Held over the last weekend of October, Red Steagall's
Cowboy Gathering takes place each year in the historic Fort
Worth Stockyards. The main purpose of the Cowboy Gathering
is to preserve the traditions of the cowboys of the 1800's,
featuring chuck wagon cooking competitions, ranch cutting
horse finals, horsemanship clinics, ranch rodeo and of course
plenty of cowboy music, western swing and cowboy poetry
over the weekend. During the daytime performers such as
Don Edwards, R.W. Hampton, Trudy Fair and Dan Roberts entertained
us with their own rich style of cowboy music. Friday
and Saturday evenings there was a western dance featuring
Leon Rausch and his band, including the legendary fiddle
player Johnny Gimble.
As we walked around the Stockyards, small groups of
musicians set-up by the side of the wagon encampment or
wondered round the main street to play for the visitors.
such group were the Quebe Sisters...three young fiddle players
from Mansfield, Texas, whose ages I guess ranged from around
9 - 15 years. Accompanied by their music teachers Joey &
Sherry McKenzie on guitar, the Quebe Sisters thrilled the
crowds who soon gathered to listen to the breathtaking music
played by these three talented young musicians. I'm confident
that we are going to see great things from this young talent
over the next five years or so. Two of the most entertaining
poets to be found at the gathering
were Chris Isaacs and Larry McWhorter who had the crowd
hanging on to their every word or rolling with laughter
as they told their stories of cowboy exploits.
I had the greatest of pleasures in meeting Red Steagall, who
kindly took time out of his very busy time schedule to talk to me
about the cowboy gathering.
"Graham I'm so pleased to meet you and we're so
you came to Fort Worth. We are awfully proud of our event
and we had good weather for it. We've only had bad weather
for it one year and this is our twelfth year. The first
year is rained six inches on Saturday...you saw the chuck
wagons...you saw how they cook. It was so funny to see those
guys get their fires built and they just started to cook
and here would come a deluge and it just filled their fire-pit
full of water. They'd dip it out with coffee cans and build
another one. They'd get another one built and along would
come another rainstorm. Boy! It was tough. You know they
cooked, they prepared meals and they were judged on their
meals and they all did very well, because they improvised
and that's what they did on the range. A cow-camp cook has
to prepare that
meal, regardless of the weather. It doesn't make any difference
how windy it is, weather it's raining, snowing, sleeting
or what it's doing; he has to prepare that meal."
This is the twelfth Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and
literally people from all over the world descend on Fort Worth for
this weekend. So how did the cowboy gathering get started?
"It was just a group of us who had an idea and we thought
the north-side of Fort Worth…the historic stockyards was
the place for a cowboy gathering and talk about poetry and
music. So we just jumped off the deep end...nobody told
us we couldn't do
it, so we just jumped off and did it!!! You know, what we
do...the art form that we call cowboy music and cowboy poetry,
really originated in the British Isles. So much of our cow
country was owned by British concerns. Not only that, but
the majority of people who came west from the east coast
of the United States were of Irish and Scottish, English
and Welsh descent. They were natural herdsmen...you folks
in the British Isles have been herding cattle a lot longer
than we have over here and developing those wonderful breeds
that we still use in this county. So as they moved west
they brought the love of those classic poets...Keats, Shelly
and others and brought the love of those old-world folk
tunes. So we really didn't start writing what we call cowboy
music until they fenced off the range
and we started lamenting the passing of the west. Those
guys thought that their way of life had gone forever...and
that part of it was! They could no longer trail from the
south Texas brush, all the way up into Canada without ever
seeing a fence. So that part of was gone, but the thing
really influenced our music and our poetry is the influence
from the British Isles. Not only that, but British concerns...some
of the Scottish people were very big landowners in west
Texas and they'd send a lot of their people from the 'Old
Country' to be their reps in the 'New World'. So they also
brought new folk tunes and some of the folk tunes in your
part of the world go back 6-700 years."
Over the weekend in the chuck wagon camp, we had a glimpse of
life from over 100 years ago and I wanted to hear more about how it
"Well there is a chuck wagon association. And we
let the Western Chuck Wagon Association
sanction our event simply because I'm so close to the people
at the Cowboy Hall Of Fame in Oklahoma City and that's where
we started it, when a bunch of us got together. When we
first started having these competitions, we had about 6
names we could send letters to...today we send out about
130 letters to people who have re-built old chuck wagons.
So we have an organisation that's headquartered at the Cowboy
Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and it simply documents all
of the wagons that are in existence, where they came from
and all the different things about them. It is a repository
of different types of chuck boxes and different types of
wagons and so forth!
But we send out letters to that list and people will come
and enter our contest and we have 21 wagons this year….that
is the most we've ever had. We don't have a lot of space
here on the street, but it's a great event and I love it!!!!!!"
Red Steagall has long been a highly respected performer on the
country music scene. But what brought about Red's interest in poetry
rather writing songs?
"I was sitting in my office one night and I took
out all those records that other people had recorded of
my songs. Things were changing. Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood
and Alabama were changing the industry. The honky tonk and
western swing singers no longer had a chance, because we
were picking up a new audience. They were the ones buying
the records and that was the direction radio and records
companies were going and I was feeling kinda low. I realised
that I had accomplished more in my life than 98% of all
people who ever get involved in my business. And I said
how do you measure success...do you measure it dollars...in
numbers of records....self-satisfaction. How do you measure
it? I realised it then that I was throwing away ideas, just
because they weren't commercial, or what we considered commercial.
Just after that I started using the poetry art form to expound
on those ideas I had in my head and they just poured out.
For five years I didn't write another song...I didn't write
anything but poems for five years. When you are writing
a song you have to capsulate every thought in four bars
or you loose the attention of the audience, but with poetry...people
who like poetry will listen to the storyline and fall in
line with you and become part of your experience. I just
love it..I'm absolutely crazy about it.
It's a story telling tradition that began across the
Pond in the British Isles. And that's the way the cowboys
entertained themselves. Hollywood put the guitar in the
of the cowboy. Cowboys didn't carry guitars up the trail!!!
If he had anything at all he had a mouth harp rolled up
in his bedroll. Everything he owned was in that bedroll
because it had to go in that wagon and that cook is not
going to allow anything in that wagon that is not totally
essential. If he had an extra pair of pants or an extra
shirt, or a musical instrument it had to go in that bedroll.
Now the cook might have a banjo or a fiddle under the seat
if was a musician, but he couldn't have a guitar, because
first of all there wouldn't be enough room and secondly
it would be too brittle. The guitar came form the influence
of our neighbours to the south, from the Latino neighbours
and of course they brought it from Spain. And then the guitar
came to the cowboys through the movies.
These guys would sit around the campfire at night and
recite poetry and tell stories.that
was their only form of entertainment. One of them might
have a mouth harp, but their main source of entertainment
was poetry. If you find old cowboys who might be in their
80's - 90's now, they can recite poems that you've never
heard before and are old classic cowboy poems, or old world
poems. That was their deal, and the reciter was a very popular
guy...he was the entertainer, because not everybody can
Red has a new album (reviewed in the CD section) called
"I had a call with my friend Steve Spurgen and I said 'I'm
really toying with this idea, but I need a good starting
song about Ireland and leaving Ireland.' About two hours
later he called me back and said 'where do you want me to
send it'. He said that when he
thought about the idea it just poured out of him. Then I
spent a year writing the rest of it.
We follow blazes through the Cumberland Gap..through
the Appellations that was the first west...that was the
Ohio Valley and Kentucky and the Carolinas and Western Carolinas.
Then after the Civil War, we'd come west to Texas, stay
for a while and we'd see the buffalo. We'd put a heard together
in South Texas and trail it to the lush valleys of the Yellowstone
River. Then from the Yellowstone, as we are going through
Nebraska we'd see a nester's cabin and see a pretty girl.
And we'd come back from Montana and homestead in Nebraska
and then we cross the Platt River and join the Oregon Trail
and we'd wind up on the coast of Oregon in the Columbia
Valley. I'm really happy with It and we're getting really
good response to it.
The cowboy era that we celebrate only lasted 40 years,
then they fenced off the range and everything changed. In
those 40 years we created a lot of legends and a lot of
different images from different people. One out of three
cowboys who went up the
trail was a Mexican vaquero, one out of five was black and
they were just kids...they were thirteen and nineteen years
of age. They mostly came from farms...they didn't know how
to swim...a lot of them drowned crossing rivers...very few
of them killed in stampedes...very few of them killed in
Indian wars, and none killed facing each other with a loaded
gun on Front Street in Dodge City. They just didn't do that...that
was Hollywood again!!! If they had a grievance at all, it
happened so fast that nobody knew it had happened. Or, if
a guy knew that he could get the drop on another guy, then
he would wait until after dark and he would shoot him from
round the corner...he'd catch him when he had the advantage.
He didn't stand flat-footed with a loaded gun on an open
street facing another guy with a loaded gun."
Red Steagall has been involved in all aspects of the country
" I started in 1956 writing songs. I had a band
in college and played rodeo dances after
that. I had been out of collage about 5 years and moved
to Hollywood. I had some friends there who were instrumental
in the music business, (sorry about the pun) so I went out
to California and got established there in the business
end of the business running a publishing company. Started
writing and had some success as a writer and stated recording
in 69 and just started moving forward just a little bit
at a time."
Reba McEntire credits Red as the person who helped her get her
majour break into the country music business.
"I saw Reba at the National Finals Rodeo sing the
National Anthem and just knocked me out. Then that night,
after I saw her in the evening...we always had a room at
the major hotel wherever the finals were held and the Justin
Boot Company would
sponsor a room and we would stay up all night and sing cowboy
songs. Her mother asked if she could bring her by and she
sat beside me and sang harmony with me; oh...she just drove
me nuts. Then I played guitar and she sang a few songs and
I just knew that there was something special about her.
Not only in her voice, but also in her persona and the way
she handled herself.
I was living in Nashville at the time, and that next
spring she and her mother came to Nashville. Glen Sutton
and myself had written some songs that we needed a female
singer on. So I cut the demos with her and that next fall
I got her a record deal. I took her on the road with me.
Reba and her mother would go on the road with me and I used
her in quite a few shows. Then we booked her out of my office
for a while. When it came time for somebody to really manage
her career, I helped her get a manager and the rest of it
is history!!! Reba built her career herself...she has more
savvy than anyone else I've known...she knows what she wants
and how to get it. She's one of the best friends that I'll
Red performs about 60 dates a year which range from western
swing dances to single gigs at corporate banquets. If you can catch
his performance or make it to next year's Cowboy Gathering, do so;
it is an experience not to be missed!!!!!!!