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How a woman named Snake and song circles helped a CSU alumna succeed

December 8, 2011

Called the “Songbird of the Sage” by the Western music group Riders in the Sky, Liz Masterson has been singing and performing cowboy music for more than 30 years. A resident of Denver, Masterson (’71) threw herself info the music business knowing nothing about it. “If I’d have known how hard it was, I probably wouldn’t have tried it,” she laughs.

But her hard work has placed her among the best cowboy music singers around. Her most recent CD, Roads to Colorado, won the Will Rogers Award for Best Western Album in 2009 from the Academy of Western Artists.

Although her career as a musician didn’t start until her early 30s, the seeds were planted at CSU. “When I was a freshman, I lived in Ingersoll Hall. Annie Whitney had a guitar and showed me three chords, and I was mesmerized,” Masterson says.

“I was drawn to the magic of the song circles held at the Lory Student Center – they were called hootenannies– where a woman with long black hair named Snake played guitar and lead the song circle.” As meditation and for fun, Masterson would practice the guitar in the stairwell of Ingersoll.

Can yodeling cause avalanches?

In 1981, Masterson was a member of a trio that performed music that dated from the 1870s to the 1940s. She received a cassette recording of the “Girls of the Golden West” as well as a songbook of Patsy Montana, which launched Masterson’s career as a yodeler.

“Yodeling is intrinsic to early Western music. There was lots of yodeling in the late 20s through the 40s. I became obsessed with it,” Masterson says. She studied yodeling and teaches it, and in 2007, the cable TV show “MythBusters” invited her to help them test the theory that yodeling can cause an avalanche.

“‘MythBusters’ flew me to Telluride and we went up on a snowcat and I yodeled at the mountain and yodeled through an alpine horn. It didn’t cause an avalanche, but I think it could if the conditions were right,” she says.

What a life

Besides yodeling, Masterson plays the guitar and ukulele. “Western swing [music] is my absolute favorite. It’s a combo of big band, hillbilly string band music, and Dixieland,” she says.

From agriculture banquets to historical societies to folk festivals, Masterson performs solo or with a music partner; a trio, the Sweethearts in Carhartts; and her Western swing band, the Cactus Crooners.

Her day job includes substitute teaching (“everything but science”), private yodeling lessons, and taking care of her blue heeler and Jack Russell dogs.