Juni Fisher: Songwriter & Balladeer

My guest today is songwriter and singer Juni Fisher. Her newest CD “Let ’er Go, Let ’er Buck, Let ’er Fly” is currently the Number One Album on the Western Music Charts. She was also 2009 Western Music Association’s Female Performer of the Year, her “Gone For Colorado” was the WMA’s 2009 Album of the Year, and she was awarded the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum 2008 Wrangler Award for the same album.

I recently had the privilege of attending one of her concerts at the Cowgirl Co-op in Green Bluff, WA, and I was instantly transported into the world of her music and storytelling.

Juni, as a balladeer, you have a wonderful voice, but you are also an excellent storyteller. Tell us how you got started down both of these paths.

Well, thank you Heidi. I love the magic of a good story. I have always been singing, it served as a great sideline for me in college, and as an extra job back when I was making a living training horses. It was listening to Mickey Newbury and very early Larry Gatlin albums that really made the idea of learning to write songs that had emotional impact.

Who has been your inspiration for your music?

Certainly Joan Baez, from when I was very young, and Mickey Newbury as a songwriter and storyteller. His song Frisco Mabel Joy is one of the songs that showed me the impact of simple language, and a heartfelt story.

I understand you do a lot of historical research for each song you write. Do you do this before you write the song or are you inspired to write from the information you gather?

I go out looking for the stories: the twist, the turn of events that makes it a great story. Then I look for the details, because I have learned that the song is not believable without the real stuff…at least not to me. And finally, I stay tuned in to finding the insights: the sense of knowing the person or people I’m writing about…trying to get “into their heads” is sometimes the biggest challenge, but the most rewarding.

You recorded your newest CD, “Let ’er Go, Let ’er Buck, Let ’er Fly,” to commemorate 100 years of the Pendleton Round-up this year. What was your inspiration to do this project and which was the first song you wrote for it?

My inspiration was having looked at hundreds of photos of those early performers, and then going to the Round-up and seeing the places where all those great stories happened, for the first time, in 2006. I needed to still write and record “Gone For Colorado” which I researched and rereleased finally in 2008. Knowing the Pendleton Round-up’s centennial was coming up was a great driving force. As I began the work, the stories poured in from all over, and some great folks shared their archives, photos, and insights. The first song I wrote for the album was “Yakima.”

Your song about Bonnie McCarroll is especially haunting. (McCarroll was killed in the 1929 Pendleton rodeo and women’s rough stock competition has been banned there ever since). Would you share the story about how you came to write the song?

Oh…that was a tough one. I went to see former rodeo clown Monk Cardin in the summer of 2009. An acquaintance took me to the nursing home where he was and introduced us. I sat down and just let him talk, I wanted him to tell me what he wanted to tell me. He knew I was a songwriter and that I was looking for the stories…and finally, he put his hand on my arm and said “What is it you really want to know?” I said “You were in the arena with Bonnie McCarrrol, weren’t you?” He said “I was, and I remember that day like it was yesterday” and then he told me the story, the way he witnessed it.

I went to the arena after that, and walked around behind the chutes, to the old holding pens. I felt a strong presence…not at all frightening, just there, kind of insisting that I acknowledge it. I did just that, saying “Who are you?” and I heard clearly, in that inner voice “My name is Bonnie McCarroll. I ride saddle broncs” I stood there and kept my heart and mind open, and wrote that song that night, in the home of Hamley’s co-owners Parley and Vickie Pearce. In the morning they asked me if I’d written a song the night before, and I said I had, but I could not even talk about what had happened or what I’d written. I just hoped that I had what I thought I had, and it took a while for me to even revisit what I’d written.

Have you ever participated in rodeo?

Not as a rider, only as a stock contractor bring in team roping steers, many years ago.

How many albums have you recorded and what are they?

Five albums in all so far, they are, in order of release, “Tumbleweed Letters,” “Sideshow Romance,” “Cowgirlography,” “Gone For Colorado,” and “Let ‘er Go, Let ‘er Buck, Let ‘er Fly” plus making guest appearances on other people’s albums over the years.

What is your all-time favorite song you’ve written or performed?

There are a couple that I really love to perform, like “Sideshow Romance” and “Whippoorwill.” Sideshow is about sideshow performers who find true, lasting love, in spite of the rest of the world, and Whippoorwill is a song I wrote about learning to find your own way back home.

Yes, I love “Whippoorwill”—it’s beautiful.

Do you have a favorite on this album?

I have a couple: Bonnie McCarroll, When I Was Prairie Rose, Yakima, it has been the most fun album to go out and tour with.

I know you are an avid horsewoman. Do you have a ranch background and do you currently live on a ranch?

I come from a farming family, but my dad was a true horseman. I chose the horse business as a path quite young, and lived and worked on a couple of California cattle ranches, before moving to Santa Ynez, California to take a job on a cutting horse ranch.

Being on the road long weeks at a time must be difficult. What do you like and dislike about touring?

I really do love the road, being on tour, love the views, love seeing the country, meeting the great folks from all over. I get in the rhythm after the first 6 or 700 miles out, but I can tell you, by the time I’m 8 weeks into a tour, and two days from home, I’d wired to drive through the night and get home. Once I’m home for a week, much as I love being home with my sweet husband, I’m starting to get restless, feeling like i need to be working.

Juni has also received the  Western Music Association’s  2005 Crescendo Award,  2006 and 2009 Female Performer of the Year, Song of the Year (2007), and Songwriter of the Year (2008) and Album of the Year in 2009. She was awarded the prestigious Western Heritage Wrangler Award by the National Cowboy Museum for her 2008 album “Gone For Colorado” (and was the first woman in the history of the Wrangler Awards to have achieved that status).  In addition, the Academy of Western Artists named her Female Performer of the Year in 2005.  Her CDs are available through her website.

History of Women’s Rodeo

Prairie Rose Henderson

The 1920s were the heyday in rodeo for women who competed with men on the same rough stock in the same arenas. WWI nearly brought rodeo in general to extinction, and then the nationwide drought and Great Depression of the 1930s, along with mechanization for farming added to rodeo’s decline, especially in the West.

Ironically, the East still had the Boston Gardens Rodeo and the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in New York, begun by the  London Rodeo producer Tex Austin. In the mid-1920s, Col. William T. Johnson took over the Garden in New York and also began producing indoor rodeos throughout the east. The expansion of this eastern circuit made rodeo a lucrative career for many contestants, including women.

In 1929, a tragic accident shook the rodeo world when Bonnie McCarroll was killed riding a bronc at the Pendleton (Oregon) Roundup. Women have not been allowed to compete on rough stock in that arena since that day, and as a result many other western rodeos also discontinued their women’s contests. Also in 1929, the Rodeo Association of America was formed to organize the haphazard rules of the sport. They did not sanction any women’s events. Then in 1934, a Montana cowgirl, Marie Gibson, was killed in a freak accident when her bronc and the pickup man’s horse collided, furthering the idea that rodeo was too dangerous for women.

Col. Johnson ignored the RAA and continued to include cowgirl contests in his eastern rodeos until 1936. But that year the cowboys went on strike at the Boston Garden Rodeo, demanding a bigger share of the gate as prize money, and formed the Cowboys Turtle Association, the forerunner of today’s PRCA. The CTA also did not allow women’s events.

Queens of the RodeoWhile these changes were going on, in 1931, the Stamford, (CT) Cowboy Reunion invited area ranches to send young women to the rodeo to compete in a Sponsor Contest to “add femininity” to the all-male event. They were judged on who had the best horse, on their riding ability, and who wore the prettiest outfit. It proved very popular, and many other rodeos began to hold similar competitions.

In 1939, the new Madison Square Garden promoter, Everett Colburn, invited a group of Texas women to appear as Sponsor Girls to promote publicity for the rodeo. The following year, another group of comely young women rode while Hollywood singing cowboy Gene Autry sang “Home on the Range.” Autry soon formed his own rodeo company and took over the Madison Square Garden and most of the major rodeo venues. He banned the cowgirl bronc riding contest, leaving nothing for cowgirls except the invitation-only Sponsor Girl event. Barrel racing grew out of these contests and is still today’s primary women’s rodeo event.

Women did form their own professional rodeo group in 1948, the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA), which later became the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), where women are once again participating in bronc and bull riding, as well as team roping and break-away roping, but only at their own rodeos. Barrel racing is still the only sanctioned women’s event at the men’s PRCA rodeos.

Since the formation of the RAA in 1929, only one woman has qualified, within the PRCA’s point system, to compete in saddle bronc riding with men. That woman is Kaila Mussell from BC, Canada. She has been nominated to the Cowgirls Hall of Fame.

Published in: on July 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm  Comments (5)  
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A Sweet Addiction to Hairspray & Horses

“You have to love travel, wear more makeup than a clown, and have a sweet addiction to hairspray,” Carolyn Hunter quips about the requirements for becoming a Rodeo Queen. But it’s much more than that.

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Carolyn, the Sedro-Woolley WA Rodeo Queen and her sister, Amanda Hunter, Miss Pro West Rodeo. These young ladies are not just pretty faces. They are both expert horsewomen, have a great deal of poise, and stand as an example for young girls.

The competition for Rodeo Queen is not a beauty contest. Carolyn and Amanda explain that every contestant has to perform a specific horsemanship pattern on their own horse plus ride a newly-assigned pattern on a horse they’ve never ridden. They also answer a slate of oral questions and take a written test on horse and rodeo knowledge, submit to a personal interview, and deliver a prepared speech. Some pageants last just one day and others are a week long, Carolyn says.

Girls can compete in other towns or states for the title, depending on each rodeo association’s guidelines. Amanda says she was an Oregon queen at one time. The title and job is for one year.

The Hunter sisters, who were raised with horses,started out in 4-H, competed in barrel racing and gymkhana. They got into the Queen arena after an older sister qualified as a Rodeo Princess in 2000. “We tried out too, won a couple,” Carolyn says, and they were hooked. Twenty-two-year-old Amanda has been competing since she was 18, and Carolyn, 20, has been involved since she was 15.

The job does require a great deal of travel. “We are the PR agents, the face of the Association,” Amanda says of her position with the Pro West Rodeo Association. “But I get to hang out with the competitors (at rodeos) and have a good time.” She travels mostly in Washington, but also some in Oregon and Idaho.

Carolyn is the “promoter and sponsor for our own rodeo (the July 4th Loggerodeo in Sedro-Woolley), so we speak at various organizations and attend other rodeos (throughout the state).”

When she retires her crown, Amanda plans to return to her studies in anthropology and environmental/geography at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Carolyn is a Skagit Valley College graduate and a teacher education student at Western Washington University in Bellingham. When her reign is over, she wants to compete for Miss Rodeo Washington and Miss Rodeo America.

“I’ve always related to horses,” she says. “I don’t know what life would be like without them.”

See Amanda’s bio and photo at the Pro West site.

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