The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 4


Courtesy Ozark Folklore Center

Glenn Ohrlin:
Old-Time Cowboy Singer

by David Heiller

The Authentic Core of the Real Cowboy

Bob Bovee and Gail Heil, musicians who organize Minnesota’s Bluff Country Gathering, met Glenn Ohrlin in 1974. Bovee feels that a lot of people who are old-time fans think of southern mountain ballads as old-time, but not cowboy ballads. The relative lack of the fiddle and banjo in cowboy music came about, in part, “because record companies preferred guitars [as accompaniment to] the singing,” Bovee said. Though the fiddle and banjo are more rare in traditional cowboy music, Bovee thinks cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin’s style of cowboy ballads is truly “the old-time music of the west.”

Bob and Gail brought Glenn to the Bluff Country Gathering because Glenn is such a tremendous performer. Bob thought the audience would love him and he was right. Preserving important old-time music is a priority for the Gathering, and Glenn is an important contributor. “Glenn’s done more to collect the music than anybody I know,” said Bob, who is a good song-saver himself.

Pop Wagner, another musician and a longtime friend, thinks that the public doesn’t appreciate cowboy music in part because of lack of exposure to it. “The masses follow where they are led by the big money,” Pop said. “A lot of people think of cowboy music and country music as one and the same,” he said. He recalled a statement he heard once that describes the difference: cowboy music tells a story, western music paints a picture, and country music complains. True—you don’t hear much complaining in cowboy music. The lessons are there, the High Chin Bobs who refuse to let their mountain lions go because they are too proud. They pay the price. But these stories speak for themselves. “Actions speak louder than words” is a working person’s stereotype that seems to run through cowboy music. When you listen to Glenn Ohrlin, you can sense that is true with him too, and it is refreshing indeed.

Pop encourages people to give Glenn a good listen, especially in person—“He can hold any audience in the palm of his hand.” Pop remembers a concert where Glenn followed a show-stopping performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Glenn sat down and told the audience, “They just done all my songs.”

“That’s his trademark,” Pop said. “He gets you right away. Cowboy music is a fringe audience, and Glenn, well, He’s a fringe within a fringe.” Pop paused then added, “He’s the authentic core of the real cowboy.”

A Wellspring of Cowboy Songs, Stories and Poems

Ohrlin, 79, is a singer who is a cowboy. Those two words—“cowboy” and “singer”—might conjure up some old Hollywood stereotypes, but in Glenn’s case, they mean that he actually worked with cattle most of his life. He still has a few head on his Arkansas farm, and he even made a living for many years performing at rodeos. He sang during those years too. He never lost a love for music that showed itself when he was a child. He soaked up many songs, wrote a few, and learned poems.



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