Sons of the Pioneers will perform at SJC

Band has been around for approximately 80 years and epitomizes Western music genre

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Some people spend their whole life trying to find their place in the universe. But Ken Lattimore found his niche in July 1998 when the members of the Sons of the Pioneers voted him into the band.

Some listeners may dismiss the music of the Sons of the Pioneers as simple, but a more careful examination of it reveals it to be layered with complex harmonies and instrumental parts. The fact that it may sound simple is a testament to how well it always has been played.

The Sons of the Pioneers perform this weekend at San Juan College in Farmington.

Lattimore still remembers it like it was yesterday. He had joined the group — which was founded in the early 1930s and since that time has remained the world's pre-eminent Western music outfit — in May 1998 on an interim basis and had even been asked to go into the studio and lend his tenor and his fiddle playing to the Pioneers' new album in June of that year.

But he knew nothing was official until the other members said so. Before a tour stop in Nevada one day in the middle of that summer, Lattimore was pulled aside and casually offered the gig on a full-time basis.

He couldn't say yes fast enough.

"That was a thrill," he said during an interview last week from Tucson, Ariz., his pleasure at that recollection evident even over the phone. "And that thrill has not gone away."

Lattimore said he's never wanted to do anything else. In his mind, when he officially became a Pioneer, he left the interim part behind forever.

"Well, I sure was hoping so," he said. "When I joined, I hoped it would be the job I'd be doing the rest of my life."

Nearly 20 years later, Lattimore and the Sons of the Pioneers are still going strong, and they'll pull into the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College this weekend for yet another show, one among the countless thousands the group has performed over approximately eight decades. The apparently timeless nature of the band itself is matched only by the music it plays, which maintains a small but intensely loyal audience.

Even with his long tenure with the band, Lattimore is far from being the member with the deepest roots. That honor belongs to lead guitarist and vocalist Tommy Nallie, who joined in 1983, left several years later and returned, inheriting the coveted title of "trail boss" — the Pioneers' in-house term for band leader, the individual charged with curating the band's sound and assuring its authenticity.

Ken Lattimore, kneeling, joined the Sons of the Pioneers in 1998 and never looked back.

That high regard for remaining true to the past isn't something any of the Pioneers take lightly, Lattimore said. They're all part of a band with an illustrious history that includes appearances in nearly 100 films and countless television programs. The group has recorded more than 3,000 songs over dozens of albums. Artists and groups ranging from Johnny Cash, the Boston Pops and Michael Martin Murphey to Bing Crosby and Riders in the Sky have recorded the Pioneers' material, and the band was declared a national treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1977.

That's a great deal of history to live up to, but Lattimore said he's proud to carry on the tradition. He attributes the band's longevity to the fact that it always has championed a style of music that is authentically and unmistakably American.

"I don't know how you get more American than the cowboys," he said. "It's popular not just here in America, but all over the world. And it's always a thrill to see a young fan come to the show."

Some listeners may dismiss the music of the Sons of the Pioneers as simple, but a more careful examination of it reveals it to be layered with complex harmonies and instrumental parts. The fact that it may sound simple is a testament to how well it always has been played.

Even better, Lattimore said it's very enjoyable to perform.

"Getting up on stage and singing and making people forget their troubles for a couple of hours," he said, describing the most satisfying part of being in the band. "The gratifying thing is making your favorite music and people enjoying it. … It's especially gratifying when someone tells you, 'You sound like you always have, you look like you did in the '40s.' We work very hard to keep the sound authentic. We're still just made up of a lead guitar, a rhythm guitar, a bass and fiddles, pretty much."

Lattimore came by his love of music at an early age, growing up in a household in Marshall, Texas, where his mother, an accomplished pianist, was constantly playing Mozart and Chopin recordings alongside the popular Western recordings of the day, which included the Sons of the Pioneers. Both his older siblings were musicians, as well, and when his parents asked him if he'd like to take up the violin at age 8, Lattimore agreed.

The Sons of the Pioneers have recorded more than 3,000 songs and been featured in nearly 100 films over their eight decades in existence.

It would turn into a lifelong pursuit. Lattimore earned his music degree from Texas Tech and began building a career in music, landing a spot as the lead tenor in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and serving as a violinist for various orchestras in Texas and Louisiana — something he continues to do to this day around his obligations with the Pioneers.

But his life changed for good in 1997 when he approached the Pioneers' then-trail boss Dale Warren after a show and handed him a demo CD. Lattimore got a call the next day inviting him to try out for the group, and, over the next several months, his involvement deepened until he finally was invited to follow in the footsteps of founding members Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan and Leonard Slye – better known, of course, as Roy Rogers.

Lattimore remains forever grateful for that opportunity and does his best to live up to the artistic standards they established.

"They don't care how old you are, they just care how good you sound," Lattimore said. "In Nashville, you've got to be young and pretty. Here, you can be old and ugly. You just need to sound good."

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: The Sons of the Pioneers concert

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17

Where: The Henderson Fine Arts Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Tickets: $22 for a adults, $20 for those 65 and older and $18 for children 18 and younger at the San Juan College box office

For more information: Call 505-566-3430