A modern addition to western music in the spirit of Ian Tyson and Tom Russell
How many people can remember the western in country and western music? It was the early 20th Century music business that came up with the genre name for music that came from Appalachia and the Western parts of America and Canada. While they were clear similarities with a shared history in the music of the British Isles, there were also differences in subject matter and the Mexican influence on western music. Also, western music tended to remain an acoustic music as country went electric. Too often western music was associated with the music of western films with the Sons Of The Pioneers being one of its biggest acts, but it does have a tradition that is as real as its Eastern counterpart in Appalachia. Bluegrass artist Peter Rowan has explored the genre on record, and Ian Tyson of Ian & Sylvia fame has built a second career as a western artist. Also, we can’t forget Dom Flemons’ ‘Black Cowboys’ from 2018. The Wardens are three Canadian National Park wardens, Bradley Bischoff, Ray Schmidt, and Scott Ward, following in this long tradition with their acoustic-based music. ‘Sold Out At The Ironwood’ is their fourth full-length album and while they recorded it under COVID restrictions, they have managed to maintain a spontaneity in the music.
One defining characteristic of western music is its subject matter that concentrates on the life of the cowboy, and the natural environment of the Western landscapes of America and Canada, and the Wardens are perfectly equipped to let their experience as actual wardens flavour their songwriting. The Wardens have an enviable live reputation, and though the new record is a studio recording, they slip two live tracks in at the end to remind their fans of their live experience. ‘Sold Out At The Ironwood’ opens with ‘The Code’ about modern cowboy life with an accordion that may echo Tex-Mex but still retains its Canadian origins. Fiddle is to the fore on ‘The Legend Of Wild Bill’ which explores the fact that a man can be such a part of the landscape that he never left a mark but who was still able to achieve immortality through his own legend. The Wardens’ harmonies are given full reign on ‘Shining Mountain’. Wardens are naturally concerned with the ecological balance of their area, and ‘Timberwolf Reprise’ looks at pest control from the wolf’s perspective. Mandolin is featured in the acoustic mix of ‘The Last Cowboy In The Outfit’. Romance in the wilderness is the subject of ‘Half-Mile Honeymoon’. If you ever wondered what the life of an actual warden is like then the lyrics of ‘Thousand Rescues’ give a very literary insight. The title track, ‘Sold Out At The Ironwood’ is Bradley Bischoff’s homage to fellow singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who Bischoff refers to as the Warden’s Elvis. The life of a third-generation warden is the subject matter for ‘Coming Home’. If you enjoy a country hoedown then your feet will be tapping to ‘Selkirk Snow’. Finally, we have two live tracks to give new listeners a flavour of what they can expect at a Wardens’ show. The first, ‘Neil Colgan’ starts with a preamble outlining the death of a young warden before the song itself kicks in. The final track shows the more humorous and boisterous side of the Wardens with ‘Supper On The Trail’ dealing with the challenges of providing food for working wardens.
The Wardens’ music is definitely at the acoustic folk end of the americana spectrum, and they are able to bring a modern take on a timeless musical tradition that is at the heart of American and Canadian history but is often overlooked in these modern times. If you are a fan of Tom Russell or Ian Tyson then you should give ‘Sold Out At The Ironwood’ a listen. Alternatively, if you enjoy well-played acoustic music with lyrics that are grounded in reality with an ecological bent, you will also find the Wardens a good listen.