The modern renaissance of cowboy poetry and music

"I think that traditional cowboy poetry and music represents one of the greatest parts of American culture. It’s the folk music and the folk poetry of the West."


Lone Star Lit kicks off National Poetry Month with our interview with Lubbock’s Andy Hedges, cowboy poet and songster.


Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Hedges, you are a songster, reciter, storyteller, guitarist, and collector of cowboy songs and poems. Please introduce yourself to our readers. Which of those hats did you don first, and do you have a favorite? Please define “songster.”


Andy Hedges: I guess the first thing I did was pick up a guitar when I was fourteen years old. Soon after, I began collecting old cowboy songs and poems. It’s all interrelated. A “songster” is someone who is known for their repertoire of songs from a variety of styles or traditions. The old-time cowboy singers did not just sing cowboy songs—they sang novelty songs, hymns, folk songs from other traditions, and the popular songs of the day. So, I think the songster idea fits perfectly with the traditional cowboy music that I play.


You live in Lubbock now and grew up in Tokio, Texas. I have to admit that, even though I’m Texas born and bred, I’d never heard of Tokio. Please tell us about growing up in your hometown and how you came to a love of cowboy poetry and music.


Tokio is about sixty miles southwest of Lubbock. My family lived out there in an old farmhouse where we paid rent by looking after a few head of cattle. My dad used to be a bull rider, and I got my love of all things cowboy from him. I grew up listening to records of Marty Robbins, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter. I’ve always loved that music. When I was a teenager, I discovered the modern renaissance of cowboy poetry and music that was flowing out of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.


Your music has garnered glowing reviews from Texas Highways, Western Horseman, Cowboys & Indians Magazine; you’ve been written up in the Atlantic; your work has appeared in the New York Times—this is a partial list. Please tell us about your first performance, your first big break, and how you came to record your first album.


I got my start performing as a reciter of cowboy poetry. I listened to one of Waddie Mitchell’s albums so many times that I had some poems memorized without even trying, and I began reciting for friends and family. My first memorable performance was at a place called Bevers’ Crossing in Ropesville, Texas. It was a barbecue restaurant, and the owner asked me to recite a poem for a group of senior citizens. I think I was fifteen at the time, and I recited a Waddie Mitchell poem called “Story With A Moral,” about a dead cow in a stream. My parents were mortified, but it turned out okay because I was invited to come back and perform again. 


I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a big break, but early in my career I was very fortunate to meet people like Waddie Mitchell, Don Edwards, Buck Ramsey, and Andy Wilkinson who encouraged me and took me under their wing. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those influences and mentors.


The very first album I recorded was a cowboy poetry album. It was only released on cassette and it was a collection of poems by the great New Mexico poet S. Omar Barker. There were very few copies and it’s long been out of print.


So many legends speak of you in superlatives, Don Edwards, Michael Martin Murphy, and Waddie Mitchell among them. The great cowboy poet and artist Randy Rieman said, “Andy is at the epicenter of the collective beating heart of cowboy poetry and music. As an artist, and as a man, he is among the finest this renaissance has to offer.” What does that feel like, and how do you attempt to live up to it?


It’s a great honor to have the praise, encouragement, and friendship from my heroes and mentors. I guess I don’t think too much about trying to live up to that, but I strive to do good work that those men would be proud of.


Please tell us about that renaissance in cowboy poetry and music. How did it start, and where do you think its future lies? Why is it so important to keep this tradition alive?


The modern renaissance of cowboy poetry and music began in 1985 when a group of folklorists, led by Hal Cannon and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, held the first cowboy-poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada. The idea was to have a gathering of working cowboys and ranchers who wrote or recited poetry. It was supposed to be a one-time event, but the response was so positive that it became an annual event. Soon cowboy poets were appearing on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. It’s going strong thirty-six years later, and now that event is known as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I think that traditional cowboy poetry and music represents one of the greatest parts of American culture. It’s the folk music and the folk poetry of the West. I think the future of this tradition is in good hands with younger artists coming along like Brigid Reedy and Colter Wall.


Rolling Stone called your set with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at the sixtieth annual Newport Folk Festival one of the top ten things they saw at the fest. At press time, your calendar reflects shows across the country, with a teller-in-residence gig at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. How do you develop a live show, and how does that show change with a particular venue or audience?


I hardly ever work with a set list. I have a pretty deep repertoire of songs and poems that I can choose from at any show. Waddie Mitchell once told me that planning which poems you were going to recite on a show is like planning a conservation with a friend. You have to wait and see what happens and respond to your audience.


You also produce the Cowboy Crossroads podcast. Please tell us how and why you began your podcast. Who do you think has been your most memorable guest or show, and what’s coming up that we shouldn’t miss?


I started the podcast because I wanted to record the stories of the fascinating characters that I was encountering in the cowboy poetry and music world. I would often find myself listening to a story backstage or over a drink or driving down the road and I would think, “Man, I wish I could record this.”


It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one that I am especially proud of is my interview with Wally McRae. I don’t announce my guests ahead of time, but I’m pretty excited about some recent interviews that will be coming soon.


Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to an artist and their work. How has the Lone Star State shaped your writing and career? Which Texas writers and performers do you admire and why?


When I was first showing up at the cowboy poetry gatherings around Texas, I was fortunate to meet a group of really fine working-cowboy poets from Texas that included Buck Ramsey, J. B. Allen, Larry McWhorter, and Joel Nelson. Most of those guys are gone now, but they made a deep impression on me that I think will always shape my work as an artist. Some other Texas artists that I admire are Don Edwards, Andy Wilkinson, and Guy Clark. The list could go on and on. It’s hard to put into words why these Texas performers have had such an impact on me. I think part of it is the Texas attitude. There’s a dry sense of humor and a straightforwardness that really appeals to me.


Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?


These are uncertain times with the world shutting down due to the coronavirus, but I plan to keep pressing on. I’m always working on new material, and there are plenty of new podcast episodes coming soon. My wife bought me a 1896 S. S. Stewart five-string banjo for my birthday, so I’m trying to learn to play during the downtime.


What books are on your nightstand?


I just finished True Grit by Charles Portis and I just started The Mustangs by J. Frank Dobie. I’m also reading a book of O. Henry’s Texas stories.