Dave Stamey's music preserves the stories and ethos of the American West.
Dave has been named Best Living Western Solo Musician by True West Magazine for four years in a row. He's a recipient of the Will Rogers Award from the Academy of Western Artists and a seven-time Entertainer of the Year, seven-time Male Performer of the Year, and five-time Songwriter of the Year by the Western Music Association. He was inducted into the Western Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
Besides being an award-winning musician, Dave has worked as a cowboy, a mule packer, and a dude wrangler. He lives in California.
It was an honor to sit down with this cowboy music legend and ask about his life, legacy, and approach to art...and about the time he tried to sell Chris LeDoux a bareback rig.
Dave, you’ve been called the “Charley Russell of Western Music” because like Russell, you are the real deal and it comes through in your art! You’ve been a working cowboy, rancher, mule packer, in addition to cowboy singer. Tell us a little bit about how you grew up and the life and work that has inspired your music.
We had a series of small ranches as I was growing up. My father was enamored with the West and dreamed of being a successful cattlemen, but a series of agricultural/financial disasters kept getting in his way. We ran a small feedlot for a while, raised some running quarter horses starting in the 70s, and I learned the joys and hardships of belonging to the ranching community. Wound up working for various outfitters in the Eastern Sierra country, which was probably the best part of my career, in spite of the fact that it didn't pay squat. Eventually I moved over to work at guest ranches, where my music career started to take off.
At what age did you first begin singing?
I started singing, seriously, when I was in high school. I thought I was going to be the next Hank Williams, but that slot had already been filled. I put a small band together and by the time I was 18 or 19 I was working in the bars and clubs on California's Central Coast. I played every dive between San Jose and Ventura, and to this day I'm not really sure how I survived it.
You and Chet Vogt have a long friendship. How did you meet?
Chet and I met way back at the Rancheros Visitadores Ride in Santa Ynez. I couldn't even tell you how long ago.
Chet tells us you are an avid outdoorsman with some great stories about those experiences. Can you tell us any more about that?
So much of my life has been spent out of doors, horseback and otherwise, working with livestock. Some of the best and most intense experiences of my life have been out in nature with wind and dust and horse sweat blowing on me. I love exploring the West, the mountains, the historical sites, talking to the old timers and listening to not only their stories, but the way they tell them, the way they put words together. There's always a challenge in those stories, where they are saying, "I did this, I accomplished that.... what did you do, and do you realize the significance of what I'm telling you?" So there's always the urge to try and live up to those examples, and it pushes you to go out and do things, to face the wildness that still exists out there and deal with it in the most upright and honorable way possible.
Your music has a great deal of historical and cultural meaning. What inspires your songwriting?
My work is to celebrate the Rural American West. That is probably the most under-represented portion of the national populace out there. Not just today, either. All through history it has been passed over, ignored. Their stories, the ones I choose to tell, never get mentioned in the mass media, never get shown in the magazines. I remember ten years back, when the Atlas Storm hit the Dakotas, and tens of thousands head of livestock were killed, cattle and horses both, devastating hundreds if not thousands of small ranchers. The media was more concerned with the potential government shutdown that all the politicians were arguing about in D.C. The tragedy of that storm was barely mentioned on the news. But it was a huge event. I was incensed--actually disgusted--by this lack of attention. I came to the conclusion that if people like myself don't tell these stories, who will?
Many of your songs are informed by your experiences. Can you tell us a bit about the stories and adventures that shaped you?
I'm not smart enough to make things up. What I write about I've either seen or experienced for myself, or have researched it deeply. Growing up in the ranching community, doing the work, appreciating the hardship and the sweat and the worries that goes along with it, that has shaped me, and continues to do so.
What advice would you have for a young artist in the Western industry?
Remember that you are writing/painting/creating/sculpting/singing for a very small but appreciative audience, people who love and respect the Western culture and lifestyle. They are your audience. They are the ones who will support and encourage you. Forget about New York or Los Angeles or Hollywood. You're never going to sell anything to the Kardashians. The folks at American Idol are not interested. You have much more in common with Charlie Russell or George Phippen than you do with Nashville. We are presenting our offerings to a very small niche market. It is small, but it runs very deep. Cultivate clients as you would friends, because that's what they are, inevitably.
Who are some of the artists you admire?
There's a painter named Fred Fellows in Southern Arizona, who with his wife, the sculptor Deborah Copenhaver-Fellows, keep putting out piece after beautiful piece. There was a bit and spur maker named Ed Fields whose work I still hold up as equal or superior to anything ever built. Good practical using gear. Ian Tyson was a major influence, of course, as a songwriter, as well as Andy Wilkinson of Lubbock Texas, who showed me, over thirty years ago, that music could also be literature. A Western fiction writer named John Henry Reese taught me the value of daily discipline when it comes to writing. My education has been so wonderful and varied and rich.
Are there any projects you are working on that you can share with us?
I'm three quarters through with a new album project, most of the songs having been written during the Covid shutdown. I call it "Porch Music." Hope to have it released this fall sometime.
Here at Vogt we are passionate about preserving the art and spirit of the Old West. Can you share with us your history with Vogt?
Again, Chet and I go way back. But I wasn't aware of the masterful quality of his pieces until about twelve or fifteen years ago, when he and I were both in Pendleton for the big Roundup in September, at Parley Pierce's Hamley Saddle Shop and Western Wear. I was struck with the elegance of the line, and the care and pride that he took in it.
Do you have a favorite Vogt piece?
I'm pretty tickled with the buckle set they just presented me with.
We asked Dave to share one of his famous stories with us...and he did not disappoint. Please enjoy his recounting of the time he tried to sell a bareback rig to Chris LeDoux.
"I once tried to sell Chris LeDoux a bareback rig.
Not everyone can say that. Or even want to. But it happened.
I was twelve the first time I got bucked off, which is pretty late for that sort of thing. There are buckaroo kids who proudly claim to have been only four or five when they experienced their initial horse wreck, which leads you to believe that some people routinely throw tiny children onto snorty broncs and think nothing of it--and I am acquainted with people like that and I don't like to hang around them very much. I managed to put off that violent rite of passage until I was in the seventh grade, but not because I was a skilled rider. Far from it. We just didn't have broncky horses on our place. My father wasn't much of a horseman, and saw no point in spending money on animals that had any sort of life or spirit to them. Our horses were all old enough to vote, with droopy eyes and droopy lower lips, often sway-backed and vaguely unsound most of the time.
We were roping calves and dragging them up a hill. I wish I could explain that, but I can't. There was some logical purpose behind it, I'm sure, but it's lost in the murky swamp of memory. We lived on a hill at the time. We had a set of corrals at the bottom of the hill, and another set at the top, and for some reason we wanted to move these calves, and it's hard to push cattle up a hill if they don't want to go there, which they almost always never do.
I was riding a bay gelding we called E.J., who was not a rope horse, but very willing. He was getting gray around the fetlocks and probably close to toothless, a dead-broke kid's horse. I got rim-fired, which is a time-honored method of becoming unhorsed. This occurs when you have a calf on the end of a rope and are not handy enough, or smart enough, to keep him under control, and the calf knows it. The calf slyly maneuvers himself behind you where, with diabolic deliberation, he lodges the rope firmly beneath your horse's tail. This is done on purpose, of course, as all cattle are born knowing these tricks. And the results are immediate.
E.J., ancient and creaky though he was, came unbroke. In my memory I see it as a dust-up worthy of Casey Tibbs or Larry Mahan, a battle between man and beast with gritted teeth and flying hooves that went on forever. In reality the old horse probably crow-hopped two or three times, and that was sufficient. The ground came up and hit me. I remember that well enough.
"What the hell's the matter with you, boy?" the old man hollered. "Don't you know better than that? You get up and go catch that horse, right now!"
I leaped to my feet and did as directed, attempting to look cool at the same time, because when you're twelve that's all that matters. You've got to look cool, even if you're bleeding and dragging one leg. Which I wasn't. I was unhurt. The ground was soft, because at that point we were ranching on a sand dune.
Once he'd got rid of me, as well as the evil calf he'd been dallied to, E.J. went back to being old and tired. He shuffled over to stand beside my little brother's horse, who hadn't bucked anybody off. He lowered his head and went to sleep. My little brother laughed at me, but that was nothing new. I ignored him the same as always.
The old man said, "You climb back on that horse this minute!"
My face burned, but I still did my best to look cool while crawling my way into the saddle. E.J. grunted once, then resumed his nap. The old man, scowling, came up to me. "You all right?" he demanded, as if daring me to say otherwise.
It was a hard lesson. I'm the last person to advise anyone to quit when things get hard, but looking back I wonder if maybe I should have taken the hint right then and there. Like most people, I was a good rider as long as nothing went wrong, but I was not a natural horseman. My talents lay elsewhere. Theoretically.
"You have to be smarter than the horse," the old man said, more than once.
I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly. And I doubt he knew, either. He had the habit of finding these little maxims and dropping them on us kids as if he'd just thought them up himself. Smarter than the horse how exactly? At math problems? At changing the oil in your pickup? At grasping hazy philosophical concepts? When it came to stuff like that I was miles ahead of your average horse--but if I was supposed to be smarter than a horse about being a horse, the battle was already over, and I lost. And so did you, probably.
I did not take the hint. I pressed on, doggedly, because I had this cowboy thing in my head. That's who I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. It might have been understandable had that been the only time I received such a hint. But as the months and years ticked on, the same hint pelted me over and over, like acid rain.
For instance: I somehow managed to purchase a pretty nice horse from the punchy neighbors who lived down the road from us. I was very proud of him, until one day I managed to get his feet tangled up in some deadfall under the trees, and he rewarded me by pitching me off onto my head. I felt it was rather rude of him. Gathering cattle in the hills above Nipomo one day something spooked my mount and he jumped suddenly sideways. I hung in the air for several seconds, like Wile E. Coyote in the cartoons, before landing, with a whump, in a cloud of dust. Another time the hobble strap connecting my front and back cinches fell apart, and the back cinch worked its way hindward, turning itself into a bucking strap, and I soared comet-like across the sky.
This went on and on until finally, in my freshman year of college, I decided the smartest thing to do was start riding bareback broncs.
This made sense at the time, though I scratch my head over it now. I was incapable of riding a bomb-proof plow horse when things went south; now I was going to climb onto fire-breathing beasts who bucked people off for a living.
This was going to work out just fine.
Part of the logic was financial. I had briefly considered riding saddle broncs, but that event required investing in an actual saddle, an expensive proposition. A bareback rig was more in line with my strained bank account, so the decision was an easy one. A fella I knew had a leather shop down on Los Berros Road, and he'd come into possession of a used bareback rig he was willing to sell for around forty bucks, since it was built for a left-handed rider. If you're right-handed you are supposed to hold on with your left hand, whatever sense that makes, and flail wildly around with your right for balance. This piece of equipment was set up exactly opposite, but I was poor, so I bought it, figuring--well, I don't know what I was figuring, exactly. Just that it would all work out in the end.
This kind of thinking is probably why I haven't gotten any further along than I have in life.
I don't know how many rodeos I entered before I came to my senses. Maybe fifteen or twenty. And I never got a single horse rode. Not one. We used to have a picture around here somewhere that showed me coming out of the chute in classic form. My hat was still on my head and my spurs were set at the shoulders of the little bronc I'd drawn in Paso Robles or Squaw Valley or Woodlake, wherever it was, and I can't find that picture anymore. It doesn't matter. As good a photo as it was, it was a lie, because it made me look competent. But we know the truth, don't we? A split second after that shutter closed I was on the ground with a mouthful of dirt. We know this, because the same thing happened every time.
I was behind the bucking chutes at the Elks Rodeo in Santa Maria, California. I had just retrieved my stupid left-handed rigging, and was sitting in a heap licking my wounds. A few minutes earlier they had scraped me up from the arena floor, which they always had to do in order to close the chute gate. Usually I could make about three jumps, but this was Flying U stock, and formidable, so this time I'd made only one jump before plowing a furrow with my nose. I think I knew my rodeo career was over. I was broke, and all the girls I'd hoped would want to date me because I was a dashing rodeo cowboy--a major reason for this whole fiasco--had failed to materialize. I was going to have to find something else to do.
I looked up, and here came Chris LeDoux.
I knew who he was. Everybody knew who he was. Not just a bareback rider, he'd won the world championship in Oklahoma the year before, and he seemed to be surrounded in a radiant, pulsating glow, as if he were being followed around by a bunch of angels. I expected him to be at least fifteen feet tall, and was surprised to discover he was only regular sized, and even more surprised when he actually acknowledged me. Our eyes met. He smiled and gave me a nod, the way polite people do.
I raised my hand and waved. Then, in a voice higher and squeakier than it's ever been before or since, I said, "Hi. You wanna buy a bareback rig?"
His smile disappeared. He looked bewildered. And rightly so.
"Um, no, thanks. I'm good."
I waved again. I don't know why. "Okay," I said. "Take it easy."
He moved on, in more of a hurry than before, and I couldn't blame him.
That was the last time I rode a bronc. On purpose, I mean. There were more buck-offs to come in the years ahead, many of them, but that was the last time I shelled out money for the privilege."
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View Dave Stamey's website for more information about his music and upcoming shows!
Photos by: Dakota Lynn Photography
First time to meet Dave was at the Coach in Wilson,WY. Since then I have been lucky to see a number of his concerts in Felton, Boise, Napa, Star Valley, and with Richard Winters at a horse clinic. Looking forward to many more. Thank you Dave!
Dave Stamey is a wonderful singer/songwriter and pure gentleman. I had the pleasure of meeting him about 18yrs ago when he came to my little town of Montrose, Co, they would play his music on the radio back then. I have been following Dave ever since, seen him at different venues and proud to call him my friend and favorite Buckaroo man. 🎶🎸🤠
We first met Dave in the early 90’s on a horse drive when he was working for Mammoth Pack Outfit – he cowboyed during the day, and was the talent at night around the campfire at night. Since then we’ve seen him every chance we get – great songwriter, storyteller, and friend. And nothing beats hearing him sing around a campfire…
We have been Dave Stamey fans for quite a while now. We saw him first at a Cowboy Poetry event in Golden CO, near where we live. We have had the great good fortune to have seen him live several times. But the best time was when we were privileged to have him sing for us and 90 or so family and friends at our 50th anniversary party in 2013. Some already knew of and enjoyed him, and he made many more new fans and friends that evening. As has been said of Dave frequently, he is the real deal. Oh, and lucky us…he was our house guest the night after the party!
Dave, I enjoy your music, and your stories. I think this one shoulda went into Pigaroo. Your photos do ya justice, but I don’t know about th makeup though. Anyway it’s a good piece on you. See ya next time your in Northern Calif. Lookin forward to it
Dave is such a gift. He did a house concert in my home in Texas and stayed the night with us. Had a great evening after the concert just talking and trading stories.
One of the BEST Western Singer/Songwriter there is. Not only his stories keep the audience captived..
But his songs will have you swaying in you seat. You can’t go wrong seeing one of his shows or purchasing his music…
I love Dave Stanley. I have seen him sing in 7 states and my favorite song Come Ride with me was our first dance at our wedding!! We are both the same age as Dave and really appreciated him allowing us to use his song. When you see him listen to his words of life!
Love this guy! Saw him in Red Bluff this year for the first time. Great show & awesome performer!