By Tara Bennett
Break out your cowboy hats and boots with the spurs because Jason Petty and his Swinging Cowboys are returning to Baton Rouge.
With a set that echoes the old days of the West and period costumes, Petty says audiences should be prepared to clap their hands, stomp their feet and sing along because they’ll know all the songs in his show “Swinging Cowboys: A Tribute to the Great Songs of the West.”
“We call it a tribute to the Great American West and that is exactly what it is,” said Petty. “We do sort of a historical narrative and tell you some of the stories of how the songs came about, and the different trends in Western music through the years.”
This trip down memory lane starts with establishing the Old West cowboy in the 1800s and the songs they sang, then moves into the songs the settlers brought with them, and then moves into the era of modern media such as movies, radio and television.
“That’s when the Western music movement really got huge,” said Petty.
According to Petty, the show is called Swinging Cowboys because of singing cowboys and western swing music, which is vastly highlighted in the show. Petty teams up with artist Carolyn Martin, who was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Fall of Fame in 2011.
“She’s a pretty big deal, I’m just the guy who introduces her,” said Petty.
“Swingin’ Cowboys” features Petty, Martin and her band performing such favorites as Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” Roy Rogers’ “Don’t Fence Me In,” Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by Sons of the Pioneers. Other selections include the folk songs “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and “Red River Valley.”
“We take you chronologically through the history of Western music in America and we got some of the best Western swing musicians on the planet too,” said Petty.
According to Petty, these songs originated from the old Celtic folk ballad.
“They had no repeating chorus like we do today,” said Petty. “Every verse told a story and kept the story moving forward. That’s the way these songs are, very rarely do you find a repeating chorus in these songs, especially in the old Westerns.”
Petty’s own favorite story from the days of the West is how John Wayne was originally a singing cowboy.
“He got his start as a singing cowboy but decided it wasn’t manly enough for him and then replaced him with Gene Autry who became the king of the singing cowboys,” said Petty.
Born and raised in Manchester, Tenn., Petty spent his summers on his grandparents’ 200-acre farm nearby Primm Springs — listening to his grandmother sing gospel music and his grandfather croon country songs. His father, meanwhile, was a fan of the singing cowboys who rode across the silver screen in the 1930s and ‘40s. Petty himself was a fan of bands such as AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne, but rediscovered a love for country in the late 1980’s.
As a performer, Petty got started primarily in the country genre of acting. In 1996 he was selected to play the role of Hank Williams Sr. in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway” where he played the role for two years at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry. Petty won an Obie Award in 2003 for playing Williams and has paid tribute to the late legend in his shows “Hank & My Honky Tonky Heroes” and “Country Royalty: A Tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.”
“That one role opened the door to so many people in the music business and being inquisitive and a historian by nature, I always wanted to know why someone wrote a song or what was going on in the time period, what made it such a huge hit,” said Petty. “We try to put that into perspective for the audience. It’s less like a concert and more theatrical.”
His experience performing in “Lost Highway” inspired him to create his own shows paying tribute to his country music heroes. He created “Swinging Cowboys” in honor of his dad, who was never seen without his cowboy hat and boots.
“Plus I love the history,” said Petty. “We romanticize the Old West so much that sometimes we forget the true life and death struggle that they had that they put into their music as well.”
This will be Petty’s third time performing in the Manship Theatre and he is especially excited to share these legendary songs with Baton Rouge.
“I kind of fell in love with Louisiana,” said Petty. “The only thing I don’t like about Louisiana is the gators and the snakes. But the food is awesome, the people are wonderful and they continue to come out and support us.”
“The Swingin’ Cowboys: A Tribute to the Music of the Great American West”
7:30 p.m. Friday