Old West Wonder
It takes a lot of courage to pull up stakes and give up everything a person knows to take a leap of faith and follow a passion, no matter how crazy it sounds to others. But that’s what Pioneer Pepper did when he traded in his gun and his badge for a guitar and a Stetson and moved his family to the Arizona desert more than 20 years ago.
His dream was to resurrect the era of the singing cowboy by becoming a singing cowboy. Without a clear destination in mind, he and his family headed west to the one place he knew the music and the lifestyle would be understood and nobody would think he was completely nuts.
Pioneer Pepper created an “Old West” stage show along with the Sunset Pioneers, performing the music of yesteryear from guys like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Marty Robbins, and groups like the Sons of the Pioneers. The group appeared at the Avi Resort & Casino many years ago. Since that time, the show added comedy and dancing ladies to the traditional cowboy music for a total entertainment experience.
He took a chance, lady luck smiled in his favor and it’s a gamble that has served him well ever since.
“I went from cop to singing cowboy,” Pepper said. “I vividly remember this memory like it happened yesterday. When I was a 5-year-old boy, I remember listening to my father’s old 78 record of the song ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.′ When I heard that scratch old song, I instantly fell in love with the sounds and everything about the era of the singing cowboy.
“I honestly knew that this is what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he added. “But I became a police officer just west of Chicago, Illinois. I was the primary hostage negotiator for the county. I never lost a person in all the years of negotiating with barricaded gunmen and hostage situations.
“I formed my first cowboy band when I was in eighth grade — that’s how much I’ve loved this music. Even when I was a cop, I had a part-time band in the Midwest doing all the old cowboy songs. Then 23 years ago, I quit the police force, went from cop to cowboy and never looked back.
“We moved out here to Arizona to be closer to the real American West and it’s just been incredible,” he said. “When I turned in my two-week notice, everyone said I was nuts.
‘How are you going to support your family?’ they asked. ‘I’m going to become a singing cowboy,’ I told them and they thought I was crazy.
“I had this passion and I took these steps of faith. I had my wife, a 2-year-old baby and a 6-month-old baby, and three dogs,” he said. “We sold every material possession we owned, we sold our house and furniture, we had a 26-foot travel trailer that we towed behind our truck filled with music equipment and the kids’ stuff. We headed west like the old pioneers and we didn’t even know where we were going to settle. We took steps to follow this passion and I just never looked back. What a ride!”
What a ride indeed.
“The show now has definitely evolved,” Pepper said. “Before it was just the songs from the Old West, but now we’ve incorporated our showgirls that do Western choreography. It’s really more of an Old West stage production. It just brings back not only the music from the era of the singing cowboy, that nostalgic music, but it also brings back the dazzling stage shows you’d see in a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movie. It’s a really awesome show.”
What makes the show a continuing success is the musicianship at the very heart of all of it.
“We’re a five-piece now,” Pepper said. “I have an accordion player, Doc Bellows, who’s been with me now 16 or 17 years. I have ‘Perfesser’ Rolland who’s my fiddle player. He’s the Arizona State Fiddle Champion 17 times and certified division U.S. National Oldtime Fiddle Champion three times. I’ve got Rowdy Strings on lead guitar and he also subs on fiddle stuff as well. He’s toured all over the world. My bass player, Private Lee, who actually plays 22 different instruments, he’s been playing banjo, trumpet and other stuff during the show.
“My two daughters perform as showgirls,” he added. “My oldest daughter, Cassie, is our head choreography for all our showgirls. She does all the costuming and choreography. My youngest daughter, Calena, dances in the show as well. For dinner shows, she’s on the food side because she’s a pastry chef at the Four Seasons Resort here in Scottsdale.
“My wife does all box office stuff, the sales of our CDs and she’s in charge of the sound and lighting crew, so it’s really evolved into a full-stage production. It’s just been incredible.”
In addition to sold-out dinner shows in the Phoenix area, to taking the singing cowboy persona for an international ride, the Sunset Pioneers have toured Austria, England, Canada and across the U.S. They performed for the “Little House On The Prairie” TV show reunion at the Western Film Festival, filmed with the BBC-TV for the TV series “Only In America” and with the Midwest Country TV Show on RFD-TV Network, and performed in Hollywood at the legendary House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. Oh, but the notches on their gun belts don’t stop there.
“We were featured on ESPN Monday Night Football last season, representing the sights and sounds of Arizona,” Pepper added. “We were also voted ‘Top Personalities of the Year’ by the Arizona Republic newspaper and we are the official town balladeers of Gilbert, Arizona, the fastest growing city in the U.S.
“I think the last time we were at the Avi, we only had two CDs out — we have five CDs out now,” Pepper said. “Two years ago we released one called Wagon Load of Western Songs, and it was nominated as the ‘Album of the Year’ at the Academy of Western Artists for the Will Rogers Award. So that was really exciting.
“A little less than a year ago we released Old Hymn of the Cowboys,” he said. “All my life I’ve had a special reverence for those old hymns that I simply cannot find in today’s modern worship songs. The guy who painted our album cover, Jack Sorenson, is actually the No. 1 selling Western artist in America. If you’ve ever seen those Leanin’ Tree greeting cards, he’s their No. 1 selling artist. He also painted album covers for our last two albums, Christmas Songs Cowboy Style and Wagon Load of Western Songs. What an honor.”
Because the singing cowboy isn’t hitting the tops of the music charts — not that they ever did — and they are from a bygone era, it begs the question, how does he fit into the here and now of modern times?
“I think that nostalgic era of the singing cowboy, so unique to America, personifies that old right and wrong definition. There were the good guys and the bad guys — there was no gray area, it was simplistic and that just illustrates what people really want.
“They didn’t want the area of indecision and not knowing what was right and wrong, and people really like that fundamental. I think that’s why the Old West itself has stayed alive in the hearts of people,” he added. “There’s something about that era that’s just in you.
“I think it’s one of the reasons why the music is timeless — and you can understand the words,” he said with a laugh. “Music shouldn’t be about getting a point across, it should be about entertaining audiences and making people feel good, bringing them back to a moment in time full of memories and creating new memories as well.”
Future projects include producing their own dinner-show packages in their own Wild West town, complete with hotel.
“It’s my highlight of bringing the Old West back to life,” he said.
The project caught the attention of Hollywood, to create a multi-part television series based on Pepper’s life.
“We’ve already had interest in 33 overseas networks and here in America, we had the History Channel, A&E, CMT and Discovery Channel. So once we get that contract signed, it would be called ‘Pepperton Pass,’ they’d start the filming. What a rollercoaster ride. Keep us in your prayers for that one.”
But then Pepper has been on one continuous rollercoaster ride from the beginning.
“You know, I pinch myself every day,” he said. “I just never dreamed that all this would have gotten to this level. This has been my lifelong passion and I never lost the love of the music and the old West.
“I even love the history and the comedy and the entertainment,” he added. “I just love the entire era — and to have my whole family with me, I have to be the most blessed father in the entire world. I had my dad perform, my girls perform, it’s been a family project and I’m just so proud of everybody, and the commitment everybody has put into this to make this happen. I just think it’s phenomenal. I do sincerely love what I do.”