What Is 'Western' Music? A Conversation With Musician Corb Lund

Feb 7, 2017

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering brought together musicians old and new last week to celebrate Western style music and storytelling. But what exactly is Western music anyway?

Corb Lund is a Canadian-born and award-winning musician with family ties in Nevada. He was one of the headliners of last week’s festival, and recently sat down with Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick to chat songwriting, Western culture and music.

KUNR: What is cowboy art and what is cowboy music? What does that mean?

Corb Lund: There’s different flavors of it, but its stuff that deals with traditional cowboy culture: like ranching and cattle, and working with animals and horsemanship and that kind of thing.

My stuff is kind of a mix of traditional themes mixed with…my songs are kind of what it’s like to grow up as a cowboy kid and live in the 21st century. A lot of it’s literally old cowboy songs from 100 years ago that people sing, and then there’s artists who do their own stuff like me.

What is that experience like for a younger-generation cowboy musician in the 21st century?

Well it’s a dying thing. It’s been dying since the 1890s really. In those days, there were no fences; it was just wide-open space. Then people started to fence things in and today the work cowboys do today is much different than it was 150 years ago. A lot of it is feed lots and veterinarians and stuff like that, but there are some big ranches, especially out this way, that are still run in the traditional way.

On both sides, my grandparents were the last generation in our family to only make a living just from cattle. My dad had cows, but he’s also a veterinarian.

How do you approach writing music or writing songs?

A lot of my stuff is historical and a lot of it is family-history related. Our people came up from Utah and Nevada at the turn of the century to Alberta and so I write about that sometimes. I like to mix styles together. I kind of approach the whole traditionalist thing with some abandon and irreverence.

What are your thoughts on current country music today?

One thing is that country music and Western music are different. They say in the 50s a DJ put them together as one thing. But country music tends to be more Appalachian-based stuff like Kentucky, Tennessee and that kind of stuff, almost bluegrass-y kind of. Whereas Western music is more like ballads about the West and about cattle and cowboy stuff. So they’re quite different really but they got kind of lumped together.

The country music that’s on the radio is very corporate and it’s no one’s fault really. It’s almost the same as a McDonald’s hamburger versus a home-cooked meal.

I think Western music more about balladry and storytelling probably. It’s not quite as Appalachian in flavor, musically. Traditional Western music has almost more of a folk influence on it. Some of the old cowboy songs are basically folk songs.