By Karen Peterson
“Most Western songs have a lot of chords,” says the ukulele-playing cowboy Sid Hausman. “Ukes are perfect for that.”
For audiences unaccustomed to the ukulele being front-and-center in Western music, hearing it today can be a pleasant surprise. As one New Mexico DJ wrote in an email after she received a copy of Hausman’s latest album, Blue Horizon, “I didn’t know I liked ukulele so much.”
Credited to Sid Hausman & Washtub Jerry, Blue Horizon is a mix of classic tunes and original songs by Hausman—a baritone and tenor “ukulele roundup” of acoustic music described in these very pages as being “as warm as a Texas campfire.” Released in 2014, the album features guitarist and ukulele player George Langston, fiddler Ollie O’Shea, and vocalist Cappie Hausman, Sid’s wife. It was nominated for the Western Music Association’s Western Swing Album of the Year.
Washtub Jerry, Hausman’s longtime collaborator—“he’s been playing longer than I have,” says Hausman—holds the distinction of being able to play both his washtub bass and the ukulele simultaneously. He was the Western Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 1999. In 2004, the two teamed up on Colorado Belle, their first ukulele album, which was also nominated for the Western Swing Album award that year.
The mix on Blue Horizon includes such classics as the instrumental “Panhandle Rag,” written by steel-guitar great Leon McAuliffe and made famous by his bandleader, Bob Wills, and Hausman originals such as “Continental Divide Waltz,” where the “Ponderosa pines were swaying in time.”
Have Uke, Will Travel
Many cowboys before Hausman strapped on the ukulele—some still do, though not like in the past. From the 1920s and into the 1940s, the diminutive instrument was nearly as common as the guitar around the campfire, a refuge after a long day of wrangling. The compact ukulele, at the time usually a soprano version, traveled well on a horse.
With the mellifluous sounds of the ukulele as his featured instrument, Hausman’s songs are deeply rooted in the cowboy way—celebrations of wide open spaces and the lone prairie, of big skies and the freedom to roam unfettered by fences, of just a lone rider and his horse, maybe a dog.
You get the picture: the real thing.
A longtime performer on the cowboy and folk-music circuit, both in the States and Europe, Hausman traveled with an instrument complement of guitar, Dobro, banjo, harmonica, and bones. He rediscovered the power of the little ukulele on a road trip between gigs with his wife, Cappie. The two were working on vocal harmonies, and, on a whim, Hausman pulled out his keepsake but seldom used soprano ukulele.
“I discovered it was perfect for working out harmonies,” says Hausman, from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I was hooked. That soprano opened doors. I got a tenor ukulele next, then a baritone.”
Today, the tenor and baritone are his performance ukes of choice—he has three, two Martins and a Compass Rose—but the soprano remains dear to his heart and to his roots as a wrangler who’s worked ranches throughout the West. In the 1990s, Hausman was working the famed Rancho Encantado guest ranch in Santa Fe. Owned by the flamboyant Betty Egan, it was a favorite among Hollywood filmmakers and actors shooting Westerns in the surrounding wild and scenic landscape. When Egan died in 1998, Hausman inherited her ukulele.
After a lifetime of ranching and wrangling, Hausman’s musical tributes to the American frontier wear a badge of authenticity, celebrating the cowboy experience and the Native and Hispanic cultures that are central to it. When he picks up his baritone ukulele and dives into the rousing two-four rhythm of Western swing—boot-stomping dance music that guitar great Merle Travis described as “nothing more than a group of talented country boys . . . playing the music they feel”—his cowboy roots leap to the fore.
Whether it’s vintage Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys or a hit from Spade Cooley—two acts who set the West on fire in the mid-20th century—it was Western swing that provided the uke a niche in its heyday.
“It really works in swing as a featured instrument,” says Hausman, providing “a unique approach with its smooth, light, but bright, sound.”
The Cowboy Life, Hawaiian Style
While the uke had its place among the swaying pines of the American West, “Hawaiians were the first cowboys I know of to use ukes” Hausman says. Cowboys, in Hawaii? You bet. After all, the Big Island is home of the quarter-million-acre Parker Ranch, the largest single-owned ranch in the United States and one of the oldest. Founded in 1847, it predates many of Texas’ spacious spreads. So strong in the saddle were the Hawaiian cowboys that they astounded their American counterparts by taking first and third place in 1908’s highly competitive Frontier Days World (Rodeo) Championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
In the early 1830s, after cattle had been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha III hired Mexican-Spanish vagueros from California to teach wrangling to the native Hawaiians. Soon after, Hawaiian cowboys came to be known as paniolas (a corruption of the word español, the language their teachers spoke), and these paniolas gravitated to the instruments that arrived in Honolulu in the late 1870s in the hands of Portuguese immigrants. The tiny stringed instrument, known in Portugal as a braguinha, transfixed the Hawaiians; one nimble Portuguese player, according to legend, so impressed the locals with his finger work that he gave rise to the moniker ukulele—loosely translated as “jumping flea.”
But it wasn’t the Hawaiian cowboys who introduced American cowboys to the ukulele. “They weren’t a big influence on cowboys here,” says Hausman. “They had no access to them or to their music.” For cowboys (and everyone else on the mainland), it was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that inspired ukulele madness.
Not immune to trends, cowboys started buying the mass-produced ukes that flooded the market in the early 20th century. (Hausman still owns a vintage photograph of cowboys with their ukes posed in front of the bunkhouse.) They were affordable, and perhaps more important to those living in rural America, they were available through the Sears catalog.
Although the ukulele eventually found a welcoming home in big-name Western swing bands, it began as the instrument of the common cowboy and roadhouse players who incorporated its sound into their own distinctive music.
What’s more, as the fad continued, it became easier and easier for cowboys—or anyone else—to learn how to play their favorite tunes on the ukulele.
“Old sheet music included all the ukulele chords and the tuning to play for particular songs,” he says. And it wasn’t just Western music that had the uke chords—most all music did, a testament to the ukulele’s widespread popularity.
As far as the ukulele’s popularity in today’s cowboy music, Hausman says he’s seen a bit of an uptick during the past 15 years. These days, he has scaled back on his travels to stick closer to home—for many years, he performed regularly across the United States and in Europe—but there’s no dearth of gigs in the West, counting folk festivals as well as cowboy “gatherings.”
Held from Texas to California to Montana, these weekend food-and-family events include music, rodeo riding, and cowboy poetry reading.
Not long ago, Hausman was busy with performances at the Durango (Colorado) Cowboy Gathering; a week later, he was heading out to Ruidoso, New Mexico, for its annual gathering.
In large part, Hausman and Washtub Jerry are the most notable ambassadors for the cowboy ukulele revival—but he’s not taking anything for granted.
As a kid, Hausman grew up with cowboy icons like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and their ukulele strumming made a lasting impression. Now, he’s playing it forward as an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator.
His 2011 title Emus and Owlhoots, a bronze winner at the annual Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, features ukulele-playing wranglers Handlebar Slim and his sidekick, Washtub, who save the day by foiling, not cattle, but emu rustlers.
Hausman includes a six-song CD with the book, just to make sure young readers can hear as well as see the little instruments that are tailor-made just for them. It’s never too early, it seems, to embark on the cowboy life.