Art & Culture

A singing cowboy from Aromas in the days of COVID

Jim Aceves and his mount Silverado ply their trade in Santa Cruz.
Poster for the April 18 performance celebrating the "Orange Tier" for Santa Cruz County. Photo courtesy of Jim Aceves.

When the coronavirus shutdown began, Jim Aceves of Aromas found himself out of work.

“Roaring Camp is closed, county fairs are closed, but I’m looking around, going, ‘People want to be entertained,’” he told BenitoLink, from his saddle atop Silverado the Wonder Horse. “They need something to put a smile on their face.”

“Cisco Jim,” as he is known by many, is a singing cowboy—a largely vanished occupation whose popularity peaked in between the 1920s and 1940s. Film stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, both of whom Aceves admires, rode horses and sang songs before enormous audiences in the genre’s golden era. Aceves also takes inspiration from more contemporary Western-music groups such as the Sons of the Pioneers and Riders in the Sky, led by yodeling baritone Ranger Doug, and from his brother Tony, who died in 2015. “My brother started the first folk group, for a folk mass, back in the sixties—at least in our diocese [of San Diego],” Jim recalled. “He taught me a lot of what I know about music.”

Aceves, 67, started teaching public school in 1980, in San Benito and Santa Clara Counties. “I taught for enough years, mostly fourth grade—where we do California history, cowboy stuff,” he said. “And I put in enough years where I thought, ‘You know what, forget having two careers—I can retire from one of them. And while my voice is still good, I think I’m gonna stick to performing.’”

Aceves’ classically trained three-octave voice has been heard at the Humboldt State University theater and a Gilroy cabaret, in operas and musicals including Il Trovatore, The Magic Theater, The Fantastics, and Once Upon a Mattress. He’s also sung during Masses at the historic Mission San Juan Bautista since 1989. Aceves said he has always wanted to play the part of another idealistic horseman, Don Quixote, in Man of La Mancha, but he hasn’t yet.

Seeing the Riders In the Sky at the 1991 Strawberry Festival, along with a couple of other chance encounters, catalyzed his decision to sing cowboy songs full-time, and he started to perform as “Cisco Jim” (an abbreviation of his first and middle names, “James Francisco”) in 1993 at the San Andreas Brewing Company. 

Since 2016, Aceves has worked as the “Town Marshal” of the Roaring Camp tourist attraction in the Santa Cruz mountains, where he carries a badge and a “pistola,” sings songs, and races on Silverado against the narrow-gauge train as it leaves town.

When the pandemic brought his performing to a halt, Aceves was at a loss for what to do with his skills. Around Christmas he had an idea: trot up and down Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz singing his repertoire. “So during the holiday season we came down here three or four times. Since then we’ve been coming down about once every month,” he said. They last visited Santa Cruz on April 18, and Jim has regularly performed online concerts of Western and folk music too.

The 35-year-old Silverado is a landmark in Aceves’s life and career. “I’ve been riding horses as far back as I can remember, but this guy is the first I ever owned,” he said. “On every birthday cake, ‘I wish for a horse,’ pffft. A year later, ‘I wish for a horse,’ pffft. I was 45 when I got him—he’s what I call my ‘45-candle-power’ horse.”

On the day he was interviewed, Aceves was wearing orange to celebrate Santa Cruz County’s move into the Orange Tier. “I just can’t wait for the venues to open up,” he said. Silverado was wearing a horse-diaper with a Roaring Camp patch sewn onto it — a little advertising, Aceves said, for when things are fully open again.


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Andrew Pearson