“T hat’s where you’ll find me
Where the big back country lies
There the cowboy’s free to ride
Out under New Mexico skies”
That’s the chorus from “Under New Mexico Skies” by longtime East Mountains resident and veteran Western music performer Syd Masters.
In 2009, New Mexico designated “Under New Mexico Skies” the state’s official cowboy song. It’s a good choice, paying tribute as it does to rolling piñon mesas, sly roadrunners, singing coyotes, adobe walls and a loping cowboy who loves it all.
It’s difficult to believe the man who wrote the song was not born in the saddle
under New Mexico skies. Fact is, Masters was born and grew up in the woods and water country of rustic Wisconsin.
“We had a house in Waukesha, but we summered at a cabin on a lake in Wabeno,” Masters, 53, said in a phone interview from his home in the “far fringes of the East Mountains” near Edgewood.
“There was a lot of music around the cabin in Wisconsin,” he said. “My whole family – my parents and three older sisters – are all musicians and singers. My first instrument was the saxophone. But there was a piano in the cabin, a white upright that looked out over that nature and that water. You couldn’t help but want to play that piano.”
Despite his far-north roots, Masters said he always wanted to live in the West.
“My dad’s father, Roy Masters, was from Wisconsin, but he cowboyed in northern New Mexico, southern Colorado and some in Arizona in the early 20th century. He would tell us some stories and sing us some cowboy songs. That was my introduction to Western music.”
New music series
Masters has been working the Western music scene full time for more than 20 years now. He does 130 to 140 dates a year, performing either solo or with his trio the Swing Riders (Gary Roller on bass and Uncle Bob – just Uncle Bob – on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and banjo).
“I don’t play clubs and dance halls regularly anymore, except for places like the Range (Cafe) in Bernalillo,” he said. “I play private shows, conventions, business parties, a lot of trail rides throughout the West and a lot of music festivals.” For the past nine summers he has been the featured entertainment for Cowboy Evenings at Bobcat Pass Wilderness Adventures in Red River.
Now, he has signed on to be the first guest artist in a new Western music series launched by fellow New Mexico singer-songwriter Jim Jones. Masters and Jones will do two sets in the inaugural “Western’s Best at the Best Western” program, 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, at the Cork & Tap Restaurant inside the Rio Grande Best Western, 1015 Rio Grande NW.
“Our first set will be a songwriter set,” Jones said. “Some people may not know some of Syd’s wonderful ballads – ‘Cottonwood Snow,’ ‘Last Five Minutes’ – that he doesn’t have the opportunity to play at dances. The second set will be more up-tempo and lively.”
Jones is an Albuquerque resident whose long list of Western music honors include winning the Western Writers of America Spur Award for songwriting in 2013 and 2017 and writing “It’s a Cowboy I Will Be,” the 2019 International Western Music Association song of the year.
He plans to present a series program every other month at the Cork & Tap. So far the scheduled includes:
• March 10: Jill Jones (no relation to Jim), Western performer who grew up in the Texas Hill Country in the 1950s but recently bought a home in Santa Fe.
• May 12: Randy Huston, singer, songwriter and rancher who calls Rociada, N.M., home.
“We’ll have everything from the great traditional songs to original compositions by contemporary songwriters,” Jones said. “There are some super-talented people you are never going to hear about because they are not on the radio, they’re not in the news. But they write songs about the West, they’re fun and they’re thought provoking.”
Roy and me
This past year was a banner year for Masters. His CD “Sunset on the Rio Grande Revisited,” won the prestigious Western Heritage Wrangler Award, presented by Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, for best traditional Western album; he received the IWMA’s Presidents Award for outstanding contributions to the organization; and the New Mexico Music Industry presented him a Best Remake award for his recording of Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballad “Big Iron.”
Another Robbins’ ballad, “El Paso,” the story of a cowboy who goes on the run after shooting another man down in a jealous rage, is one of Masters’ favorite Western songs.
“It’s a good example of what I like about traditional Western music,” he said. “It tells a story with vivid lyrics. It’s just such a skill to keep the imagery going throughout the lyrics so that you can follow it all the way through.”
Masters’ mom and dad moved to Albuquerque, and he followed as soon as he could. He has lived in the East Mountains since the late 1980s. But, in a sense, settling in New Mexico was like coming home because of the stories and songs he heard from his cowboy grandfather, Roy.
“He sang and played guitar, both poorly,” Masters said of his grandfather. “He sounded authentic, like an old Smithsonian recording.”
These days, as befits a Western musician, Masters plays guitar. He has a pile of them but only performs with one – a late 1960s nylon string instrument with Brazilian rosewood sides and backs.
“It’s special and an excellent guitar as well,” he said. “I call it Roy.”