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This Here State's Got Itself a Tune

By Polly Summar
Journal Staff Writer
       SANTA FE — Well, whoopi ti yi yo — New Mexico finally has a state cowboy song.
    Well, almost. It still has to be voted on by the Legislature during its 2009 session.
    Called "Under New Mexico Skies," the song was written and sung by Syd Masters of Edgewood.
    The song was chosen by a small group of intrepid members of the New Mexico Music Commission who gathered at the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe Wednesday morning, armed with chocolate and cookies. They listened to recordings from 26 entrants in the contest.
    The sustenance was required because judging a good cowboy song, and distinguishing it from other musical forms, apparently can be as difficult as ropin' a lil' dogie.
    First, you have to distinguish between a "Western" song and a "cowboy" song.
    "A Western song and a cowboy song are close," said Rick Huff, a music commissioner and president of the New Mexico chapter of the Western Music Association. "A Western song can incorporate more of locale. But a cowboy song covers life, loves, lore, locale and legacy of the North American cowboy."
    And in this case, there were specific criteria, including:
    * Traditionality — Does the song fit within the genre of cowboy song?
    * Quality — Is the song good enough to represent New Mexico in perpetuity?
    * Relevance to New Mexico — Does the song adequately extol the beauty and benefits of our fair state?
    * Originality — Does the song have a unique and original melody and lyrics?
    Masters is a former Wabeno, Wisc., boy who moved to New Mexico about 25 years ago — long enough to officially qualify for composing his adopted state's official cowboy song.
    When the Legislature approved a competition for a state cowboy song in 2007, one of the first requirements was that entrants had to have either been born here or lived in New Mexico consecutively for the past 20 years. Lawmakers later reduced the requirement to 10 years.
    New Mexico already has an official Western song, "Land of Enchantment," by Michael Martin Murphey, known for hits like "Wildfire." But its selection was controversial, according to the Music Commission's vice chairman, Claude Stephenson.
    "There were a lot of cowboy-Western singers who thought it was a travesty," said Stephenson. "He (Murphey) was considered an outsider and doesn't live here anymore." Murphey's Web site in fact describes him as "a lifetime resident and loyal son of Texas."
    On Wednesday afternoon, the Music Commission and the Journal left calls on Masters' message machine telling him of his win, but he couldn't be reached for comment. Stephenson said Masters was probably setting up at the Western Music Association Festival, which begins today at the Albuquerque Marriott.
    Masters is not a cowboy but his grandfather was, and Grandpa used to roam around northern New Mexico and southern Colorado and come back to Wabeno to regale his grandson with stories and cowboy songs, Masters told the Journal in 2003.
    Some of the lines from losing entrants were catchy enough to stick in a body's head, as in "I like a steak with a future and a past." And the number of yippy yi yos scattered through the entries was substantial.
    As commissioner Marcia Beverly said, "You have to wade through a lot of fishin' holes to find the right grouper."
    Even before the contest, Murphy's Web site biography said the song "was given the honorable title of 'Official Cowboy Song of the State of New Mexico' by Governor Bill Richardson."
    Stephenson said, "Oh, I think Bill just said that one time to Syd. And Syd's been touting that ever since."
    Either way, Masters will get no money for the title — just the honor of having his song sit next to "O Fair New Mexico" in the state's reference volume, the Blue Book.