The author is a freelance writer based in Union Bridge, Md.

Live music has been a staple of the dairy cattle show at World Dairy Expo for nearly four decades. The musical samplings span the gamut of country, pop, jazz, and rock to name a few.

For the past three years, James Walter of Stoughton, Wis., has provided the music for visitors of the showring to enjoy while they watch and cheer for their favorite bovine beauties. A retiree from a career in information technology, Walter is a friend of previous World Dairy Expo musician Mike Ashworth.

“I have known Mike Ashworth for the past 40 years and had heard him perform at World Dairy Expo many times. I was referred by Mike Ashworth to the Expo staff as his successor,” he shared. “Aside from Expo, you can frequently find me at Liliana’s in Fitchburg, Wis., a New Orleans-styled restaurant. I also play for corporate events and parties.”

Observing Walter, an onlooker can see just how passionate he is about the music. Fingers gracefully gliding across his electric keyboard, he happily “bops” to the rhythm of the notes echoing into the large arena. Walter totes with him a substantial musical history, too.

“I have been playing the Hammond (electric) organ for 60 years. I started organ lessons at age 6, and my parents decided that the family would buy a home organ in 1959. The availability of the electric organ represented the leading edge of the home entertainment industry and many people purchased an organ instead of a piano. I scored high on the musical aptitude test, so I started taking organ lessons back then.”

Walter was led to playing in local rock bands when he was in school, and then taking classes at a conservatory. “I later worked as a keyboard player for various hotel chains in the 70s. In the 80s, I played at area supper clubs as the house musician on a full-time basis, traveling the country,” he explained. Walter transitioned into an information technology career toward the end of the 80s and did that full-time for 29 years while performing on weekends at local Madison, Wis., area venues as a soloist with bands.

He’s also had the opportunity to learn how to play the piano, electronic keyboards (synthesizers), drums, bass, guitar, trumpet, baritone, tuba, clarinet, and saxophone, and he sings lead and harmony. “I’ve even worked as an electronic technician, repairing and maintaining electronic musical equipment as well as owning and operating my own music store for 12 years,” he said.

A new gig

A cattle show was a different-styled venue for the musician. Walter soon figured out that he had to change a few performance tactics to become Expo’s music man. “On a typical performance, a four-hour window is the normal time frame,” said Walter. “World Dairy Expo requires up to 12 to 14 hours of playing each day.” Walter prepares for it each year by organizing his performance materials into a computer-based keyboard workstation. Walter added, “I also maintain a physical and mental regiment of exercise, nutrition, and practice to enable me to build endurance for the long periods of time required daily.”

As most musicians do, Walter has some favorite pieces that he feels fit into the lineup. World Dairy Expo is able to give creative space to Walter within the guidelines of the showring etiquette. Walter enjoys playing music from the great American songbook (standards). “Jazz, rock, and country are popular music, too,” he said. “I like to incorporate many genres of music into the World Dairy Expo song list.” The majority of songs are popular selections that sound familiar to the audience’s ear. Walter likes to choose songs that are in “major” keys (primary or familiar sound) with a positive and upbeat appeal.

“Songs in ‘minor’ keys project an element of melancholy and are used on occasion, when needed,” he expressed. Walter enjoys playing to the masses, and with the diverse audience Expo provides, it’s quite easy for him to offer many different fields of musical flavor.

“Most of the pieces I use can be categorized as nostalgia, as I use material from the past 100 years of pop music,” he explained. “I include some current popular music as well as ethnic music, such as polkas, waltzes, Latin, swing, Dixieland, and light-classical themes. The music needs to be as positive and diverse as possible.”

Most musicians are expected to become well-versed at following cues within a dance routine or singer. Gathering experience from a typical performance, it comes to no surprise that Walter has mastered the art of cattle-show etiquette when it comes to coordinating musical themes around a working showring. “It’s pretty easy to get the rhythm (of the show) and read the signs about when to play and when to stop,” he shared. “Once I played for the show a few times, it got easier, but I need to constantly watch the ring, the judges, and the announcers for cues.”

The musician can also recognize and appreciate the rhythm of a well-run program. “The World Dairy Expo show is extremely well-organized and orchestrated by the staff who put a tremendous amount of effort into making everything perfect,” expressed Walter.

Similar to the vibe a musician feels when playing to a crowd at a dance or concert, Walter can understand the mood of the bovine audience he bestows his melodies. “The cows love me!” he shared with a chuckle. Walter can tell the cattle enjoy the music by watching them comfortably ease into their paces on the colored shavings.

“I appreciate that the World Dairy Expo staff incorporates and supports live music, and I extend my gratitude,” shared Walter.

The next time you visit Expo and find yourself humming to a familiar tune, look up into the stands. You will likely find Walter “bopping” along to his musical talents.