This music isn't for arenas.
Greg Harness talks with cowboy singing legend Don Edwards.
I started listening to the music of Don Edwards in the 1990s. I was looking for authentic cowboy music, and a friend told me Edwards was the primary keeper of that particular flame. I snatched up every CD I could find starting with Goin' Back To Texas and Saddle Songs and later Last Of The Troubadours. I loved it all, especially his cover of the Bob McDill song “Coyotes.” That song later appeared in the film "Grizzly Man" alongside songs by Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser, and Jim O'Rourke.
While I continued to listen to his records, I didn't get a chance to hear him perform live until the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 2013. That year he kicked off his first show saying, “I hope the young folks will find the old songs are just as good as they always were.” And to the packed house of about 300 people in the G Three Bar Theater, Edwards offered a sentiment many other of my favorite musicians have uttered: “This music isn't for arenas.”
I met with Edwards in person a few months ago at the 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which is always held in Elko, Nevada. He's appeared at the Gathering 25 times by my count, and he's already slated to appear again in 2015. I knew Edwards didn't come from a ranching background, and all the stories I'd read about the early events in Elko focused on how the Gathering was meant for performers from ranch families. “Yeah, that was the case, but not so much now,” he told me. “Waddie Mitchell talked Hal Cannon into bringing me in. Hal initially said, 'But he's a professional.' Waddie told him 'Don knows the old songs and he knows the history.' Hal's still impressed about how much folklore I know. More than lots of the folklorists.”
Don Edwards, Joel Nelson, Randy Rieman at the 2014 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
I asked if he was playing mostly cowboy songs at that time, and Edwards said, “Oh no, we all played everything then. The folk singers in Greenwich village all had cowboy songs. It was the record companies that drew the lines.” I asked who he was listening to back then, and the immediate response was Robert Johnson. “I've talked to the guys who knew Robert Johnson and heard him play, and they've all told me Johnson was a big fan of Gene Autry. But Johnson always said, 'We were black, so we had to sing the blues.' Record companies robbed us of our culture.”
Edwards rattled off a number of other influences, starting with Jimmie Rodgers. “With Rodgers it was all downstrokes. He was influenced by black music too. And Gene Autry was influenced by Rodgers. So was Bing Crosby. That's why Bing sang all those Western songs. And Lemon Jefferson, who was the first big blues star.”
Our conversation roamed from early blues and dixieland players to the early collectors of cowboy songs. The first name that Don Edwards mentioned sent me scrambling afterward to do more research, because I wasn't familiar with Will C. Barnes. Barnes was a cowboy, a rancher, a forest ranger, and more. “He carried his journal with him everywhere. To medicine shows. To cow camps in Texas. All over the country. And wrote down the songs he heard, and was the first to point out that blues and country had same structure.” In music circles, Barnes is best known for his 1927 article in the Saturday Evening Post, “The Cowboy and His Songs.” There were a few other collectors of cowboy song including John Lomax and his son Alan. Jack Thorpe was arguably the most important song collector. “Cowboys trusted Thorpe because we was a cowboy,” said Edwards. Much of Edwards's material comes from these collections, so he knows their stories and their songs well.
Don Edwards "Barbara Allen"
Our sprawling, rambling conversion ran from the deep past to the near future. “Technology is a good thing,” Edwards said, “because it will take the younger generation to save this music. And they are starting to, especially with bluegrass and old-time. They may not know anyone playing this music, but they listen to the records and try to do what they hear. That's not right or wrong. They just do it.” I asked if he was listening to younger players, and he named quite a few. “Mumford and Sons. Old Crow Medicine Show. Carolina Chocolate Drops. Norah Jones. And a guy who's playing here this week, Brenn Hill. He's got some good songs.”
Don Edwards "Little Joe The Wrangler"
We met for this interview in Stockmen's Casino, and as we walked the streets of downtown Elko headed back to our respective hotels I asked him if he'd heard the new song that Marvin O'Dell wrote for The Red Hot Rhythm Rustlers, “Don Edwards For President.” Edwards slowly shook his head. “That Marvin. I think everyone knows I make a better singer than a politician.”
As we parted ways, the lyrics to another Don Edwards song came sweeping over me. Edwards wrote the music using words penned by the poet Berton Braley. But this chorus was added by Edwards himself, making this into a rare original tune. Considering that our conversation did seem blown about by the wind, these words seemed especially fitting as we parted ways, capping the most interesting interview I've conducted.
I ride wherever the wind blows
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