By Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich
To listen to Streets of Laredo that appears on this album, click below.
Ocracoke Island is not the Wild West, but it has its own unique cowboy history of which many may not be aware.
That heritage consists of cowboy music, and old friends and musical compadres Martin Garrish, John Golden and Gary Mitchell have teamed up to share this in their new 12-song CD, “When We Were Cowboys,” produced at Mitchell’s Soundside Studios.
The cowboy roots are two-fold.
For centuries, Ocracoke had lots of free-roaming banker horses. This ended in 1958 when the paved NC 12 highway traversed the length of the island.
Because of the traffic danger, the horses were penned at the Pony Pasture and now serve as a reminder of the horses of yore.
Prior to that, there was much interaction between the islanders and these small horses, often called ponies, including a long tradition of a 4th of July roundup.
Another that attracted national attention in the early 1950s was the Ocracoke Boy Scout Mounted Troop 290, the only one in the country. Each scout participated in the round-up and selected a horse to ride and was responsible for its care.
The second fold was due to economic necessity: Many men of Ocracoke left the island to work up north in ports such as Baltimore and Philadelphia.
In these off-island locations island legendary performers Roy Parsons, Maurice Balance, Jule Garrish, Walter Howard and Edgar Howard were exposed to and performed this genre of country and western music in many venues and when they returned to Ocracoke.
“Walter Howard and Edgar Howard left the island to perform vaudeville in the 1930s,” Golden said.
The album is dedicated to these men and to that era of Ocracoke.
These are the songs Martin’s late uncle Jule played with the late Don Woods, father of Stephanie Ihle, and Martin’s dad, Powers Garrish, who gave Martin his first guitar in 1961.
“They grew up on cowboy music,” said Mitchell, who produced the album and sings harmony vocals.
“The songs that Martin heard them singing in the 1950s weren’t coming off the radio,” Golden said. “(These songs) had been around for a while.”
Golden said the idea for the album just grew out of jawboning during recording sessions.
Like two previous albums they recorded, this new CD “came out of me and Martin and Gary sitting in Gary’s studio while we were recording songs that we had thought of as well as talking about other songs,” he said.
Ocracoke’s horse heritage fit right into the project, which includes photos selected by Golden of island horses on the covers and liner notes.
Ironically, Martin was not a part of the mounted Boy Scout troop and said he rode a horse only once in his life.
The troop disbanded in the early 1960s before young Martin could join them.
“I was only about 8 or 10 and the troop had disbanded by the time I would have been eligible,” he said, but he’s OK with that.
Despite being enamored of cowboy songs, Garrish was never enamored of horses. “I was never really around them,” he said.
Nevertheless, these songs are part of his musical preference—music from the 1930s to 1980.
It’s the rhythm and the lyrics, Garrish said about these gentle but up-tempo songs, precursors to country music. Some of the songs on the album are “I’d Rather Be in Texas,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Back in the Saddle.”
“When I first started to play music, words didn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’m a guitar player, that’s the first thing that strikes me. But in the last 20 years especially I pay more attention to words in those cowboy songs. They really just strike me. I can’t explain it.”
A history buff, performing these songs has always been in the back of his mind.
“The old stuff fascinates me,” Martin said. “All the stuff that we do today was because some of these old guys and what they did years ago.”
You might subtitle the album “Garrish, Golden, Mitchell and Friends,” as songs include vocals and accompaniment by top local performers Lou Castro, Marcie Brenner, Kate McNally, Jubal Creech, Kim France and also Louis Allen.
Martin is well-known as the lead guitarist and singer for the Ocracoke Rockers. He performs frequently with Lou Castro and Marcy Brenner of the duo Coyote, and at the annual Ocrafolk Festival.
The CD is available on the island in Village Craftsmen.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that the location of the CD cover photo was opposite the pony pens at the north end of the island. The scene was taken at what is now the Berkley Manor. The caption has been updated.