WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with a member of the Western Music Hall of Fame, R.W. Hampton.
It’s been said that the story of America is really the story of the west. Stories of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett crossing the Appalachian Mountains gave America its earliest myths. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, of course. And even our literature: from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Thoreau’s Walden to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road mythologize that era’s version of The West, the Frontier. Huck Finn, which many say is The Great American Novel, ends with the famous line about “lighting out for the territory.”
In the era of the iPhone, it would be easy to declare this notion of the west dead and gone. But, in fact, it’s not. Every day in America, cowboys straddle horses and tend to cattle. And an art form has grown up to celebrate this way of life. Cowboy poetry and music festivals, in the pre-COVID era, anyway, attract thousands, and the music put out by the artists who play these festivals have attracted passionate fans who number in the millions.
One of the best known artists of this western music genre is R.W. Hampton. R.W. Hampton got his start as a working cowboy who sang songs around the campfire at night. During the 1970s and 80s, he became a model for Levi’s jeans, and an actor, and–eventually–a professional musician. His first album came out in 1984, and he’s produced 15 albums since. He’s a member of the Western Music Association Hall of Fame, and he’s also been that group’s Male Vocalist of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year. He’s performed Grand Ole Opry, and at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which is the granddaddy of cowboy poetry gatherings, as well as dozens of other festivals and—at this point in his career—thousands of concerts.
And I should add, by way of disclosure, that I’ve known R.W. Hampton for more than 40 years. We first met when we were both on the staff of Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, where he was a wrangler, and I was a Ranger, which is what Philmont calls its backpacking guides. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that we re-connected, in part because of our shared relationship in Christ – a faith you’ll hear RW talk about in this conversation.
R.W. Hampton divides his time between a ranch he and his wife Lisa own in New Mexico, and a home about 4 hours away in Amarillo. He was in Amarillo when we had this conversation, via zoom.
Well, R.W. Hampton, welcome to the program. I’ve got to say, it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been wanting to have you on the show for probably 10 or 15 years, but it just never worked out. I really appreciate you taking some time with me today.
R.W. HAMPTON, GUEST: You bet Warren. It’s a pleasure. It really is. And, of course, you and I are kinda followed the same path through life, the same trail. And then you appeared in WORLD Magazine and so it’s great to be back together.
SMITH: Yeah, it really is. In fact, I want to trace some of those trails, I guess you might say, because I first met you when — I know you’re from Texas and I was at that time from Georgia, but our trails first crossed at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. You’re a couple years older than me. Not much older than me. You were one of the cool kids at Philmont because you were a cowboy. You were a Wrangler. And you were singing songs even then. Did you have in mind that you were going to be a professional musician back in those days or a professional cowboy back in those days?
HAMPTON: You know, it’s interesting, Warren, because I look back at that time in my life and I was very interested in music professionally and I had studied the careers of other people and how they got where they were, but I would have been happy either way to have remained a professional cowboy or, you know, as the Lord saw fit, he created a path from that world into the entertainment world. So, but yeah, you know, it was on my mind, but I was very much living the cowboy life and I was okay with it just like it was.
SMITH: Well, I think, you know, obviously I was aware of you as a cowboy, even though you were, you know, playing guitar and singing songs at campfires kind of back in those days as well. But I think you know, where I first realized, and I should say R.W., I’ll try to call you R.W., but I met you originally as Dick Hampton. So I may sort of go back into day camp there.
HAMPTON: My dear friend Steve Zimmer calls me that to this day. I love it. You know?
SMITH: Well, very good. I would say that maybe my first inkling that Dick Hampton, as I knew you then, was going somewhere big was not either in your music or with your cowboying, really, but it was as a model. You started showing up in Levi’s ads. And some of those ads were kind of iconic ads. You were Kurt Marcus, and Jay Dusar, who were both very well-known Western photographers have gone on to really have remarkable careers. And really in some ways kind of transcended the Western genre or the commercial genre and become maybe art photographers. You were in some of their early photoshoots. How did that happen?
HAMPTON: Well, you know, kind of at the right place at the right time, or as my wife likes to call it, and I believe it too, a God thing. But I was working on those ranches. And there seemed to be a real interest by these art photographers. They discovered this West of the working cowboy still existed. And in hidden places in West Texas and Alberta, Canada, and Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada, wherever. There were men who actually got on a horse every day and made their living tending people’s cattle. And so that’s what I was doing. And then these photographers came in and both Jay and Kurt Marcus — Kurt, at the time, was working for the Western Horseman magazine. And he was doing some commercial projects on the side, and one of his was for Levi-Strauss. And so I was there and chosen to — I started saying to be the face of Levi’s. Maybe to be the tail end of Levi’s. I don’t know, but anyhow, they had a campaign for a new line of jeans made for working cowboys called 557 jeans. And I did the billboards and print ads for those things. And that led to a gig doing 30 and 62nd Radio Way as well.
SMITH: Well, I was seeing your picture everywhere I went back during that era. It was kind of interesting in magazines and on billboards. And R.W., correct my chronology, if it needs corrected and it may, but it was somewhere in this era that you worked on a project with Kenny Rogers. He was also a photographer. And did a book, I believe, I don’t know if it was called Kenny Rogers’ America or just America, but tell me what your involvement was there.
HAMPTON: Well, I first started with Kenny, once again, on the ranches in 1978, I think it was. He did a documentary, kind of an entertainment half-live stage performances and scenes from ranches where he went and just rode along with the cowboys, called Kenny Rogers and the American Cowboy. And I was featured in that and you know, a lot of those guys are shy and I wasn’t afraid of the camera and played the guitar. So he and I sat on a log one evening in this special and I sang Ghost Riders in the Sky and he sang James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. And so that was kind of a taste of that world that I had never seen before. You know, back then when Kenny Rogers showed up, he showed up with a lot of people and a lot of equipment and so forth. And then five or six years later, his manager called me and said, we’re doing a CBS movie of the week. And Kenny and I were looking at the footage that you did with us in this documentary. And we’d love to have you back and do a scene once again of you and Kenny playing some music around a campfire. And I said, yeah, I am in. That’s great. And the movie starred Kenny and Pam Dawber, it just wrapped with Mork and Mindy. And then three huge people in my world was Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, and Buck Taylor, who was just fresh off the Gunsmoke series. And so anyhow I said, yes, count me in. And then they called me back and said, well, we had a production meeting. We can’t have you just at this campfire scene. You need to be in the whole movie. That way we justify you being there. So I said, okay. And so that took about a month and we filmed that up around Sheridan, Wyoming, north of there, and up around Chester, Montana, that border country there—Northern Wyoming, Southern Montana. But anyhow, I joined the Screen Actors Guild after that. I believe that I was kind of being shown a pathway that I needed to kind of look into.
SMITH: Yeah, well, one of the reasons I wanted to talk about that R.W. was because I think a lot of our listeners will know because it was big news when it happened. Kenny Rogers passed away last year. And I’m just wondering how that hit you. I mean, that sounds like a pretty fond memory, just sitting on a log with him and playing guitar, but I’m just —
HAMPTON: Yeah, it was a beautiful memory. Kenny’s passing really hit me, you know, because I had frozen him in my mind at that age, you know, how we do people. Also is very interesting because Charlie Daniels has been a big part of my life. He and his manager, Dave Corlew, have been very good to me down through the years and opened doors for me. Well, on the live stage segment of that first 1978 show it was Kenny Rogers, Mac Davis, and Charlie Daniels. And of course, all three of them have passed away in a pretty short amount of time. And so kind of a wake up call, you know?
SMITH: Well, I know, of course, Charlie Daniels had a strong Christian faith. I don’t know much about Kenny Rogers’ faith, whether it was real or not really. Anything you would say about that?
HAMPTON: You know, I don’t know Warren. I was not in a place in my life or, I mean, my faith was very much deeply rooted in me. But being that young, you know, I had stars in my eyes around all these people. But, you know, by the time I got around Charlie, Charlie was really, really very upfront about it, you know, and I really appreciated his boldness. And I’ve tried to emulate that. As far as Kenny, I don’t know. He was a boy from Crockett, Texas, so I think he grew up in church and of course my prayer is that, you know, his faith was renewed at some point. SMITH: Yeah. Well, I met Kenny Rogers in the last couple of years of his life. But it was just long enough to shake his hand. I was with our mutual friend, Michael Martin Murphy. Murph had worked with Kenny Rogers a lot early in his career. In fact, Murphy wrote a concept, I think it was called the Legend of Calico or something like that. And they were doing kind of a retrospective on — anyway, it’s a long story, but I got to meet Kenny Rogers through Murph. And it was a nice moment in my life, but it was not one of those moments where we really got to talk about his faith. He was very, very frail when I met him, even then.
Welcome back to the program. I’m Warren Smith and you’re listening in on my conversation with actor and musician R.W. Hampton. R.W.’s latest album is “My Country.” In addition to his work on the western music festival and concert circuit, he has also performed for events hosted by Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.
Let me kind of use all of what we’ve said so far, R.W., as a bit of context, because, you know, we’ve talked about Charlie Daniels and Kenny Rogers and Mac Davis, and, you know, some of the folks that you were working with. These guys went on to be kind of big country stars. And you took a somewhat different path. You went more in the direction of Western music. And I think a lot of our listeners may not know much about that world. I mean, you were the Western Music Association’s artist of the year, entertainer of the year. You’ve had all kinds of accolades from that group over the years. And I would say, and correct me if I’m wrong, in fact, I absolutely want to hear your perspective. Country music kind of went Hollywood, but Western music kind of stayed true to the roots, kind of true to that sort of faith, freedom, family, God, and country message. Is that a fair characterization?
HAMPTON: Yeah, Warren, that’s a very fair characterization. And I think that, you know, years ago it was country and Western. And there was bluegrass and the country music from east of the Mississippi or the middle part of the country. And then there was the music, the country. What I tell people is Western music is the country music of the West. When I first started listening to country music artists like Eddie Arnold, and of course, Marty Robbins, who I got to meet later, had a very valid place playing, you know, the radio played their Western music. And at some part, like you said, they parted company. And I think country music got younger and younger and Western music remained, you know, as it was. At one time, I had hoped to, you know, re-carve out a place for Western music in country music. But in all my trips to Nashville and my dealings with Murph and I had an agent out of Nashville for years, people would say, we love him. We love his voice. We love the way he sings songs and writes, but we don’t know what to do with him. They were very much into categories.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah, no, I understand that. And, in fact, I was going to ask you a little bit about your sojourn, sojourns, maybe, in Nashville. You kind of tried that, as you mentioned, it was hard to find a peg or a hole for your peg in Nashville. I want to ask you a little bit about, and I may be jumping the gun here, but there was a song you wrote called Shadow of the Cross. That’s a song that maybe, I don’t know, deals with the brokenness of the world and how we deal with that. The brokenness in the power of Christ.
MUSIC: [Shadow of the Cross]
Did that song come out of sort of the Nashville experience or other experiences in your life?
HAMPTON: It came out of other life experiences. Everybody’s got a Nashville or LA story, you know, even the big guys have one where they get turned down and said, go home. Don’t quit your day job. So that was, you know, my disappointments, there were not, you know, they were disappointments, but they weren’t devastating. But I’ve been through divorce, have been through cancer and some things like that. And sometimes we’ve got to come to the end of ourselves and that’s what the Shadow of the Cross is all about. I think, you know, whether no matter what we do as human nature, we get a little bit off course. Sometimes we get way off course. And I believe the Lord, well, I certainly believe he allows things to happen. We’ve had some things happen in our country lately that have caused many—I was including myself—to put our eyes back on the Lord instead of on people. So that the Shadow of the Cross was very much that way. And I used to say, I wrote it, but I feel like the Lord corrected me on that and said, I wrote it. You held the pen.
SMITH: Well, very good. Well, it’s a beautiful song. And you mentioned cancer and I need to ask how are you doing? How’s your health now?
HAMPTON: Good. I dealt with melanoma cancer, you know, I’ve spent all my life out in the sun. And as my cancer oncologist said, guys that are of Scottish, Irish, and English background should not be working cattle on a horse at 6,500 feet, you know, but bad as it may I did anyway. And so, yeah, I had to deal with it. I dealt with it three times and finally had to go through the treatments and some surgeries and different things, but no, I’m doing good.
SMITH: You know, I wanted to pivot a little bit in our conversation, R.W. We’ve kind of been talking around this whole Western culture kind of a thing, but you’ve been, I think it would be fair to say, even though, as you’ve also alluded to Western music has been around a long time. I mean, we’ve got Marty Robbins, we’ve got bluegrass music, we’ve got, you know, cowboy songs going all the way back into the 18th and maybe, you know, even earlier centuries. But there has been a real resurgence in cowboy music and Western music in the last maybe 20 years or so. And I’d say you’ve been an important part of that resurgence. You know, there are things like the National Cowboy Poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada every year. And while that may be the sort of the granddaddy of these poetry gatherings, it’s by no means the only one. You can stay pretty busy as a Western artist, I mean, in the pre-COVID era and hopefully in the post-COVID era. Tell me about the kind of that world and explain it to listeners who, you know, may not know what we’re talking about.
HAMPTON: Yeah. The culture, you know, I think the interest, the Renaissance, the interest that started really about 1985 in Elko, Nevada. I just think, judging by the audiences that I saw back then, they were filled with some, with ranchers, agriculture people, working cowboys and their families, but a great many were from Dallas and Atlanta. And they were people that had done well in their lives. And they owned horses and they were just trying to find something that they had missed and they found something, I think, very genuine and real with this cowboy music and the spoken word, the poetry part of it, but it opened the door for them. I mean, they love listening to this and it did something to them, I think, on a very spiritual level because it was — the music that’s in the poems that they were hearing were about people who had lived outdoors all their lives. But through that, through the appreciation of that, it opened the door to this whole culture, the culture of riding for the brand. It’s almost become a cliche, but what it has to do with you tell man, you’re going to do something and you do it, you know. That’s riding for the brand. You signed on you working for somebody, if it gets cold and snows, or it gets 110 in the shade, you know, you don’t go in until the job’s done. And a man’s word is his bond. I did a lot down through the years and hope to, again, for Red Steagall out of Fort Worth. And he has a huge gathering there that hopefully will be back next October at the Fort Worth stockyards. But I did that for years and years and years. And it’s interesting because he would call me on the phone, say R.W., I want you to come do this on this date this weekend. And I did. And at the end of that, he’d say R.W., mark it down for next year. And there was not much between us except mark it down for next year, you know? And so I just knew, you know, we were going to do it. And so the whole Western culture, even the way that the gatherings and the performances were conducted was very much a part of our culture, but people just flocked, they just flocked. I had no idea that people were that interested, but I feel like—and not in a smug way—but I feel like we offered something that people in the late seventies into the mid eighties and on, they were really missing. They were really missing this sense of family, this sense of, you know, a sense that you get when you’re out horseback and there’s a timelessness about it. There’s a rhythm to it. There’s the seasons. There’s a phases of the moon. There’s the time when the cows calve. And at the time when the brand the calves and you wean them and you ship them. And there’s a rhythm that goes. And it’s all part of God’s, you know, you talk about the shepherds, you know, in the days of old and the ones that the heavenly hosts revealed themselves to and Christ was born. I think it was a very spiritual thing. And I think people really tapped into it. And one thing I need to bring up, Warren, is one thing that happened was that these events would be like from Thursday to a Saturday, but Austin, they would have what they called cowboy church on Sunday morning and entertainers like myself and Murph and Don Edwards. And so many others stay over and there might be a short message, but we would talk about our faith and our songs. So that was very much a part of these things.
SMITH: Yeah. I’ve been to a couple of these cowboy gatherings over the years, cowboy poetry and music gatherings over the years. And I like music of all kinds, so I’ve been to some sort of more psychedelic events as well. There’s something about a cowboy gathering, these cowboy poetry festivals said it’s a little bit like a Grateful Dead concert, or maybe a weekend event, except I was going to say, except on Sunday morning, everybody goes to church together, which is something that would not happen at a Dead concert.
Welcome back. You’re listening in today on my conversation with R.W. Hampton. Let’s get right back to that interview.
R.W., I want to try to kind of land our plane just a little bit. We’ve talked a little bit around your faith, and I’d like to talk about it a little bit more deeply. You actually did an album back in 2005 called I Believe which often you’ll have a gospel song or some sort of a song that relates to your spiritual life on just about all of your albums, but that album was kind of a stake in the ground, so to speak, about your faith. And I want you to talk about that album, why you felt like you needed to do that album, and just a little bit about your faith and where it is now.
HAMPTON: Well, yeah, and I made two albums. One called Then Sings My Soul and the other, I Believe. And for years I had closed every concert I had done with a gospel song. And some of them were songs that people had known for years. Some of them, sometimes they were one of my own and people just kept saying, R.W., you gotta do a gospel album. You gotta do a gospel album. And back in those days, you either funded your own albums, maybe you were at the record label — the three things, you were either with a record label, you funded your own album, or somebody stepped up to the plate and said—and that’s what happened—that said, hey, you need to do a gospel album and I’ve got the money to do it. And so that’s kinda how that came out.
And it was time. It really was. I had had so many requests to do it. You know, we love all your music, but we love your gospel music for years. I had played a lot of secular events and I would say, well, I’m going to close with the greatest cowboy song that was ever written. And I would preface it that way a little bit. I’d say, you know, I spent my whole life outdoors, much of it on the back of a horse. A lot of it watching the sun come up, some of it out long enough to watch the sun go down. If you’ve ever been where I’ve been, you’d agree this is the greatest cowboy song, How Great Thou Art. And that always went over well.
MUSIC: How Great Thou Art
I don’t know. I just really felt like I had a place. I had a voice. And seldom when you do those things, do you know about it right away. But I have gotten letters and notes and emails from combat veterans and different people going through different things in life who said, you know, that one song you sang or whatever really helped me get through.
SMITH: Well, R.W., I’d like to close by kind of tying a bow around some of the things that we’ve already talked about. And that is, you know, we’ve talked about a lot of people, musicians that you’ve worked with that are no longer with us. We’ve talked about your own bouts with cancer and you and I have known each other long enough to know that we’ve probably got more years behind us than ahead of us.
HAMPTON: Most certainly. We’re running out of sunsets.
SMITH: Running out of sunsets. That’s right. That’s a good cowboy way to say it. On the other hand, I hope you have many more, but at some point we will run out of sunsets. And how do you want people to remember R.W. Hampton and his music?
HAMPTON: Hmm. He meant what he sang about, and he believed in it, and it was true. That’s the thing, if you believe in it and you mean it and other people find out it’s true. That’s the three things, you know. And if I find out in another day and distant time, when surely we will, that maybe something I sang or did brought someone else to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, then it will all be worthwhile.