In 1828, Jedediah Smith's tales of the plentiful wildlife in the San Joaquin River Valley led the Hudson Bay Company to send trappers to the barely-explored area between San Francisco (then the tiny port town of Yerba Buena), and the snowy Sierra Nevadas.
Slowly pioneers arrived, building farms and ranches. The population boomed in 1848 as gold seekers and Chinese immigrants made their homes in the valley, where they planted corn, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes and anything and everything else that would grow in the fertile soil. Cattlemen grazed their herds on the abundant bottomland grasses, and soon the amount of food being produced in the area made the San Joaquin Valley one of the richest agricultural regions of the world.
Brothers Joe and Jack Hannah were raised in this Steinbeckian environment, growing up in awe of the vaqueros of the nearby cattle ranches. Their father became a fan of the legendary '30s cowboy band The Sons of the Pioneers, and the boys would often join him in singing the romantic songs of the old West. They also sang at Saturday-night socials and in church, where they learned how to blend their voices to the sweet harmonies of hymns. Soon the Hannah brothers were being asked to sing all over the valley.
But it wasn't until the Hannah brothers sang at their father's 1987 birthday party that Joe's grown son Lon, asked if he could sing with his father and uncle. The trio clicked, and began singing all over the area.
They called themselves the Sons of the San Joaquin, in tribute to the band that led them to cowboy music. Jack already played guitar, but neither Joe nor Lon played an instrument. At a garage sale, Joe bought a bass and Lon a guitar, and after a month or so the three could play about eight songs, passably. Soon after that, the trio was asked to play at the 1989 Elko, Nevada National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. By the end of the weekend, The Sons were sharing the stage with country star Michael Martin Murphy, and had an invite to sing on one of his albums, Cowboy Songs.
Since that first Elko gathering, The Sons have released five albums, three on the Warner Western label and two with their current recording company, Western Jubilee. The Jubilee albums, Gospel Trails and Horses, Cattle and Coyotes, both exemplify the beautiful melding of the Hannahs' voices -- each man's notes falling neatly between those sung by the other two -- blending in an even harmony in which no voice crowds another.
The instrumental talents of Lon, Jack and Joe have also improved, filling each recording with rhythmic, old-fashioned cowboy guitar playing echoing the style of the Sons of the Pioneers circa 1930s, when the Pioneers were made up of Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer and Roy Rogers. Before his death in 1998, the King of the Cowboys counted himself among the Sons' fans.
"The Sons of the San Joaquin are the only singing group alive who I feel sound like the original Sons of the Pioneers," said Rogers.
The Jubilee release Horses, Cattle and Coyotes is the first album written almost entirely by Jack Hannah. Tired of playing covers of "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," Hannah began writing his own poems and songs about the lives of the cowboys he calls "America's greatest folk heroes."
Hannah's original songs, with titles like "Livin' the Life of the Trail," "I Ride Along and Dream," "Pale Moon (Over the Bed Ground)" and "He's Runnin' Out of Roundups" capture the romantic existence of these western heroes -- howling "ky-yotes," sparkling stars, crackling fires, plodding cattle, worn saddles and reliable horses.
While the ideas embodied in Trigger, the Lone Ranger and John Wayne are often forgotten in the high-tech, no-surprises present, the cowboy music and experience of the family from the fertile valley has won fans all over the world, each seeking not only melodic campfire-style folk music, but a retreat to simpler times.