isn’t commonly heard in church services here is country and western. That genre, often given over to plaintive laments and wistful quests, hasn’t proven an especially good fit, despite its apparent emotional solidarity with the tone of biblical books like Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations.
Still, a subset of country and western has become the music core of the modern Cowboy Church movement, including both of Galveston County’s cowboy churches.
“There is a difference between cowboy and country music,” said The Rev. Wess Adams of Galveston’s Wild Wild West Cowboy Church, 7402 Stewart Road. “When you look to the well-known origins of cowboy music, you will remember the Sons of the Pioneers, Riders in the Sky, Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Eddy Arnold and of course Stuart Hamblen.”
These past performers, as well as Adams himself, often dressed in duds that were as intricate and colorful as any hierarchical cleric has ever boasted. With fine tailoring, elaborate embroidery, shiny pearl snaps and gleaming rhinestones, cowboy singers have traditionally added visual interest to their craft with their costumes.
Cowboy music’s “DNA” might include walking rhythms, male lead vocals, strummed acoustic guitars and a mix of both major and minor key signatures if subjected to a purely technical analysis, but Adams is more interested in its soul. A graduate of Ben Speer’s Stamps-Baxter School of Music, he offered his own assessment.
“I would say the honesty, simplicity and purity found in the cowboy culture is reflected in cowboy gospel music,” he said. “The music is as true as the Gospel itself. It comes from the heart with the same excellence and care that a cowboy gives to his horse — that is, to the horse that doesn’t run off or head to the barn, but comes to his cowpoke when he whistles.”
Adams suggested that even if you haven’t sampled the Christian version of cowboy music, you might find it pleasing if you already enjoy any of secular tunes such as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Cool Water,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Happy Trails” or “Cattle Call.”
The history of cowboy music in church is unclear, but Stuart Hamblen was the first Adams knows of who gained fame with it. Hamblen, born in 1908 in Kellyville, was at his peak of fame as a popular, secular singer in both movies and radio, when he was converted at the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles.
One year later, Hamblen penned his masterwork, “It is No Secret.” It became the first recording to reach the Top 10 simultaneously on both the sacred and secular charts.
“Hamblen was also the originator of the best cowboy gospel music with tunes like ‘This Ol’ House,’ ‘How Big Is God,’ ‘Until Then’ and ‘Open-Up Your Heart (and Let The Sunshine In),’ Adams said. “His music continues to be recorded today by artists like Willie Nelson, Bill Gaither, Jason Crabb and the Hoppers.”
Adams, who spent much of his own career working with the railroads, moved here several years ago from Nashville. His passion for cowboy music remains undiminished.
“I have enjoyed the benefit of meeting folks all around the world while singing these songs that I love, because they express the love of God,” he said. “I can see the ‘cowboy spirit’ in most folks — it’s that inspiration to not be hobbled or fenced in, but instead to ride the open range and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation where they can discover that Creator desires a relationship with us which is intimate and personal.”
Rick Cousins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.