Since first coming out West in the early 1960s, Don Edwards has immersed himself in the culture of the cowboy, from working on ranches in his youth to establishing himself as the leading cowboy singer of his generation. He is a two-time winner of the prestigious Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and his 1997 double-CD for Western Jubilee Recording Studio, Saddle Songs, won the Indie Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording. He was asked to give a concert for Gene Autry's 90th birthday celebration, and the show was turned into another album, for Western Jubilee, My Hero Gene Autry (1998). Edwards took a turn as an actor in The Horse Whisperer, where two of his songs were used in the film and on the soundtrack, reviving the singing cowboy tradition in film. His latest album, A Prairie Portrait, is a collaboration with cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the two have recently confirmed dates to perform with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra next October. He spoke with the Independent from his home in Weatherford, Texas on the eve of a trip to Ireland, sharing his knowledge of cowboy music and Western lore.
Do you make a distinction between Western music and cowboy music?
Western, I usually say, is more the creative written music. The music of Bob Nolan or Cindy Walker, who wrote so many wonderful songs for the Sons of the Pioneers. Things like the Sons of the San Joaquin do. That is more the Western that came from the movies and from the late period of Jimmy Rodgers. He kind of started that by writing Western songs, not taking them out of the folk idiom but taking songs about the West and romanticizing them to some point.
But the cowboy music, the folk music of cowboys, is generally traditional ballads, old Irish and Scottish airs, set to either new music or new lyrics. A lot of the time, they'd take old-time English ballads and sea chanteys, things like that, and change the lyrics to their surroundings. The closest kin to the cowboy was the sailor, not the Argentine gaucho of the campas. A lot of people say, "That was your cowboy relative down in South America." But as far as music was concerned, the songs of the sailors were a much closer kin, because the sea became the prairie.
Is there still an ongoing cowboy-music culture with freshly created material?
The big turning point now, the sole reason for it to turn around like it did, believe it or not, was the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. That very first one in 1985 brought [cowboy music] to the forefront. It became popular in a genre of itself, but it all stems to the resurgence of old-time music, the popularity of bluegrass. All that roots kind of music is finding a popularity because of the profit-driven people in Nashville putting out this pablum that is not good music. They call it bumper-sticker poetry. They say, "Today's bumper sticker, tomorrow's hit."
You're originally from the East?
I was born in a little town called Boonton, N.J., and, believe it or not, it was close to the northern reaches of the Appalachians, so there was a lot of music up there.
What were you looking for when you came out West?
It was the mystique of the cowboy, that lifestyle that drew me to it. I always knew I wanted to play the music. I was also eaten up with the mystique of the cowboy, from the books of Will James to the movies. There was part that was romantic, but there was part that was the real deal -- to work on a ranch, to go out and do that kind of stuff. The cowboy is the most popular folk hero America has ever produced.
Where is the cowboy in modern times?
Really having a hard time. To stay out there with all the urban sprawl and all that. They lamented it back then, even with the coming of the railroad back in the 19th century, but we still lament that now, taking away all this land. They're still out there, but as Baxter Black says, "You just can't see them from the highway."
But the music is staying pretty pure?
Oh, absolutely. Because the more people get away from their roots, the more they look for them. The more technology we have, the more people want to find something real. And lo and behold, they start hunting up traditional music, and that's what keeps us going.
Could you pick a cowboy song that you could analyze for me that demonstrates the basic components of cowboy music?
Well, there is a song that goes, "Whoopi ti yi yo, git along, little dogie." That song is a direct descendant of an old Irish tune called "The Old Man's Lament." Even the tune is almost intact. But it is a true cowboy folk song. No one knows who the author is. It was made up by lots of people. Somebody started it, and they just kept adding to it and taking away from it, depending on the locale. The Montana cowboy might have a few more verses to add. That is the true folk process. The Irish song was about a fatherless child, so they took that fatherless child and turned it into a motherless calf. "Dogie" is a short abbreviation for dough guts, which is a calf without a mother, with a swelled little tummy so it looked like a sack of sourdough. So they called 'em dough guts, or dough-gies, not doggies. It's pronounced with a long "o." So that is a real cowboy ballad, as opposed to "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which is a beautiful Western song, but it's a written song, about a romantic West.
The Blues Brothers has that great line, We play both kinds of music, country and Western. Most of the audience sees that as a joke, because the distinction is kind of blurred. How did country music get so far away from roots music?
It used to be that one was sort of synonymous with the other. Country and Western were really two genres, but they co-existed back in the early days, up until the mid-'60s. Now country music is profit-driven. It's manufactured music. They don't sing country music. They just sing about it. You see, 'Play me another George Jones song' or 'I heard old Hank on the jukebox.' In other words, they haven't got a clue, but as long as they have a hat"
How do you write a new song within a traditional framework?
You try to keep the sound of it or the style of writing sounding like the traditional music, but you also try to bring the subject matter up-to-date. You can write about how the West is vanishing, the waning of the West and so forth, the hardships of the ranchers in today's terms. I did a song on Saddle Songs called "The Old Cowman," which was a poem by Roger Clark. The funny thing was, he was talking about the waning of the West in 1907, and now it still holds true.
I know with the Gene Autry album, you talked about going back and trying to find the earliest version of those songs. Are you always working within the limitations of recorded music, or is there a way to go beyond that?
To oral versions? It can be done but it's harder. Because the old guys are gone, most of 'em, and it's harder and harder now to find a direct oral tradition -- a song from someone that has not been recorded or archived or something. So you've got to poke around in libraries and in archives and things like that. What I do is try to find the earliest possible version of a song. I really liked Autry's songs before they got too smoothed out. The early stuff was so honest.
How essential is it for American culture as a whole to maintain an understanding of that tradition?
I think people should have an understanding of our roots. The cowboy deal always symbolized individualism, self-reliance, that kind of thing. I think that's why people gravitated to it because even if people couldn't live that lifestyle, they could live with those values. I think the more we get away from it, the more people want to hear it. But regardless, it will always be a part of the folk tradition.
How did you reconcile your cowboy songs with the orchestra on your new album? It seems like an odd combination.
Well, it is, but you have to think again that classical music is very traditional. It's ancient music. All these big writers of symphonic music, Beethoven, Bach and Handel and all those people, they stole the basic melodies off of street minstrels. But they just elaborated on them to make these beautiful symphonic pieces.
There's a line in The Old Cowman -- I thank the Lord I wasn't born any later than I was. Would you like to have been born at another time?
Well, I fit better there, and so subsequently I live there through my music, and I generally kind of never left. People do look at you kind of strange, and they say, 'This is the 21st century, almost, and they're talking about millenniums, and all it means is that I'm going to be two centuries behind. People say they think you're not for real, you're just in it for the money. But we're not, and if we were, we'd be doing something else I'd be a lawyer or something.
Or a country singer?
Yeah, exactly. Even growing up, I never had a desire to go to Nashville and have a hit record. That never hit in my mind. My dad said, "Find something you like, and you never have to work a day in your life."
Malcolm Howard contributed to this article.