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/