ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s difficult to say what came first for Albuquerque’s Jim Jones — his love of music, his love of story or his love of the West.
The thing is all three likely settled in his psyche at the exact same instant, when he was just 4 years old. That’s when he heard his father singing “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” the theme song for “High Noon,” the classic 1952 Western movie starring Gary Cooper.
I do not know what fate awaits me.
I only know I must be brave.
For I must face a man who hates me,
Or lie a coward, a craven coward;
Or lie a coward in my grave.
“It’s the kind of thing that gets imprinted on your mind,” said Jones, 67, a Western singer-songwriter and the author of four novels about the Old West. “I knew it was a song from the movies, so it was a story. Because I knew movies were like big TV.”
However, it was not until he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin in 1969 that Jones zeroed in on the passions that have shaped him into the award-winning musician and writer he is today.
“Once I got into Austin, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, all these people were playing songs and telling stories. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do,” Jones said during a recent interview at the Corrales Bistro Brewery, an area venue he often plays. “I identified with the singer-songwriter aspect of it. Murphey was writing contemporary Western songs. ‘Wildfire’ is a Western song.”
Smart enough to realize you can be an exceptional singer and musician and still starve to death, Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from UT Austin in 1972 and ’75 respectively and worked at a psychiatric hospital near Dallas before moving to New Mexico in 1991 and continuing his psychology career in the Albuquerque area, including four years as a counselor with the Rio Rancho Public Schools.
He weaved his singing and playing, his writing of songs and fiction, into the seams of his psychology work until retiring several years ago. Along the way, he won the New Mexico Music Awards’ 2009 Western song of the year for “The Cowboys of New Mexico”; won Western Writers of America Spur awards in songwriting for “Texas is Burnin'” in 2013 and, with songwriting buddy Allan Chapman, for “Halfway Down the Devil’s Road” this year; and was named the Western Music Association’s male performer of the year in 2014.
Since retiring from psychology, Jones averages two weeks out of each month on the road, traveling 50,000 miles a year to do 75 to 100 music shows annually. He is, as the title of one of his songs says, “Livin’ the Dream.” But, as the lyrics in that song note, “that’s harder than you think.”
Jones will be in the thick of the Western Music Association Convention Wednesday, Nov. 8, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Hotel Albuquerque. The Cowboy Way, a trio made up of Jones, Doug Figgs of Lemitar and Mariam Funke of Socorro, will perform during the WMA showcase from 3-5 p.m. Saturday.
And Jones will be at the WMA awards show Saturday evening. He is nominated again for male performer of the year. The Cowboy Way is up for duo or group of the year. And The Cowboy Way’s self-titled debut album is nominated for traditional Western album of the year. Earlier this year, that album won a prestigious Wrangler Award, presented by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Conceived during a 1988 meeting of Western music performers in Las Vegas, Nev., the WMA is a national organization consisting of 895 members. An average of 250 members attend the national conventions. This is the 12th year the convention has been held in Albuquerque.
Jones attended his first WMA convention in 2003 in Wichita, Kan. He said the experience was like finding his tribe, fellow singer-songwriters and performers who have become close friends, influences and collaborators. Each convention is like a reunion.
“I get to see a whole bunch of people I like a lot and brag about,” Jones said. “We catch up, swap stories and jam. Sometimes you get to hear people you haven’t heard before. It’s fun to see the younger performers get better and better. And, if you happen to pick up an award or two that’s nice. But when you lose, it isn’t — or so far it hasn’t been — fatal.”
It’s not country
Often lumped together in many people’s minds with country music, Western music is, in fact, its own distinctive form. Its songs are about the Old West and the New West, about Western landscapes, wildlife and lifestyles.
You’ll still hear new outlaw songs and new cowpuncher songs. Jones’ 1991 song “Rustler’s Moon” is a bad-hombre ballad so potent it could not be confined to lyrics. Jones expanded the song’s story into his first novel, also titled “Rustler’s Moon,” published in 2009. And “Smoke of the Brandin’ Fire,” a 2010 song Jones co-wrote with his pal Chapman, is a lonesome cowpoke song plain and simple. It’s about a cowboy who loses a woman he loves because he loves his puncher life more.
I heard you’re getting married, guess this letter’s overdue,
But I been standin’ in the smoke of the brandin’ fire.
However, Jones can turn around and write a song ripped right out of yesterday’s headlines. His 2013 Spur Award winner, “Texas is Burnin’,” is about the devastating drought and fires that plagued his native state just a few years ago. And “Halfway Down the Devil’s Road,” the song that won Jones and Chapman a Spur this year, might sound like a Wild West outlaw song but can just as easily be heard as a commentary on today’s political scene.
Jones’ view is that whether its themes are traditional or groundbreaking, Western music is evolving. It’s not back in the saddle with decades-old songs by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. People who love Western music, he believes, want new songs by the likes of him and Chapman, Dave Stamey, Mary Kaye and younger artists such as Mikki Daniel, Kristyn Harris and Leah and David Sawyer.
“People who grew up with the Sons of the Pioneers (“Cool Water,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”) are open to new material,” he said. “People who love music want to hear new stuff.”
Where’s your horse?
These days you are not likely to see Jim Jones without a cowboy hat. It is as much a part of who he is as his white goatee. Take either away and you might not recognize him.
And even though he lives in New Mexico, he is for sure a Texan. He was born in Fort Worth, the son of an industrial engineer father and a newspaper reporter mother. He lived briefly in Houston and was settled in Beaumont by the time he was 6. He graduated from Beaumont’s French High School in 1968.
Despite his Texas roots, Jones strayed from the Western trail when he was a youngster. As you might expect of a teenager in the 1960s, he was inspired by musical groups such as Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Animals.
“I was influenced by pop music — the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle. Paul Simon is a storyteller,” Jones said. “I played piano then, played keyboard with friends in garage bands. And they really were garage bands because we never played anywhere except in garages.”
Today, Jones’ fingers smoke through guitar strings like he was the front man for a heavy metal band. He plays a pretty mean mandolin and darn good dobro, too. But he didn’t take up stringed instruments until after high school. He bought his first guitar in a Houston pawn shop. Not long after that, he discovered that singer-songwriter scene in Austin.
After college, 1976-83, he was in a group called the Irish Texans, made up of people with whom he worked at that hospital near Dallas.
“We played Irish pub songs, Irish fighting songs and ballads and then we’d play Willie (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings), who were really big then,” Jones said.
The Irish Texans toured Ireland three times and Canada once. And they wore cowboy hats. Not because they were cowboys, but because they were Texans.
“The cowboy hats were always good to start a conversation in Ireland,” he said. “Even now people see the hat and ask ‘Where’s your horse?'”
He takes the hat seriously. It’s part of the West, part of the music, part of the story.
“There are people who just like good stories,” he said. “The live in the middle of Dallas and never wanted to be a cowboy, but they want to hear the stories, hear what’s good about the Western values and the cowboy lifestyle — hard work and sticking to it.”
Jim Jones usually ends his set with “Long May You Ride,” a song he wrote more than 15 years ago. It’s about cowboys trapped in a time they don’t fit.
Who’s gonna pass along the stories, tell all the old cowboy tales …
Who’s gonna hang on to their mem’ries, cherish all the legends of the West
Jones answers the questions as he sings the song.