Keeping Cowboy Spirit Alive

It seems like a scene from a Hollywood Western, but in the true golden light of the Texas Panhandle, there are still real cowboys, moving their cattle the old-fashioned way: on horseback.

CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver went West to meet a modern man who maintains a deep-rooted tradition.

At age 68, Frankie McWhorter is foreman of the Cooper Ranch in Lubbock, Texas. Known widely as an expert horse trainer and cow handler, he doesnÂ't like to brag about his skills.

"I donÂ't do much, just kind of ride around, keep these boys confused," McWhorter says, laughing. "You canÂ't act like those guys in the movies out here, but I was always fortunate to get a good job."

"I was pretty young and I got a job with a ranch," he says. "I think I was 17 and them old cowboys, they did a lot of training on you."

But young Clay Cooper, whose grandfather first hired Frankie, says McWhorterÂ's modesty is an indication that he is the real McCoy.

"A real cowboy would never say, 'Well, IÂ'm a real cowboy,'" he says. "You talk to him; itÂ's more like, Â'Well, IÂ'd like to be or I always wanted to be.Â'"

"And I think guys like FrankieÂ…are getting to the point where surely they can admit that they are the real cowboy," he says.

He may be a heck of a cowboy, but thatÂ's just one of McWhorterÂ's talents. The man who punches cattle so gracefully can also play the fiddle gloriously.

At the Ranching Heritage Center, McWhorter and his friends make the old Texas ranch dance tunes come alive.

Read The Braverline on Frankie McWhorter.
"FrankieÂ's somebody close to the land, and he captures the essence of what itÂ's like living out here in his playing," says Lanny Fiel, a music historian who has produced several albums of McWhorterÂ's music.

"This is the music that was played in those old farmhouses, dances, out on dance platforms," Fiel explains.

"This was the only entertainment out there," Fiel says. "And that is the music that has been handed down from father to son for centuries and I think Frankie is still an open window to that."

But McWhorter says that when listening to his music, people should try to feel the heart in it. And if the music and the land are linked in his soul, itÂ's because McWhorter learned to play as he worked.

"We shipped some cattle outÂ…and it was raining and we didnÂ't go back to the wagon to eat," he says, recalling an experience in Rumero or Channing, Texas.

"They let us eat in a café [in 1950]Â…and the only song that played in there was Faded Love, Bob Wills' recording of Faded Love over and over. AndÂ…it touched me," McWhorter adds. "And I...sad...I'm going to get me a fiddle and I'll do that."

McWhorter improved by practicing around the campfire with other cowboys.

"TheyÂ'd laugh at me because I couldnÂ't play them old cowboy [songs]," he says. "And I said, 'Go ahead and laugh, one of these times IÂ'm going to play with Bob Wills.'"

And sure enough, one day the late Wills, who was a legend in these parts, heard McWhorter and hired him for his band, the Texas Playboys. But being a professional musician was not the same as being a cowboy.

"I learned how miserable it was to be away from your family. I had a young family and I missed them," McWhorter explains.

"When you were on the bandstand with Bob Wills,Â…it was fun. ThereÂ's 20 other hours you have to live through," McWhorter explains. "I missed my family dearly."

So after a few years on the road with Wills, McWhorter came back to ranching, and heÂ's been doing that ever since.

But just about every weekend, you can find him on the road playing his music.

One recent occasion he played at the Woodward Oklahoma Senior Citizens center, where the audience is quick to dance.

But itÂ's not just the old timers who delight in McWhorterÂ's music. Youngsters Amber Smithson and Amanda Shires both play in a ranch band headed by Fiel. They are determined to keep McWhorterÂ's legacy alive.

"I like the energy thatÂ's behind it, and I also like the words of the songs, because if you really listen to them theyÂ're kind of crazy," says Smithson.

The kids first learned the tunes by coming and sitting on McWhorterÂ's front porch.

"It was the most gratifying feeling," McWhorter remembers.

"I walked out there in the pasture and cried," he says. "The way they were playing those old tunes just hits you in the heart."

"Those little whelps! The old tunes it took me 10 years to learn they learned in 10 minutes," he notes.

But if he had to choose between being a cowboy or being a fiddler, the answer is quite clear.

"A cowboy," McWhorter asserts. "I just love it."

"If you get pretty successful at it, you donÂ't get any exercise," he says about fiddling. "You just run from one town to the next and no exercise and you just deteriorate. Cowboys have to do things."

And McWhorter says he has a lot of things left to do, both as a cowboy - and a musician.