Southern Idaho Living Magazine
Featuring Ernie Sites on the cover and a great article and photos!
By: Paula D. Webb Department: Features Published: March 1, 2011
Ernie Sites is a true Southern Idaho Cowboy. He's a bareback rider, bull rider, team and calf roper and rodeo clown. he's also a professional Western Entertainer.
Born in Idaho Falls and raised in Wendell, Idaho, Ernie began honing his skill in rodeo and Cowboy entertainment at a young age. From the time he could barely wrap his arms around his father's oversized guitar his training had begun. This training in subsequent years would eventually become a career taking him around the world in preserving the traditional ethics of an ever-changing Cowboy lifestyle.
When Ernie's father Ernie Sites, Sr., who once played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, mentioned to his wife and children he'd like to play the guitar, they presented him with his wish for Christmas. After a few lessons he set it aside because of work, but 8-year-old Ernie picked it up and struggled to form chords with his small hands.
His father modified the neck of the guitar so little Ernie could reach, but with this modification came a challenge from his parents. If he could learn "Boogie Woogie" on the acoustic guitar, they would buy him an electric guitar. The challenge took 4 years to accomplish. By this time the family had moved from Austin, Minnesota out West where his parents had bought a small farm on the desert plains of Wendell. They held true to their promise and he was awarded an electric guitar. "When he got his new guitar that's when he moved out to the barn," his mother Ivie Sites says with a smile, "because it came with an amplifier."
Ernie learned to play the guitar in the back room of the local barbershop in Wendell. The local barber, also a musician, took Ernie under his wing and taught him to associate song with music. An integral lesson that enabled him to blend his talent on the guitar with a voice that learned to yodel, whistle and yip along with singing the lusty songs of the old west. He once said he felt sorry for anybody who got a haircut when he was singing off-key.
An intrinsic love for rhyme and the written word started Ernie creating poems long before he'd learn to sing. "I still have many of the poems he wrote for me when he was a little boy," says his mother, who was also one of his greatest examples.
This combination of music and lyrics would ultimately lead Ernie to the recording studio. A series of seven CDs "Cowboy Classics," "Rage of the Sage," "Great American Hero", "Idaho Winds," "Saddle Bags and Wishes," "Trail Ridin'" and "Singing the Stories of the West," become Ernie's signature testament to his Western devotion.
Ernie's cowboy skills developed in tandem with his musical abilities. Inspired by his hero, Will Rogers (the cowboy humorist who did rope tricks while telling stories), Ernie took on the challenge of learning the wedding ring, flat loop, Texas skip and other tricks that would later become a vital part of his shows later on in his career. He still ropes and rides at 1000 Acres, a historic ranch resort that runs 100 head of horses in the Adirondacks in New York.
When he was 15, Ernie formed his first band, "The Golden Wheelers," consisting of his brother and a friend. It was an era when, as Ernie puts it, "Everyone had a garage band." Their first gig was at a bar in Hansen, Idaho, where they were each paid $30.
From there Ernie traveled to Bellevue (where his mother was raised) and Sun Valley, where a whole new world of entertaining opened up for him. Sun Valley, being an elite nature-loving tourist destination, introduced Ernie to people from across the nation and internationally, which helped him grow as an artist and fed his enthusiasm to share his craft with the world. He would spend time in the mountains with his guitar, writing poetry and singing.
After marriage, Ernie took work where he could, working with the Idaho Fish and Game as well as hiring out as a ranch hand where he hauled hay and cut firewood to bring in enough money to support his growing family. He also joined a union and became a journeyman carpenter, which became a valuable investment. Meanwhile, Ernie continued to entertain, performing at the Stockman's Bar and other dining clubs in the Twin Falls area. He signed a contract with Sandpiper Restaurant, an elite dining establishment that would take him to Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Boise and Twin Falls where he performed for one week at a time.
A turning point in Ernie's musical career came when he realized he could make a full day's wages in four hours singing and entertaining. And he had fun doing it. Struggling with the decision to make a career change he decided to devote his full attention to singing and entertaining at clubs and restaurants, along with selling his own CDs.
With each consecutive decision he made, opportunities opened up for different avenues of entertainment. But one of the greatest opportunities came unexpectedly when Ernie and a friend were traveling to San Francisco and stopped over at Elko, Nevada. It happened to be the week of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where singers and songwriters from all over the nation convened to share, entertain and compete in all walks of cowboy life. Ernie checked it out and was amazed to discover a whole nucleus of people who thought like him. He fit right in and at this juncture in his career Ernie observes, "I realized my persona."
He eventually became well-recognized by the Western Music Association (WMA) and began performing with big names in Western music history, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Patsy Montana, Riders in the Sky and Sons of the Pioneers. This core of entertainers attracted him to a much larger audience as he pursued cowboy entertainment singing and yodeling, along with performing rope tricks and sharing Cowboy history.
In the latter course of his musical career, Ernie added what he considered one of his greatest accomplishments: working with children. He wrote and helped produce a theatrical program for children called "Native Americans Indians and Cowboys Too," a performance that ran for five years during the winter months in Queens College, New York, and entertained 2,000 children a day, five days a week. Along with his current program, "Singing the Stories of the West," and as an artist in residence, Ernie conducts creative writing classes that focus on rhyming poetry as well as free verse which is mainly for children in 3rd to 6th grades, as well as special needs children. His goals for the future are to continue developing educational programs and to keep touring.
Some of Ernie Sites' greatest heroes are those he grew up around him in Southern Idaho. "The local ranchers and cow folk who were and still are my friends, who laugh at my stories and sing along with my songs." In retrospect of his life and career he concludes, "The ranching business is ever-changing and evolving but holds to traditional ethics. My work is the same. I'm a traditional musician with old-school values. I try to impart this in every show. Working with our youth is a wonderful experience. For whatever I give, I get back. We need old values in our new world."
And that's a true Southern Idaho Cowboy.
You can visit his website: http://www.erniesites.com/
I really enjoyed this article about Ernie Sites. He's a hardworking talented entertainer who connects with his audiences where ever he goes and puts lots of fun and energy into his shows. He is a gifted educator and his programs both the assemblies and creative writing workshops are inspiring. Thanks for featuring him and the excellent photographs of him. Take a look at his videos on youtube and his information on his web site http://www.erniesites.com. Thanks for this heartwarming feature.
Persimmon Hills Story
To some school children in New York and Connecticut, Ernie Sites might as well be a man from the moon. Colorful, exotic, and unfamiliar, his traditional working cowboy garb and stories of adventure and valor ate full of mystery and delight. Yet for some, he is somehow familiar.
After all, everyone knows about cowboys. In fact, for thousands of kids who live a long, long way from the open range, Ernie Sites isn't just from the West ~he is the West; he is its authentic, native son
"I just love kids,” Sites admits. A family man with a brood of his own, now mostly grown, he returns to youth audiences as a western entertainer for the pure energy they give. "Performing for kids is a natural high! They listen to everything you tell 'em, plus they’re smart and they want to believe.
"When I was growing up, our heroes were cowboys - men like the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I know kids are still fascinated with cowboys and hopefully, what they stand for, too. I'm in this business of western entertainment to inspire these kids to greatness."
For the Connecticut program, "Young Audiences," for school kids in the New York area, and for other children in the New York area, and for other children coast to coast, Sites says," I'm here to let them know cowboys are still alive!"
Sites, an accomplished performer for audiences of every age, know of what he speaks. Reared in rural Idaho on a family farming ranch, he shared in the full gamut of western life experiences, taking part in daily ranch chores, minding livestock, and working with horses.
Summers provided opportunities for fun like calf roping, bull riding and bareback riding. In his early twenties, he also became a rodeo clown, just one more part of the western life he enjoyed.
Sites started playing the guitar at the age of seven. "My mother always encouraged us to be involved with music. Way back then, I perceived myself as an entertainer and performed for friends and family whenever I could," he says.
He got involved in scouting in his twenties and became a Cub Scout master and also a Boy Scout leader, discovering through his community service his own special talent for working with kids. Between youth and music, his unique entertainment career began to evolve.
That career includes a fine collection of tapes and CDs of mostly original music: Idaho Western Winds, Cowboy Classics, Saddlebags and Wishes, Rage of the Sage-A Western Storytelling Album, Singing the Stories of the West, also a songbook, and his latest, Great American Hero.
A steady calendar of bookings nationwide keeps him on the road throughout the year. Sites can boast a line-up of performance credits ranging from cowboy poetry and music gatherings from Elko, Nevada, and Santa Clarita, California to West Fest in Arizona, and dozens more.
Sites divides his personal time between two worlds: he shares big city life with his wife Barbara, a pianist with the New York Ballet, while he anchors himself the rest of the time to his western roots. He returns often to his family home and children in Wendell, Idaho, just to ride, feel the wind, and start allover again.
A highlight in Sites' performance/music career is his contract with Green Meadows Farm in Queens, New York, an outdoor park where school kids come for cultural enrichment.
In October alone, Sites explains, "More than 75,000 kids passed my performance area. The location is a real farm with animals: an environmental experience where I feel at home.
"What I do is try to impart the true values of the West to the kids; not just the myth or the image. I want to influence youth and help shape the next generation through our heritage, its western stories and its music. I realize I have real values to impart -and that's both a privilege and a responsibility," he says.
Sites' road to the educational arena began years ago when he was hired to do school programs for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The program, Cowboys' Songs and Range Ballads, was an entertainment offering for school children ages K-12. "While there, Dan Key, the curriculum director for the Green Meadows Farm, came to the Cody event looking for new talent. He liked what I had to offer and invited me to join his team."
Eventually, they created an indoor Wild West Show for kids with Sites as the Head Wrangler- Showmaster, developed around the mystique of the Native American and the cowboy.
"We had Indian dancers, a trick roper, and a cowboy named Lonestar with a sidekick called Porterhouse, plus other performers," Sites relates. "We worked together and the show played at Queens College, where we kept it going for three years until we took it on the road allover the East and eventually into Texas. One year, we showed it to 2,000 kids a day for three months!"
Today, Sites performs solo, managing to be a complete one-man show that travel light and fast. He makes himself available to schools for a one-day residency, but prefers a one-week program where he can perform for different grade levels in assemblies. In his repertoire, he covers a quick cowboy introductory pro- gram, beginning with a big hearted "How-dee!" encouraging his audience to greet him back with even more zest. They always do.
Then he proceeds to identify all the parts of a cowboy's gear and costume and explains the various aspects of cowboy life. In the process, he uses story telling, punctuated with poetry; does trick roping, at which he's an expert, sings and yodels, and quickly draws his audience around him with spellbinding professionalism.
Sites also have the unique ability to control kids. "Occasionally I have to quiet them down. But most of the time, I have them, body and soul. For years I've been a student of body language ~ I study faces and behavior. I know exactly where they are and how far I can take them. In fact, I take my cues from the kids themselves, so every performance is different as I adapt to my audience."
Sites' voice is mellow and richly textured with a broad tonal range. He can also howl like a coyote or hiss like a bandit with equal conviction, adding melodrama and depth to his storytelling skills. As an actor, his range is impressive, too. One of his favorite bits is the classic cowboy poem, Strawberry Roan, chanted like a rap artist, truly a crossover performance.
He brings it all together by doing fun interactive projects and sing-alongs and actually gets kids on stage as well- In the class- room, he guides them through creative writing and art, often using western painting reproductions as a trigger for spontaneous writing exercises. In short, , he's a crash course on the West and a mentor who leaves kids wishing for more.
During the summers, Sites is also the resident cowboy at an East Coast resort. One Thousand Acres in Adirondack Park, one of the first dude ranches in the state of New York, is right off the Hudson River. The ranch owns more than a hundred head of horses and attracts a steady and varied clientele.
Regulars come from big cities and allover New England and Canada to relax and ride horses, western style of course,
and expose their kids to something fresh and new. Sites perform as the "on-site cowboy entertainer," mainly for the children.
"I troubadour between the beach, the restaurant and the Red Dog Saloon," Sites explains. "I walk among the folks when I perform and let them see who I really am. I've learned one thing: when kids are happy, parents are happy. It never fails.
" And in truth, we're all big kids. When I do corporate shows, believe it or not, I use the same material I use for family shows with sing-alongs, fun hats, and cowboy jokes. I play to the kid in everybody and it usually works," he says.
Sites' ultimate dream is to help create a complete educational curriculum nationally for the U .S. school systems, portraying the American cowboy as a true symbol of the American way of life.
In that regard, he's also written a heartwarming play, performed by and for kids, titled How Cowboy Ernie Finds His Yodel, a touching story with a message about living right and doing good.
Not surprisingly, Sites likes to close many of his youth performances with a recitation of a poem based on the famed Cowboy Code of Honor, inspired by the guidance of Gene Autry.
"I always insist the kids recite it with me," Sites says. "We try to personalize it, make it work for them. Then we close with the national cowboy anthem, nothing less than Home on the Range. Kids walk out the door humming when they leave. They love it."
For those who really like what Ernie Sites has to give, they can almost take him home. Not his expressive blue eyes, big bandana, or yellow boots with the red hearts on them, but his music and his message. His perfectly com- posed CDs mix just the right amount of nostalgia and true western inspiration, his wistful lyrics and music are as authentic as the great western singers of yesteryear.
He has a fun songbook for kids of all ages, published by Centerstream Publishing, with pictures for coloring and tidbits of western lore, complete with a CD.
His latest recording, probably his best to date out of five song- packed collections, is titled The Great American Hero, a veritable homage to the cowboy life.