On a sunny summer afternoon, a group of cowboys took to the outdoor stage in front of the Raphael Hotel on the Plaza and started singing in four-part harmonies.
That band, 3 Trails West, is one of the only practitioners of cowboy music in Kansas City — and has been named the band of the year by the Academy of Western Artists and the Western Music Association.
But what exactly is cowboy music? It isn’t country music. Or country-western.
“It’s sort of the music you’d hear in the old Westerns, the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry western shows,” 3 Trails West member Leo Eilts told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “There’s very little percussion, generally no drums, and it’s done with all-acoustic instruments.”
“It’s Americana,” said Leo’s brother and bandmate Roger Eilts. “It’s about doing the right thing, the cowboy way. Your word is your honor.”
The music traces its origins to the 1930s and became popular during the Depression.
No one knows where the songs started, said Leo. Cowboys led a solitary existence as they tended cattle and worked the ranch, and the songs they wrote got passed around and became ingrained in popular culture, he said.
The heritage of some of these cowboys has also influenced the music.
“These guys were immigrants. They were from Ireland and Germany and all over. And so you will hear remnants of folk tunes in some of the songs,” said Roger.
With the four-part harmonies, the sound is similar to barbershop quartets, which pre-dated and influenced cowboy music.
“We’re all baritones, and that gives us an opportunity to get those dense-sounding harmonies packed together like that,” said Leo.
“The harmonies are very difficult,” added Roger. Their group basically consists of a vocal trio and an instrumental trio, he added.
“The vocal trio will work endless hours on these tunes and we’ll take a phrase, maybe two bars, and work it over and over again to make sure those intervals are perfect,” he said. “It’s some of the hardest music I’ve ever played.”
The Eilts brothers grew up on a farm in Rush Center, Kansas, where they delivered newspapers by horseback as kids. Their father was a truck driver and farmer, and their mother was their music teacher in grammar school.
She also played in polka bands on Friday and Saturday nights, and played the church organ on Sundays, sometimes without sleeping, they said.
“When we would travel, we would sing. I guess that kept us from fighting,” said Roger. Their mother would sing, and if one of the boys picked up the harmony, she’d switch to another harmony.
Roger got a degree in vocal music performance at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. He moved to Kansas City in the mid-1980s and helped start a band called Total Strangers, an electric bluegrass band with drums.
After 10 years, they started another band, Spontaneous Combustion, which played together for 21 seasons until one of the band members moved away.
The remaining members didn’t want to quit, and they had always wanted a cowboy band. So, on a long trip back from a gig in southwest Kansas, they came up with a concept and name, and they even made a few phone calls to round up players.
The cowboy allure has been with the brothers for a long time. They wore Western-style clothing as kids, and now, they say, it’s great to play dress-up.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” said Leo. “Because when we get on stage, we want to be big and have a big show.”
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.