Editor’s note: This story originally aired on December 14th, 2012.
Wyoming is still a frontier of sorts, a place where many continue to hunt in wide open spaces. And sometimes they sing about it, too. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that Julian Saporiti is collecting those cowboy poets’ songs to share with others.
ZHOROV: Julian Saporiti is not from Wyoming…
JULIAN SAPORITI: Like this how not-Wyoming or Western I am. I’ve never ridden a horse in my life. I’ve been on a pony ride going around in a circle in a grocery store parking lot when I was 6. That’s the extent of my cowboyisms.
ZHOROV: Saporiti is from Tennessee, and he came to the University of Wyoming for graduate school.
Currently, the Department of American Studies at UW is working on an exhibit called the Art of the Hunt, about hunting in Wyoming and artisanal objects of the hunt. The curators wanted to create an emotional component to the exhibit, which is slated to open in 2014. Saporiti, a musician with an interest in ethnomusicology, thought song could easily do that…
SAPORITI: I thought how could I bring that expertise to, aspiring expertise anyways, to this project and I thought there’s got to be a lot of song writers in this state, relatively speaking, who grew up hunting and how that affected their music and themselves as artists.
ZHOROV: So, he set out to find the cowboy poets of Wyoming.
HUB WHITT: My name is Hub Whitt.
SAPORITI: This fella Hub Whitt had rented the continental breakfast room in the Day’s Inn on the outskirts of Sheridan. In the recording you can hear the buzz of the juice machine in the background.
ZHOROV: Whitt is from Wyoming, and he’s been hunting, guiding, and singing here for decades.
SAPORITI: He’s got a wood leg, and at one point he stood up and the photographer noticed that he had like a semi-automatic hand gun tucked into the back of his pants. I guess he needed it on the ranch or something where he was working. But it was just this amazing juxtaposition of this one-legged, gun-wielding, dressed to the nines cowboy singing songs to us in a continental breakfast room of a Day’s Inn on the outskirts of Sheridan. For my first month in Wyoming, this was an amazing experience, but he had amazing stories and some really good songs.
ZHOROV: Whitt told a story from his guiding days, in the late 1980s, when he had to kill a bunch of horses because they didn’t get out of camp in time before a big snow storm came in.
WHITT: We got everything packed up and we had to cross the Yellowstone River. Some of those horses were so bad, we couldn’t get out of there…The only thing we could do was shoot them.
ZHOROV: Whitt’s songs are clearly an extension of these experiences and the Wyoming landscape. He says where hunting and song writing intersect for him is in the detail, in close observation during a hunt, in meticulous descriptions in a song.
His song Thoroughfare River, which has never been recorded, is one he wrote for another guide, about going out.
[Hub Whitt: Thoroughfare River]
Saporiti said the songs he recorded were rarely about hunting, per se.
SAPORITI: It would be songs involving hunting, songs that took place on a hunt, music that they played while guiding hunts, so it was a lot of the periphery of the hunt. It was almost like if hunting is like such a big passion, parallel to music, it’s almost like two things that fill the same spiritual place in you.
ZHOROV: He also said the cowboy poets he met during his field work were vastly different.
Dave Munsick has been in Wyoming for 30 years. He’s a high school science teacher in Dayton and has been a professional musician since he was 15. When he was learning to play, he took inspiration from everyone from John Coltrane to Bob Dylan, Bach, Charlie Pride, and old time fiddling…
[Dave Munsick – Real Women]
He’s moved away from hunting more towards fly fishing.
SAPORITI: The parallels that he drew was that in fly fishing you have to take a step back sometimes, it’s just not working, that one spot isn’t working, you just keep going, you just have to take a step back and look at the whole river and then you’ll have success. He said that’s exactly how his song writing is sometimes. You just can’t hammer home a verse…
ZHOROV: Munsick plays in a band with two of his sons.
[Dave Munsick song – Medicine to me]
Saporiti says as an outsider and a non-hunter he went into the project with, perhaps, romanticized notions of what he’d find in Wyoming. And though he’s conscious of such notions, he’s also not too worried about them…
SAPORITI: I think life could use just a little bit more romance, to be honest with you. So, you gotta be objective certainly and keep that as a tool in your arsenal, but for anyone out there covering people, don’t be afraid to be affected by these people and just make note that you are and realize it. I think the truth is romantic a lot of the time.
ZHOROV: Bryan Ragsdale, who’s from a Wyoming family of miners and ranchers, and sang for Saporiti with some accompaniment from his young daughter, might agree…
[Bryan Ragsdale – Wyoming raised]