The rawness and richness of cowboy poetry is brought to life by famous western composer, Oscar J. Fox. Years after his songs hit the radio, they still touch the heart of a Reno man. "I was only probably 13 or 14 years old the last time I saw him," recalls Reno Mayor Bob Cashell. The Texas native grew up listening to Oscar's music. Why? The composer was his grandfather. "He had a big old' gray beard and hair, but he was very nice and always wanted all the boys and my sister to learn to play the piano. I never was smart enough; neither were my brothers."
Bob's mother, Julia, who was one of Oscar's three daughters, did play, however. "We had a piano. My mother could play the piano, so he would come over and we went to his concerts. He had different concerts in town." Oscar was born in Texas, but became an international student of music, as encouraged by his equally musical grandfather in Switzerland. Bob's wife, Nancy Cashell found out, "When Oscar Fox was about 16 to 17 years old, [Oscar's grandfather] brought him to Zurich to study music for three years." Oscar continued his studies in New York, before becoming a renowned composer - which required discipline, dedication and serious commitment to his craft. These are all respectable traits, but to a child, "I was real young, so I thought he was a grouch. I used to drive him crazy!" said Bob. Nancy jumped to the composer's defense, "I just think he was a very stern, self-disciplined Swiss/German musician and I think you said once you were scared to death of him really." To which Bob responded, "Oh yeah. He was very firm."
Oscar's passion for music proved fruitful when his music hit concert halls and the radio. He worked with performers like Tex Ritter, Nelson Eddy and Mario Lanza even brought his notes to life. "When I look at some of the history today, it pains myself that I should have paid a little more attention to who he was and what he was, because he was a leader in the music industry in the state of Texas and really all over."
Oscar's legacy lives on, however, albeit through a former truck driver - who admits he can't carry a tune. "I can't carry a tune in a bucket," Bob chuckled. Years after Oscar's passing, Bob met another musician – whom he'd later marry. Nancy played the piano as a child. One day after their wedding, they drove out west. Bob's work for an oil company brought him to Nevada where they settled in their first apartment on Idlewild Drive.
"She'll tell you I fell in love with Reno the first day we were here," Bob says of Nancy.
While Nancy embraced northern Nevada, too, she missed big city arts and culture, like the opera and the theater. Their lives continued to grow in northern Nevada though, where the truck driver eventually bought a truck stop and casino, which later became Boomtown. Bob then jumped into politics as Nevada's Lieutenant Governor.
"Way back in the 80's, when I was Lieutenant Governor of the state, corporations didn't want to come here because we didn't have the cultural activities and now you look at what we have."
Especially through his tenure as Reno Mayor, the arts continued to bloom. From the expansion of the Nevada Museum of Art to the growth of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra, "It's wonderful. We have the museum and Laura."
Laura Jackson was appointed Music Director of the Philharmonic in 2009 and the energy she brings to both the music and the stage is surpassed by none. Nancy marvels, "It's contagious when you see her. She transfers that to the audience." Bob echoes, "If she doesn't get you going, nobody else will."
"I'm having the time of my life when I'm up there. There's no experience for me that's like conducting a performance. You're in a different zone. You're in a different realm," says Laura. She also gets to explore the thoughtfulness of different composers, like Oscar J. Fox. Laura spent time studying his work. "Hills of Home, which is one of the ones we're going to perform and one that he's most famous for, it is very symphonic. I was really struck by that."
Laura also realized in her research that the story of Oscar J. Fox actually mirrors that of his grandson. Both started from humble beginnings and both self-made men spent their lives giving back. "Anybody who comes to a town with so little and creates so much for everybody around them is an inspiration to me."
So, while he might not be able to hold a note, just take a look around us and it's clear - Mayor Bob Cashell and his grandfather are actually singing the same tune. "I love this place. These are my Hills of Home. I've loved it from the day I came in."
The Reno Philharmonic Youth Orchestra will be performing the music of Oscar J. Fox at The Hills of Home Gala this Saturday, May 18th at the Downtown Reno Ballroom. The program begins at 6 p.m. To buy tickets, call the Reno Philharmonic at (775) 323-6393.
Written by Kristen Remington