Cowboy Envy has always been about a wink and nod. The wink is three women dressed up as cowpokes who sing old-fashioned Western songs; the nod is their rich three-part harmonies that fuel new life into a fading genre of music.
"It's hard to find Western music these days," says lead singer Berne Poliakoff, known as "Frenchy" in her Cowboy Envy persona. "And that's a shame because it's great music. We all have these songs in our subconscious."
The new Cowboy Envy CD, Unhitched, illustrates the dichotomy between the inside joke and the strength of the band's musical chops. At one point on a song called "Vim, Vit and Vigor," Frenchy is chastised by her two bandmates for spending too much time messing with her hair. Then, a few songs later, a lonesome harmonica opens a track and the three voices meld for an evocative take on the old cowboy standard, "Oh, Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie."
That playful seriousness has won Cowboy Envy a wide range of admirers, including Douglas "Ranger Doug" Green, leader of the pre-eminent Western band Riders in the Sky. "It is an act of art to balance irony, pure silliness and contemporary sensibility with deep love and obvious respect for tradition," Green has said of Cowboy Envy. "They are the freshest thing going in Western music today."
The band was the brainchild of DeDe Vogt (aka "Too Short"), one of the founding figures of the Atlanta folk music scene. Vogt first came to prominence as a vocalist and bass player for the Scallion Sisters, a local mainstay in the mid-'80s.
"She's really the godmother of the folk scene in Atlanta," says Michelle Malone, who snuck into local clubs as a teenager to hear the Scallion Sisters. "They had tight three-part harmonies. They were great role models for me as a young girl wanting to play music. And they made acoustic music seem cool. I know Dede influenced the Indigo Girls as well, and no telling how many other Atlanta acoustic musicians."
The Scallion Sisters eventually morphed into a rock band called Paper Dolls; the group released an album, but broke up as the '80s came to a close. Vogt played with the Indigo Girls for a time, then released a solo album. But she also wanted to start another band that featured tight harmonies.
Vogt had seen Riders in the Sky perform, and harbored a secret desire to start a cowgirl band. In 1993, she contacted Poliakoff – who was singing in a jazz duo – and asked if she'd like to be in a Western group. "She wanted us to be called the Cows," Poliakoff says. "I didn't want to be referred to as a cow. So she thought about it and came up with Cowboy Envy."
When guitarist Kathleen "Buffalo K" Hatfield signed up, the lineup was complete, and they quickly discovered the three separate voices formed a perfect blend. Hatfield sang in the mid-range, Poliakoff was a soprano and Vogt sang with a deeper voice. "We were over at DeDe's house and I think the first thing we sang was 'Happy Trails,'" Poliakoff says. "And it just clicked. We almost wanted to stop so we could listen."
From the start, the band members harbored no illusion of getting signed to a major label or shooting for stardom. "And we were fine with that," Vogt says. "We wanted to do something musically sound, and something to put the fun back in. We wanted something different, something showy and entertaining."
The novelty of Cowboy Envy quickly gained them an audience. The group has opened for Riders in the Sky, performed twice at the Kennedy Center and released two CDs.
The original trio was augmented five years ago with the addition of "Ropin'" Rodger French on accordion. French, however, moved to Ghana in 2006 and took some of the group's momentum with him. "We lost some wind after Roger left," Vogt says. "We stopped working as much. Having him around was a great energy boost."
French recorded his accordion parts for the new album when he was home over the Christmas holiday; he is flying in from Africa to perform at Sunday's CD-release party at Eddie's Attic.
Unhitched is Cowboy Envy's first album since 2000. There's a spring tour for the West already on the books, and the group plans to step up its performance schedule now that there's a new record. "We're hoping we can generate that energy again," Vogt says. "We hope to have some revitalization going on."
When Vogt put Cowboy Envy together, none of them anticipated the group that would be around for the next 15 years. "Fifteen years? Three women?" Vogt says with a hearty laugh. "We all have good senses of humor, and we seem to be able to laugh our way through things. We all kind of found a spot that was comfortable.