SCV Newsmaker of the Week | Don Edwards, Western Balladeer
Newsmaker of the Week: DON EDWARDS
Taped February 29, 2004, at Trail Dust Days in Tucson, Arizona
Host: Leon Worden | Camera: Susan Shapiro
ABOUT DON EDWARDS
Don Edwards continues to build a legacy that enriches our vision of the American West. In tales of the day-to-day lives and emotions of those who have lived it, his ballads paint a sweeping landscape of both mind and heart, keeping alive the sights, sounds and feelings of this most American contribution to culture and art. The quality of this cowboy balladeer’s music stems from the fact that he is so much more than a singer. Bobby Weaver of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, summed up Edwards’ importance as “…the best purveyor of cowboy music in America today.”
A historian, author and musicologist, unusually well-versed in cowboy lore and musical traditions, Don brings a rare complement of knowing and loving his craft. Mostly, though, there is the soul of a poet; a man who has never succumbed to the temptations of presenting a glamorized or romanticized version of the West. Edwards deals with bad weather, petty motivations, sadness, nostalgia and longing, as parts of the landscape like any other.
The son of a vaudeville magician, Don was aware as a child of a vast cross-section of music from classical to jazz, and blues to Western swing. Many of those influences enter his own music as they did the music of the West. Edwards was drawn to the cowboy life by the books of Will James and the “B” Westerns of the silver screen, particularly those featuring “sure-’nuff cowboys” like Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. He taught himself guitar at age 10, and chased the rodeo and worked ranches in Texas and New Mexico during his teens. In 1961, he got a job as an actor/singer/stuntman at Six Flags Over Texas and he was to stay with music from then on. In 1964, he made his first record.
Don became part owner of The White Elephant Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards and played acoustic solo sets midweek, and with a band on weekends. Subsequently, Esquire magazine named The White Elephant one of America’s 100 best bars. Edwards also began playing throughout Oklahoma and Texas, and with the birth of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., he achieved widespread recognition. He has now entertained throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Europe and the Far East.
Two of Don’s albums, “Guitars & Saddle Songs” and “Songs of the Cowboy,” are included in the Folklore Archives of the Library of Congress. These anthologies have been re-recorded and expanded as the 32-song double CD/cassette called “Saddle Songs.” This project took first place as the Best Folk/Traditional Album of the year at the annual INDIE Awards ceremony in May 1998, and continues to garner strong sales in stores and on television. The collection is on Western Jubilee Recording Co.’s label. He has received from Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum — aka the Cowboy Hall of Fame — the prestigious Wrangler Award for Outstanding Traditional Western Music — once for his recording, “Chant of the Wanderer” in 1992, and for a second time in 1996 for “West of Yesterday.” Other projects include: a book, Classic Cowboy Songs; performance on Nanci Griffith’s Grammy-winning video and recording, “Other Voices, Other Rooms”; co-presenter with Waddie Mitchell on the network-televised Academy of Country Music Awards; featured performer for the Los Angeles Golden Boot Awards; and multiple awards from the Western Music Association for Male Vocalist and Performer of the Year.
Don has presented seminars at Yale, Rice, Texas Christian and other universities. His recordings under the Warner Western label, “Goin’ Back to Texas,” “Songs of the Trail,” “The Bard & The Balladeer” and “West of Yesterday” have spawned a new audience for his craft.
The summer of 1997 found Don Edwards in Livingston, Montana, portraying the role of Smokey in Robert Redford’s film, “The Horse Whisperer.” In addition to his acting/singing role, Don is featured on the MCA soundtrack. In May 1998, to coincide with the theatrical release of “The Horse Whisperer,” Warner compiled and released “The Best of Don Edwards” while Western Jubilee offered Don’s “My Hero Gene Autry,” recorded live at Mr. Autry’s 90th birthday party at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. His next two recordings for Western Jubilee resulted in two more visits to Oklahoma City, both receiving the Outstanding Traditional Western Music Recording of the Year — “A Prairie Portrait” (April 2001) with Waddie Mitchell and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and “Kin To The Wind, Memories of Marty Robbins” (April 2002). In the fall of 2002, Western Jubilee releases an important special project: Don Edwards and bluegrass icon Peter Rowan team up on “High Lonesome Cowboy.” This recording traces the roots of Western music from Appalachia to Abilene and includes legendary musicians Norman Blake and Tony Rice.
The richness of Don’s voice, coupled with an unforgettable stage presentation, make Don Edwards America’s No. 1 Western singer and concert attraction. The accolades have been simply added bonuses for Edwards, who sings what he does out of love and respect for the genre. Don’s career continues to blossom, and luckily for all who care about it, he has, because of his sincere approach, added much to the literature and music of the West, passing on to the rest of us a rich legacy.
Don Edwards was inducted in 2000 into the Downtown Newhall Walk of Western Stars.
SCVTV: You’ve been coming to Santa Clarita every year since our Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival started in 1994.
EDWARDS: It’s wonderful. I’ll tell you what, all these gatherings they have around the country — I’ve had the pleasure of being at many of them, but Santa Clarita has always been a special one. It took on its own life right from the beginning. I guess the earthquake started it all*, and then when we got to Melody Ranch … it just went from there. I’ve been very proud and happy to be a part of that for so many years.
SCVTV: Attendance-wise, how does Santa Clarita stack up against the rest?
EDWARDS: I think Santa Clarita stacks up there right at the top of them. It really does. It’s amazing.
SCVTV: A lot of people consider you the premier cowboy singer. But you’re not a Country-Western singer.
EDWARDS: No, Lord no.
SCVTV: What’s the difference?
EDWARDS: If you start at the beginning, “Country” meant rural. And now I don’t know what country it’s from.
It changes. Country was the rural music of the South, originally. … “Western” music was the romantic West, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Sons of the Pioneers, that was more of the romantic West. And then you had cowboy music, which was basically cowboy folk music, which came out of the old country and into the Appalachians and from the Cumberlands to the cow camps. So that is that difference. But Country and Western used to coexist. At one time, Gene Autry coexisted with Ernest Tubb and Ray Price and Marty Robbins.
That’s another great thing about Santa Clarita. It’s got its own life, and it takes both of these lives: the real cowboy and their poetry and the old music, and the newer Western music — because it’s right there in Hollywood where the motion pictures were made, and especially up around Santa Clarita, in Newhall and Saugus and up in that area.
SCVTV: But when you talk about the music in Gene Autry movies, the music in Roy Rogers movies — isn’t there a big difference between that and what you do?
EDWARDS: That’s true. It’s funny that you — a lot of people don’t recognize that fact.
The guy that really started Western music — most people consider that Jimmie Rodgers was the guy that started that … in the å30s. What he did was kind of write about a romantic West which really wasn’t true. To some degree it was, I mean, the beautiful country and nature and all that kind of thing. But that was the written song, that was written with words and music, just like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry did, and the Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Nolan, Cindy Walker, all these wonderful songwriters.
But the cowboy folk music was generally the old-time cowboy songs that were recorded by people that were unknown, basically. You had Carl T. Sprague. He’s not a household name by any means. He was a guy that in 1925 had one of the biggest-selling records of any genre, selling over 900,000 records of a song called “When the Work’s All Done This Fall.” And it was very, very popular because of that. About the middle å30s, (talking) movies came into being, and then about 1934, Gene Autry sang in a Ken Maynard movie, and it kind of was history from then on.
But then they had to have a lot of songs, so they were writing these songs, as opposed to just doing the old public-domain cowboy songs.
SCVTV: Those public-domain cowboy songs — when we think about those long trail drives, that was a fairly short time in history, right?
EDWARDS: Right. Late 1860s, right after the War for Southern Independence — about that time, 1865 to about 1890. It was a very short time, maybe about two decades.
SCVTV: Were cowboys singing then? What kind of music were they singing?
EDWARDS: Well — they did, to some degree. A lot of people said they did. … I wasn’t there, but I do believe accounts (where) people have said that yeah, the singing wasn’t all that great, but it was there. And it was generally not accompanied by any instrument. Generally if they had any at all it would be a harmonica or a fiddle or banjo or something, maybe, that could stand the rigors of the trail.
SCVTV: The origins of cowboy music stretch back much farther than the trail riding days here in America, don’t they?
EDWARDS: Oh, sure. Most of it — it came from all over Europe, of course — but the majority of it was from England, Scotland and Ireland. It came to the Appalachian mountains in the early days, and the old Irish ballads and things, when they came out West, a lot of those melodies stayed intact — but they put their own words to them to fit their own surroundings. But many of them stayed intact. That’s why I say, a lot of times, (you’ve) gotta know who brung ya.
And not to say — a lot of people will get on you about, well, what about the singer-songwriters, per se? I think that you need to write new material, there’s no question about it. You have to keep perpetuating the genre. But you’ve also got to try to — I believe, anyway — in order to keep it alive, you must keep some of those songs intact. They can be changed around; you’ve got to keep adding to them to keep them new and fresh.
SCVTV: And you’ve done a lot of that. You’ve recorded two albums of “Saddle Songs” and authored a book of the same name — a songbook with guitar chords and stories about all the old songs like “Streets of Laredo” and “Little Joe the Wrangler.”
EDWARDS: Exactly. All the old songs. I just felt it was something that was a calling. I heard those ancient voices and they just kept telling me to keep it alive. I could have gone anywhere — I started out not only singing the old cowboy songs but old pop tunes, and I was a big fan of Bob Wills, of course — being from Texas, you’ve got to sing Bob Wills’ Western swing music, and I love that.
SCVTV: How long have you been doing this?
EDWARDS: Well, 45 years or so.
SCVTV: Of course Gene Autry was an entertainer; he didn’t ride the range. What’s your background?
EDWARDS: I really didn’t either, to that degree. I was born in the East, I came to Texas when I was 17, and I just loved that life of the cowboy. I revere the working cowboy as a person that has a thankless occupation, I guess you’d say, like the farmer. But the cowboy, in particular, was always something that I loved, and I learned it originally through the books of Will James. He was a huge hero of mine.
And then of course as it went along, Gene Autry became one, and one thing just led to another. I’d cowboyed some, a little bit here and there, just keeping my hand in it, but I was never an actual part of it. I was only passing through it. That’s why I never called myself a cowboy. A lot of people think they’ve got to legitimize what they do by saying, “I’m a cowboy” — I’m not. I have done it, but I don’t consider myself a great hand. I don’t consider myself a great horseman even though I’ve ridden all my life.
But I’ve got a lot of cowboy friends that have been very gracious. Being around them, it’s just a wonderful thing to know these kind of people, the people of the land, and the people that keep our traditional values intact. It means a lot to me. That’s one of the reasons I try to keep a lot of this alive.
SCVTV: How did you get into music? Your father was a vaudeville magician, so you grew up around the entertainment industry?
EDWARDS: I grew up around — yes, to some degree. My dad really quit professionally when I was born. Later on I learned, it was kind of sad that he did that. But he did it to raise his family. He didn’t think that show business was a place to raise a family. He did it a little bit here and there, like community theater and things like that.
SCVTV: How long was it before you were supporting yourself by singing and playing the guitar?
EDWARDS: It was just about the time the music business was really going away. Country, Western, all the great artists, the great singers — we were just in the waning period of that. Professionally it was 1960 by the time I could say I made a living doing it.
But even as a kid, 10 years old, my dad would get me up on stage. He’d do one of those shows — local places, you know — and I’d sing a song, strum on the guitar a little bit. It was a start. But I offset it with a lot of things over the years until I got going. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to do it for the last 30 years or so.
SCVTV: You taught yourself guitar?
EDWARDS: Yeah, I taught myself how to play. Like most of us did in that time, we couldn’t afford to have lessons, and anybody that played, we’d be bugging them to learn how to play a little bit.
SCVTV: Apparently you learned pretty good. You were nominated for a 2003 Grammy award.
EDWARDS: Yeah. That’s very true. And it was for cowboy music. For cowboy folk music. It wasn’t Western and it wasn’t Country.
SCVTV: What category?
EDWARDS: It was in “traditional folk music.” They actually — I’m not so excited for myself. I’m not much on awards. I don’t need accolades. I just do what I do because I love it. But I was so excited about that for the simple reason that something as important as the Grammys understood that this was really a part of American folk music…
My first “Saddle Songs” recording (won) the Association For Independent Music award, the Indie Award, they call it, for best traditional folk music. So they actually recognized it as folk music and not so much as Western or Country. That’s what I was really proud of.
SCVTV: “Folk” implies that there are messages, oral histories, that are being conveyed. One thing that is prevalent in a lot of the songs you select — and I say select because you don’t write a lot of lyrics, right?
EDWARDS: Right. I write a song occasionally, but I’m not really a songwriter.
SCVTV: A lot of the songs you select have a “longing for the past” or “vanishing wilderness” theme.
EDWARDS: Exactly. Because it’s going fast. I’m a big — what do you call it — I don’t like to say “activist” — for the family farmer, the people that are being pushed out.
A lot of times you can go to an alien audience, so to speak, in a large city, who are not generally up on cowboy songs and music and you can sing the songs that I select in that sense … They have that sense. They feel it. They see it happening. Some of our largest supporters live in condominiums in New York City. It’s amazing — they are on the outside looking in. Many of them understand that. So I go amongst them — as opposed to preaching to the choir — I’ll go out amongst some hostile people now and again and sing those songs —
SCVTV: How do they react?
EDWARDS: Very well. I really have been surprised at the acceptance. It’s been amazing over the years. There’s more and more people that are starting to look for something that is real, as opposed to manufactured.
SCVTV: There’s an old poem, “The Old Cow Man,” by Charles Badger Clark. You set it to music. Its refrain goes, “While progress toots its greedy horn and makes its motor buzz, I thanks the Lord I wasn’t born no later than I was.”
SCVTV: “While progress toots its greedy horn” — it sounds kind of reactionary. How does this play with the conservative farmer? Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
EDWARDS: The farmer and the rancher are the original environmentalists. They were the original ones. I mean, these people going around, being paid by these big corporations to go around, talking about the environment — you can’t just blatantly destroy it. You’ve got to work with it. You’ve got to work with nature. You’ve got to live the way it flows. Nature has a pace and you’ve got to live that pace. The music kind of goes with that.
SCVTV: You mentioned England, Scotland, Ireland. Where does yodeling come in?
EDWARDS: There’s actually two definite places where it was put together, and one of the best examples of that again is Jimmie Rodgers. In recorded music. There’s people that did it before, but I’m saying, something that people could obtain and really hear it.
There was, of course, the Swiss influence, the fancy yodeling of the Swiss. The Tyrolean area where Italy and Switzerland and Austria come together. They used it for actual purposes. It was a means of communication. When we got ahold of it, when the first yodelers came here from Switzerland, the Tyrolean yodelers, they came in about 1839, in what was then America at that time, they toured all around and that’s where people here first heard it. And then it went on to be a part of the Western music. For some reason we latched onto it in the cowboy singing.
The other influence was African. In the high falsetto voices of the field haulers and the railroad workers and all these people that had these beautiful, melodic voices. … It wasn’t really a yodeling, but a very good example of that is Tommy Johnson, the blues singer. He’s a very good example of how Jimmie Rodgers could have been influenced — mixing the alpine with the blue yodel.
SCVTV: Your music runs the gamut. Why did you end up in this genre as opposed to blues or something else?
EDWARDS: That’s a good question. Because I do love all that music. My dad was another influence because of his huge record collection. My little brain was always being impounded with everything from jazz singers to big bands to Western swing to cowboy songs to Jimmy Rodgers, who was popular when (my father) was a young man. I just loved — if I heard a song, I didn’t stop and say, “Hmm, is that Country or is that pop or is that…?” There (were) no categories, you know. And so in cowboy world, being the big influence that really shaped my entire life, I took it to as many steps as I could and incorporated all that music into it.
As you listen to it, a lot of people misconstrued the Western with being Country, but there’s a huge difference in that the musicians in Western music are not Country musicians. They’re jazz musicians. When you think of the Sons of the Pioneers with Karl and Hugh Farr — they were influenced by people like Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. That’s what they were influenced by. And then it went to Stephane Grappelli and D’Jango Reinhart and things like that. But they were jazz players.
I tried to tell them that at Warner Bros., but they thought I didn’t know what I was talking about.
SCVTV: You brought it up: You were on the Warner Western label, along with people like Michael Martin Murphey, Waddie Mitchell, Sons of the San Joaquin — all these folks who have performed at the Santa Clarita festival. But then Warner Bros. dumped the Warner Western label.
EDWARDS: They did. And it was too bad. Because I think they didn’t know exactly how to do it. They marketed it through the juggernaut of industrial music —
SCVTV: Is there not a big enough market for what you do?
EDWARDS: There is a big enough market, because they wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Because they wanted to know, when Michael Martin Murphey recorded his first cowboy album there, back when we first started with them, they asked him whether there (were) other people doing this. And myself and Red Steagall and Sons of the San Joaquin and all of us were doing this all along. And they sell all kinds of records.
It’s not a big, mainstream — it’s not a Garth Brooks record. It’s not millions. You might sell thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe. A hit bluegrass album used to be, like, 25,000, until people like Del McCoury and Alison Krauss came along. But it was a market worth pursuing. And there are still labels to this day that would rather come in the back door and have consistency and sell for a long period of time in smaller numbers.
SCVTV: So after Waner Bros., you, Waddie Mitchell and Sons of the San Joaquin essentially formed your own label with Scott O’Malley and the Western Jubilee Recording Co.
EDWARDS: That’s exactly right.
SCVTV: You had to keep the genre alive yourselves.
EDWARDS: We had to keep the genre alive ourself. Because (Warner) didn’t want to do it. They kept trying to make it what they call radio-friendly. That was always a bad term with me.
EDWARDS: Yes, exactly. All those things came to mind — homogenize it, sterilize it so much that it becomes nothing of nothing. So when we finally made our move to our own label, Scott (O’Malley) had been friends many, many years with Richard Nevins at Shanachie records, one of the premier labels of roots music, and they took it on to distribute it so we’d have worldwide distribution.
It’s just an amazing thing that it’s kept on going like it did. But we market it for what it is. It’s a grass-roots, traditional-based music.
SCVTV: Has the genre grown since then? Are there more performers today or fewer? Are there more fans today or fewer?
EDWARDS: I think there’s more. I really do. I think there’s more fans. The more the music industry goes industrial, the more (the fans) look for something more organic. And the music gives them that, the traditional music.
One of the biggest boosts we could ever have, that just trickles down, and I think a very important factor in that Grammy nomination, was the success of (the film) “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” That brought about, for millions and millions of people, folk music, roots music, old-time music, a little bluegrass. And I think that was probably a major turning point to bring people saying, “Oh, wow, we never knew this was out there.” And it’s grown. I think people have found out about that and then come and found out about what we do in our genre.
The only thing I don’t see as much as I’d like to see is youngsters playing music. You go to a bluegrass festival, and you see all these kids out there playing their banjos and mandolins and guitars and fiddles and just having a wonderful time. But we don’t see it as much. We have some, but not as much as I’d like to see.
SCVTV: The folks at Santa Clarita City Hall have tried to reach school kids. They sent Sourdough Slim into some of the schools recently.
EDWARDS: He’s wonderful with the children. He’s a brilliant artist.
SCVTV: What kind of music can people expect to hear if they come to the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival?
EDWARDS: They’re going to come out there and they’re going to hear cowboy poetry, they’re going to hear some cowboy music, they’re going to hear Western music, they’re going to hear a little bit of bluegrass, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of this and that all mixed into it, Texas swing — I think we deliver out there just about every type of music that you can imagine.
Don Edwards’ new release, “Saddle Songs II: Last of the Troubadours,” and other CDs and books are available online at www.donedwardsmusic.com and www.westernjubilee.com. See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another “Newsmaker of the Week” on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.
*Editor’s note: The earthquake of Jan. 17, 1994, hit two months before Santa Clarita’s first festival and knocked out the Hart High School Auditorium, where the festival was originally going to be held. The Veluzat family offered Melody Ranch to the city as an alternative, and the festival was held there every year from 1994 to 2014.