The Brac Cowboys

 The whole thing has always intrigued me. Here we are in the land of white sandy beaches, palms and calypso, yet American Country and Western music is very much rooted into Caymans traditions .From my investigation Grand Cayman has the only full time Country and Western Radio station in the Caribbean and considering the popularity of ROOSTER 101.9FM there is an interesting anecdote behind this love of the Nashville Sound.

I first experienced this phenomenon in the late 60’s when as a young lad I landed on the shores of Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas. It’s a small island, which at that time had a population of less than 400. It was a holiday (Guy Fawkes Day) and the village lanes were near empty. In the distance I heard strange music; it was strange because it did not fit the ambiance of this small tropical isle. Wooden boats in an array of colors lined the shore, fish nets hung between coconut trees and the sea competed with the sky for clarity.  There in the front yard of a one room school house children cheerfully danced around a bonfire as a quartet of old men sang the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya”.  The singers all played instruments, a guitar, fiddle banjo and maracas. When the song ended they went into a lengthy version of “Home on the Range”.  The entire population of the island must have been there and everyone was singing along.   I was stunned, music stemmed from the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia was staged where I should be hearing Harry Belafonte, The Mighty Sparrow or The Merry Men.  It just didn’t fit, it’s like if I went to the Haufbrau House in Germany and the Polka band was playing reggae.

Some years later while performing at Caymans old Galleon Beach Hotel I encountered the same experience. While the tourists demanded “Yellow –Bird” or “Miss Mary Anne” the locals insisted on Johnny Cash or Charlie Pride. If I didn’t know the local customers song they’d bring their guitars the following night and join my show. In and around this time is when I met my close friend Andy Martin (also known as The Cayman Cowboy). He took stage one night and belted out a George Jones song that brought the house down. From Andy I soon learned how this Cayman country music trend came to be.

“As a young boy on the Brac my sister had a battery powered radio and during the day most of the Cuban stations would saturate the air waves – yet once the sun went down we could hear WSM’s Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, or the Louisiana Hayride show out of Shreveport – these powerful station broadcasted strictly country and gospel” reflects Andy.  Later in life, as almost every able bodied  young man from the Brac and Grand Cayman did, Andy went to sea working aboard the huge tankers that would stop at distant ports such as Mobile, Alabama  and Port Arthur , Texas. Here seedy honkey- tonks were abundant and the juke boxes blared with the sound of fiddles and steel guitars. The tear jerking, beer-drinking songs seemed to be custom created for lonely sailors thousands of miles from home.

After a long stint at sea nearly every Bracer returning home had a suitcase stuffed with vinyl records – discs by Merle Haggard, the Wilburn Brothers, Marty Robbins or Web Pierce. But the love for cowboys and their music did not end there; in that era it was not unusual to see Bracers walking around with cowboy hats, boots and flashy scarves.

Though not in the capacity it once was, the love for country music is still evident today on Cayman Brac. Every other Saturday Bracers Eddylee Martin , Arlin Tatum, and Myron Ryan gather at the Alexander Hotel where they strum and pick  box guitars and croon Nashville hits of the past to the pleasure of locals and to the surprise of tourists.

Jake McLaughlin, x-police officer, retired seaman and artist recently celebrated his 86 birthday. He treasures his original paintings of Ernest Tubb and  Grampa Jones and keeps a guitar nearby in case someone stops for a visit.  His memory for lyrics may come and go, however his vocal cords remain, deep and clear when he entertains family and guests with renditions of “Red River Valley” and Jim Reeves classic “He’ll have to go”.  Arlin Tatum has a collection of fine guitars as well as a collection of old country and western 33 1/3 LPs (many in mint condition). Some of these rare albums could be worth a small fortune on E-bay. Mr. Tatum recently recorded a country style CD which was quite a hit on the Brac; he is however disappointed at the little air-play Grand Cayman stations gave his album.

Andy Martin, also known as the “Cayman Cowboy” recently received the Queens Badge of Honor for his contribution to the local music scene, not to mention numerous cultural awards he’s collected over the years. Andy has recorded five albums and has become a regular feature on ROOSTER FM Radio and Radio Cayman.  Some years back Andy was interviewed on Nashville’s WSM Grand Old Opry radio show, Andy recalls that unforgettable day. “It was a cherished moment in my life…here I was being interviewed by the same station that I used to listen to as a small boy on the Brac, the same studio where all the legends I so admire did their interview – what an honor I’ll never forget it”.  The late fiddler, Mr. Radley Gourzong from East End Grand Cayman was the first Caymanian ever to perform on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. In their time “Radley and the Happy Boys” kept very busy performing their unique style of “ Carib-Country” at special events all over Cayman.

Like Mr. Tatum, Andy Martin is also a bit “irked” at some local stations that refuse to play Cayman Country Music, yet give heavy rotation to new Nashville hits.  “Were gonna keep fighting for fair air play” says Andy – we have one of our own Bracers (Minister Julianna O’Conner Connolly) now responsible for the broadcasting portfolio, I’m convinced she will help us”.

To put “Cayman Country Music” in a bit more perspective we leave you with a few lyrics from one of Andy’s famous songs…

He’s a Cayman Cowboy

And it might seem strange

But he calls his island – his home on the range

He don’t wear no six-gun …no that aint his style

He just wears a great big –Cayman Cowboy smile

H. G Nowak ( the Barefoot Man ) is a regular contributor to Cayman Free Press. You can hear his own version of local country music at the REEF RESORT in East End. Check his web site at www.barefootman.com

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