Gary McMahan, cowboy singer/songwriter/yodeler, poet and raconteur of the old school, is no stranger to the Top of Utah. He has played old-time railroad banquets, concerts, cowboy poetry festivals. If it’s a cowboy event of some kind, McMahan has probably played it.
He returns to the area to play the Middleton House Concert on Monday, Oct. 15. Due to possible inclement weather, the concert is being presented at the Plain City Senior Center.
McMahan is no greenhorn turned poet. He comes by the cowboy way honestly, growing up mostly in the cowtown of Greeley, Colo., where his father trucked cattle.
“I always worked with the guys that he did,” said McMahan, calling from a Hawaiian restaurant in Windsor, Colo. “I was sort of a cowkid, hanging around corrals and feedlots and rodeo arenas in northern Colorado.”
Hanging out with all of those cowfolk, he became steeped in music by artists like Marty Robbins and Sons of the Pioneers from an early age.
But it was a high school assignment, of all things, that launched him as an entertainer.
“In high school. I had a speech class and one of the requirements was you had to do something, recite or interpret or debate, for a speech contest. There was this poem in Western Horseman magazine, “Croppy the Cow Horse,” and I memorized that poem. It really was just to get by and to get out of that class. But I won the regional division with that poem and then I took state, which flabbergasted everyone — including me.”
A natural reciter
With that first high school performance, McMahan knew he loved performing.
“A little light came on. I thought, ‘I don’t have to play football or ride bulls, I can still get girls by doing poems.’ It didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time, but I figured out later I had a talent that not everyone had.”
After a tour in the Navy, McMahan decided to try his hand at songwriting in Nashville, Tenn.
“I bummed around there for several years, and had some success. Chris LeDoux kept recording my songs, and Ian Tyson did a few and, all of a sudden, I was a cowboy songwriter. But I still wasn’t making a living at it, so I came back home and got a job guiding an outfitter in Colorado. Then the poetry gatherings happened.”
Although cowboy poetry and song has its origins in the earliest cowboying days — from horseback, riders used the verse and song to calm spooked cattle — the festivals and gatherings that celebrate western music and verse came to be in the mid-1980s.
“I released an album in 1980 that was the first cowboy album to come out in years,” said McMahan. “So I kind of had a jump on all that stuff.”
Yodel for cash
McMahan credits Baxter Black, large animal vet, cowboy poet and yarn spinner, for helping him get a foothold in western music and poetry circles.
“He (Black) cornered me and said, ‘You can really do this. You are a good entertainer, and, heck, you can even yodel.’ And he started throwing me shows, letting me open.” McMahan chuckled. “It was kind of self-serving of him, because he knew I would not drop the ball. I would hold his ground for him, and he knew he would be able to come back to that place and do another show.”
As for writing his own western songs, McMahan said he started that while still in the Navy, serving in Philadelphia.
“The first song I wrote was there, called ‘Daydream Cowboy.’ I had no designs at that time to be a cowboy singer, though I did play in a band in high school, and had played drums and guitars, sang in choirs, all my life. That song was from the heart. I was homesick.”
Yodeling came a bit later. He was a fan of Wilt Carter, aka Montana Slim, and would practice along with his records. But McMahan said he refined his yodeling chops while working as a stagecoach driver for tourists in Colorado.
“I got more people on my stage by yodeling for eight hours at a stretch — and I got pretty good at it. There have been people who call me the best cowboy yodeler, living or dead. I don’t go there, except to say you can listen to me, and then to the old guys, and can decide. It’s not something you have to intellectually process, like you do a lyric or poem. Yodeling is pure emotion.”
You do need a few tools in your arsenal to successfully yodel, said McMahan.
“You have to have a falsetto, to sing in it, to strengthen it, and also a regular chest voice. Then you need to know how to shift between the two. Yodeling is hard, and that’s kind of cool, because not everyone can do it, so that sets you apart from the herd.”
Set the scene
Of all the things he does to entertain folks, McMahan says that performing music is the hardest.
“You can take a poem and as long as you have stage presence and timing, you can do that well. Music requires melody, you have to get into the lilt. It takes several more levels of skill.”
But there is an art to storytelling as well, whether it be prose or poetry.
“Have a good story to start with,” said McMahan. “Then, take an ax to it. You don’t need to tell all the particulars. If you have a sunset, just mention a sunset — they have their own sunset in their head. They can see their idea of the sunset more clearly if you get out of the way.”
Prepare to see McMahan delve deep into his talent satchel for the Middleton House Concert. There will be stories, poems, songs and yodels to be had.
“I think it will be a good one for all ages,” said McMahan. “OK, some of the teens roll their eyes a bit, but the younger kids go out of there yodeling every time. And for the old folks, you have to do an old Sons of the Pioneers song to gain their respect. Then you can introduce some new songs to them, and they’ll like them.
“I’m hoping this show will give that scene around Ogden a little boost. The Western feeling and spirit definitely exists up there.”