A Western Folksy Swing Tradition: Almeda Bradshaw
Call Almeda Bradshaw a traditionalist. You could even describe her as quaint or folksy. But just don’t label her “country.” Indeed, she is quick to note that there are a number of distinctions between the average mainstream country artist and the Western performer she considers herself to be.
“Western music for the most part is positive,” explains Bradshaw. “It has good values, and it brings smiles to people’s faces. Western music today is music that celebrates the rural-ranching lifestyle, singing about ranching, riding, wrangling, roping, respect, responsibility, and hard work. Modern and mainstream country is the drinking, the down and dirty, driving your truck. In a broad sense, modern country, and the mainstream country stuff, is about going fishing at the river with my girl, and it’s drinking and partying, and it’s the ‘bro thing’ in country music. Country is strongly into the party scene.”
Growing up on the Oregon coast, Almeda has always idealized the associations of the Western life style; while other girls her age were collecting sea anemones and starfish and admiring the depths of the ocean, Almeda was daydreaming about riding horses, marrying a cowboy, and living on a ranch.
“It was so totally out of character for my family,” says Bradshaw, who now calls Huntley, Montana home. “But somehow I got from being a wanna-be cowgirl kid riding a tricycle horse on the Oregon coast to where I am now.”
Almeda learned to play the guitar while she was in junior high school, mimicking the popular musicians of the era, such as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album Will the Circle be Unbroken that boosted her love of the old-time, flat-pick bluegrass sound of the 1970s. She first welcomed the piano, the violin, and the cello into her life while in graduate school.
“Life took me from college to career to family, and it wasn’t until 1990 when I met and married someone from north-central Montana, that I began to live that ranching and farming and rural lifestyle. In Big Sandy, I ended up doing those things that I dreamed of as a child.”
While in Big Sandy, she attended a cowboy poetry and music festival at the town’s historical museum, taking special notice of the writings about settlers, farmers, ranchers, lonely horsemen, and resistant women. At that event, she paid close attention to the words and songs about livestock, miners, opportunists, gamblers, and saloon keepers. For the first time, she listened live to the echo of yodeling.
“I knew after that I had found my home, and I began to study and learn, and I immersed myself in it. I started to write songs about Western living, and there was a whole state of discovery of things being opened up to me. I participated locally in little gatherings and, after I moved to Billings in 2008, that’s when the world really opened up, and I started pursuing it on a full-time, professional level.”
Four full-length albums and almost a dozen years later, Bradshaw has conscientiously worked within what she considers “a pretty small niche” of music, performing statewide mostly at community centers and fairs along with a sprinkling of regional festivals. Her inspiration has been the clean, value-laden Gene Autry Western songs, the ones touting values, respect, hard work, and reverence for livestock.
Almeda emphasizes that her catalog has always been Western and with almost encyclopedic recall she likes to examine and explain its differences from other genres.
“In the early 1900s, country used to be sentimental and influenced by Victorian-era morals and standards. It was sweet and sentimental and that continued until after World War II, in what was called the Western Cowboy music of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the silver screen era. The sun was always shining and the sky was always blue, it never rains, and the people are always happy. There was the carry over to Western from the warmth and sentimentality and the values of early century music... After World War II…women and men were carousing and drinking, letting off steam, heading to the honkytonks. That’s where the everybody-done-me-wrong songs started, and when country became an entire era almost totally defined by the honky-tonking, the cheating, the crying in your beer. That divide continues.”
Bradshaw is one of the most visible representations of Western music in Montana. Open Range, The High Country Cowboys, and Wylie & The Wild West would most likely be the genre’s other top ambassadors under the Big Sky. The drawback of such a distinction, she said, is that her featured art form maintains a dwindling listenership base that has become too small and specialized.
“I’ve been in the Western genre going into my eleventh year professionally, and I just did a new project called ‘Between a Horse and Me,’ and it’s probably the last set of Western songs that I have on the shelf, and the last to see the light of recording. I’m going to transition away from that. I will always incorporate it, and the originals will always be in the shows, but I am planning to move into a different direction.”
Almeda and her husband are in the fund raising stages of their own chapter of an equine-assisted psychotherapy program called Herd 2 Human; the blanket goal of Herd 2 Human, she says, is to aid the recovery process of people who have suffered trauma in their lives.
“I’ve been an independent artist from the beginning,” explains Bradshaw. “But you can only do so much for so long and still keep advancing. I am transitioning away from doing it all myself, and I’m building a team to help me do bigger shows. That’s together with Herd 2 Human, as the primary fund raiser for the nonprofit. I hope to bring the show into small theatres, such as the Babcock or the Wilma.”
Single-mindedness is not a path forward anymore for Almeda. She realizes that the appeal of the Western dance hall has dropped off, and those buildings and venues that once served as Western or country ballrooms now accept more popular forms of dance music.
“Even in Billings, the western niche just isn’t there,” Bradshaw says. “Billings is relatively blue-collar and industrial, and the people are really into the blues and rock, and there are very few people in the younger generations who are attuned to Western music.”
While Almeda says that her sound and style won’t ever completely split from the Western roots she holds close, she is unshakable that the future of her music must and will develop. It won’t be drastic – she won’t be donning and shedding musical guises. She will, however, be adding a couple of different darts to her quiver.
“I’m not giving up playing Western music, but at heart I’m an old rocker from the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll be working with the band called Mojo, and, as a trio, we hope to take Gene Autry songs and electrify him. It’ll have the feeling that’s upbeat and rocky and a contemporary sound to those songs. I’ve always been pegged as a cowgirl country singer, but I’m way more eclectic than that.”