Don Edwards is a cowboy. Has been for 43 years now. This Texan's been playing the traditional songs of the American West since 1960, and it looks like it's finally paid off. Last year Edwards released a CD of traditional cowboy music, High Lonesome Cowboy, with friend and bluegrass great Peter Rowan, recorded at Colorado Springs' own Western Jubilee Recording Company. Rowan and Edwards were joined by Norman Blake, also a Western Jubilee artist, recently acclaimed for his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Best Album Grammy winner in 2001.
Riding the wave of renewed interest in traditional American music, High Lonesome was promptly nominated for a Grammy award in the Traditional Folk category.
In a recent telephone interview from his home on the range in Texas, Edwards discussed the history of American folk music, its transformation into pop, the O Brother effect, why folks should listen to cowboy music now that we live in the future, and hip-hop.
Indy: So, it's great that they put you in the Traditional Folk category.
DE: That's absolutely correct (laughs). You know, we got lost in the country bins for so long ... and well, that's just not what it is. What I do is really part of American folk music, as opposed to country. There used to be a country and western, which was still a little bit different, but gosh. It's kind of hard to keep track of it all sometimes. The O Brother thing, I think that was the major [change]. You know, I haven't done anything different. A lot of us haven't! It's just put us back in the picture (laughs).
Indy: You guys all have teen groupies, now, I assume?
DE: Oh, yeah. It's just phenomenal (laughs). Well, you know, it was always there, but every once in a while, it takes something to spark that, to say, "Ooh, boy, I like that."
Indy: The O Brother thing came out of left field.
DE: It really did. Just out of nowhere, especially the way they were treating it, like, "We're just going to make a movie and play some old-time music." It's the same way [with us]. We never thought ... I mean, next thing you know, you've got a Grammy nomination. I'm up against Doc Watson!
Indy: Well, about that. Cowboy music, Americana, whatever you want to call it. What do you think its place is in modern times?
DE: I think people look back to their roots, and if you go back far enough ... I mean, the cowboy personified America. We're kind of more patriotic than we used to be, for obvious reasons. We always seem, as Americans, to go back to that. When things get too complex, and technology takes over their lives, they want to go back to the simple things. People got way off the agrarian society, for sure. We were mostly rural people at one time.
Indy: With cowboy music, the melody and chords followed a very basic structure. It creates a really palpable sense of melancholy, without resorting to a maudlin, minor key tone. Do you think that's one thing that translated to commercial success for country music? Johnny Cash, specifically -- the man sang probably three melodies in his entire life.
DE: (laughs) That's exactly right! There's another folk singer for you. The guy knows the music. It's not like today, where they haven't got a clue. They may have heard of Merle Haggard, but past that, they have no clue in modern country music. It has no substance! It's strictly manufactured. And that's fine, if that's what they want. I'm not saying they can't do it, I'm saying it hasn't got the soul. That's fine for entertainment, smoke and lights, all that, and that's great. Country used to mean rural; it's kind of a strange thing to call it today. [The old simplicity] is part of the charm of it. It's how it became so popular. People could not only sing the music, they could go out and buy a guitar, and in a couple days, they could play it.
Indy: I'm going out on a limb here, actually, but in terms of the well-defined sense of place, and where that sense resides in modern music, since that tradition tends to gravitate toward the underclass of society, do you think it might have a lot to do with the popularity of rap music?
DE: Absolutely. And those audiences like us. When we go to play in places like that, university towns where they're pretty diverse in their thoughts and minds and politics, their music is very diverse. They like all kinds of stuff. They're very receptive to it. And they can relate to it. Not firsthand, of course, but the spirit. I mean, rap was just street poetry, originally. Until it was taken to such heights where you've seen one, you've seen them all.
Indy: So, how's everything over at Western Jubilee?
DE: It's just wonderful, we just keep going along with our little grass-roots thing, and of course, we're still distributed nationally and worldwide by Shanachie. We're open to record whatever we want to record, whenever we want to record. It's pretty loose. [Peter Rowan and I] have enough [material] for another project. We're thinking of doing another one. I just think we're a really nice little grass-roots record company, and I don't think they've seen the last of us.