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Don Edwards Don Edwards 

Talks with Graham Lees 
about Traditional Music



Don Edwards is one of the best-known of today's singers of cowboy music, but what drew his interest to this style of music in the first place. While he takes a break from performing at Red Steagall's Cowboy Gathering in Fort Worth, Texas we sit and talk Graham with Don Edwardsabout the traditions of cowboy and country musician, with the sounds of the Tarantula steam engine blowing its whistle in the background.

"It's something near and dear to my heart……I've always done it and always loved it. Cowboy songs are some of the first songs that I ever learned. Basically when I started my career I played what would be considered folk music as apposed to the main stream as they say. Cowboy music had always been a part of it. As long as there was a coffeehouse for me to play, or a street corner to play on, or something, you could always sing old cowboy songs or old country music. Back in those days country music meant rural music. So that was pretty much what it was, but now the terminology changes."

Although we know Don Edwards as a performer, he has turned your hand to songwriting on occasion? "You know, I'm not really a songwriter per se! There's an old saying no-one uses anymore, but it best describes people like me….is a songster. We were known for the songs that we know…for the repertoire. But songwriting is part of it, but not the main thing. There is a lot of what you would call singer/songwriters who primarily will sing their own material all the time. But I use my own material, but not exclusively. I do write. I want to just dis-classify myself from people like my Guitar and Poemsfriends Tom Russell, Ian Tyson and people like that. You know what I'm saying! (laughs) They are the best!!! We sing cowboy songs, but not exclusively. We are coming from a westerner's mentality, not necessarily singing about cowboys and things like that, but generally from that philosophical mind-set."

The type of venue to find this sort of artiste is in the small to medium sized concert halls and especially in the US concerts are taking place in old restored motion picture theatres that have been transferred into venues for performing arts. Playing occasionally with his own band, Don can be seen playing from just a solo artiste accompanying himself on Photo of Don Edwardsguitar, to a trio or even with as many as eight pieces. Don says; "Primarily I'm a troubadour…I'm a minstrel and that is what I am! I'm a solo artiste for the most part playing guitar and banjo, depending on the type of job that we do. We do quite a lot of western swing, which I've been known to do too. Naturally I'll play with a larger band, but we do play with a trio and do a lot of the old time stuff.

Lately I've been working with Peter Rowan who was a great bluegrass icon. He's a good buddy and we've been friends for a long, long time. He's always wanted to do a record together. Sort of like the old Chisholm Trail meets Tin Pan Alley. This melding of the earliest recorded music of cowboy songs…when they were recorded for the first time. We talked about it for many, many years and then finally last year we got together with a couple of other friends of ours that showed interest and wanted to play…I was quite flattered by fact that Norman Bake and Tony Rice wanted to play on this record with us. So we did this thing called High Lonesome Cowboy. It's been quite successful so far. It's been only out since September (2002) and it's been doing great!

It's getting some good feedback. It's the older cowboy stuff, where the older Cover of the album High Lonesome Cowboycowboy stuff came into the recording era. When it did they took some of this old cowboy stuff and they kinda made it a little more for a larger audience and mixed it up with a little bit of Tin Pan Alley attitude. It was kinda neat in the 20's & 30's and this is how this album feels.

This is another dimension of the music. This is where the music was in that time-period. We had a bunch of stuff and just started rattling off songs…Pete singing a nine and a half minute version of "Midnight On The Stormy Deep". What was it…"The Sailors Complaint Of His Unkind Wife Of Wapping" or something like that….this is what that long title was. Then there was cowboy songs made from that. The "Trail To Mexico", you get "I'm Going To Leave Old Texas Now", you get certain versions of "Barbara Alan" Photo of Peter Rowanand they are all the same tune….and all these songs were based on it. As you know being from the old country…this is who knew all that! Pete and I were originally going to do a whole album of all the same tune but different songs and with different tempos, but he said…no they wouldn't get it. (laughs)

As it were, we've got another volume of it ready to record. We had so much stuff that we said we have to save some. Because the last two songs on the album are almost 15 minutes long. (laughs) We said…it sure ain't going to get no air-play and we just all laughed an said…that's good!

I always knew…since the cowboy gatherings have started, you have a built- in audience. It's what they call the old saying…preaching to the choir, you know. (laughs)

But over in the bluegrass field, is the only form of music now that still maintains its loyalty to the tradition. So we said…why not that audience? They don't know that they like it yet…they haven't heard it…but they're gonna!!! (laughs). They are gonna like it and they have. We are so fortunate to have that happen."

Bluegrass has made great strides in drawing interest to that genre of music over the past couple of years (Dolly Parton's albums The Grass Is Blue and Little Sparrow, plus the momentum of O Brother Where Art Thou). I interviewed Ricky Photo of Ricky SkaggsSkaggs a couple of years ago prior to him coming over for the one-day festival at London Arena and he said that they was going to be a new explosion of bluegrass music on the scene. The traditional sound of country music is slowly making a comeback.

"It will come back…absolutely. And especially through those artistes that are true players, like the Ricky Skaggs, like Patty Loveless, like Vince Gill, like Marty Stuart, people like that who are real players and love the music. They are always going to be there, while some of the others sort of fade away unfortunately, because they are in it for the money. Somebody like myself…I've always stayed with traditional music. I'm probably showing that I'm not a good businessman. In other words I didn't care about having a hit record! That didn't enter my mind. I'm not saying…Oh gee it would be nice if it happened, but it wasn't my motive to do that. I couldn't care about that, because I have to care about what I do, or I couldn't do it…in other words I can't fake it!!! Some people can do that. They can go up there and turn themselves into someone else for an hour and make all this money, then go back to what they like doing.

What it really comes down to is that you have to love what you do. The money can be here and it can be gone. And I as a somewhat borderline cynic, (laughs) I guess I can say…what am I doing this for? Well you're doing it because you love it! And because one person just walked up and said I really love this music. And you say…this is why I'm doing it! It is just one of those things where you try not to be the next fad going on. You can go crazy trying to find what everybody likes. Because you don't want to appeal to everybody, because that mass appeal is photo of Norman Blakesynonymous with homogenisation. That's just like when you were talking about O Brother Where Art Thou. It's a wonderful thing if they don't try to water it down and make it mainstream. Because that is what was so wonderful about it!"

Don has long been a big campaigner for keeping traditional music alive. "You don't necessarily just have to do the old songs. You can perpetuate it Tom Russell, Ian Tyson…people like that. But you also have to stay and keep the tradition alive. Because it's like anything else in history…you can't know where you're going until you know where you've come from. That's what we've found in my travels over the years, in places like England, Ireland, in Scotland and in Germany and Holland…all these places that I've been, they seem to be so much steeped in tradition, because they've had so much more practice at it. It's one of those things where more and more people here are beginning to find out…ahh, there must be something to this stuff. They start to look for something real, especially in times of tragedy. You know the worse time in our country's, usually comes out as the best of the people. Whether it be musicians, be artistes, be regular old people just getting tough and hunkering down. That's how that happens."

This has shown itself with the tragedy of September 11th. "Something good always comes around to counteract it. I've noticed at places where we have played before that people are not just a fan as such. I hate to use that word a Don Edwards playing guitarlot of the time…fan…it means fanatic, but not so much that. What I've been very humbled by it their reverence. I mean it almost like a religious experience for people. There is somebody out there doing this. And I think it is because they want to identify with the roots. You Know…where did I come from…why am I here…what am I doing here? Through music…it is a good vehicle to carry it. Because a lot of time some people don't read, some people don't have an attention span for storage. Sometimes through music it transcends and some people say…oh yeah I get it!!! I'm glad of how it's been going, because I've been professionally 40 years. (laughs) And you know…I've seen a lot of thing come and they go, but I've never changed anything. I've written new material and things like that…I've tried to perpetuate it and I've written things that would be considered current. But generally what I do is stay with what I do and my main objective is to bring about an awareness with the people and the land and the reason for this particular gathering. It's the farmer and the rancher…people like that. Throughout history we've found out what happens family farmers and family ranchers. When huge agriculture comes in and business, it takes over these people. And we try to sing about their trials and tribulations and things that they can relate to. But primarily we are trying to sing for just the folks. And that is where it is all at. Just good folks"!!!

Don had somewhat of a diversion into acting just a few years ago. Perhaps readers may remember the character Smokey in Robert Redford's very Robert Redfordsuccessful movie The Horse Whisperer. I asked Don how his came about.

(laughing) "Yeh…That was a fluke!!! Well…you never know where your music's going! Mr Redford was a fan of my music, through a gentleman I had met previously…the producer of that movie, Patrick Markey. He introduced my music to Mr Redford and subsequently he said that is exactly what I'm looking for. He said I wanted a cowboy singer and they thought I wanted more country. He said no I've got a country singer in Alison Moorer…who is just wonderful you know. But he wanted a cowboy singer….you know a guy who can play the part of an old cowboy who has been around the ranch a long time and a kind of a singer. You know…I considered my character being some sort of a Sam Galloway and The Last Of The Troubadours by O.Henry. I don't know if anyone out there has heard that story, but they can look that up!!! And that was what my character kinda was...it was a wonderful experience.

We spent 14 weeks in Montana in the middle of the summer, which was just wonderful. And Mr Redford was just as nice as could be…just a real down to earth guy and all the actors and actresses were. The really neat thing about that movie was not only being in a major motion picture, but I just fell into it. It wasn't one of those deals where I go seeking this out…it just fell in my lap. I mean there I was minding my own business, singing my cowboy songs and going around the country…going around the world, what have you. And they say like…Mr Redford would like you to read for this part. I go like…well OK…I took it with an attitude…well I don't have anything else to do!!! 'Cos you don't want to get pumped up for something and then not have it happen, so you put up a little barrier. I went to Bringing in the cattleSanta Monica, California and read for this thing and they said, Mr Redford will call you and let you know. Because, he looks at every actor, he looks at every extra, every single thing he touches, he does it…a perfectionist! I was very polite, but said yeah, right sure they're going to call me. Low and behold…on the phone he goes hi Don, this is Bob. I go…Bob…who the hell is Bob??? He goes Robert Redford…this is BOB, can you believe it…and I'm going ohhhh this is really cool. He said…I really like what you do. I'd like you to play the part of Smokey.

Originally, I'm going to have to tell you that one of those songs was in its entirety in its original cut, but the film was four hours long. So they had to cut it to some extent. There were two songs that stayed in the movie that I was totally happy about, even though it was just a short segment. I had two scenes cut out which were two bigger scenes that I had…but Hey that happens. I'm not an actor and it all happens occasionally, but you know I was just tickled to death…actually I felt it was a lot of fun to be with these people. Sam Neillactor Sam Neill and I would sit in the corner and just visit….you know how you do, you just wait, it was like being in the army you know! It was just this great rapport with the actors, because we are all sort of equals, because we were all I the same environment, out there in Montana on this ranch, so nobody's ego was advantageous at all to any degree. It was just a wonderful experience to do that and I don't regret a minute of it. It's brought about a bit of awareness too, strangely enough, even as small as it was. But the funny thing about that film was that I would have been considered as an extra with speaking part to some extent, if it had been a larger cast. The unusual thing about it, was that there were only nine principles in that movie and I was one of the nine. So I was considered a principle that means…I get a house, and I get a car and all this stuff. I'm going ohhh this is very cool for an old cowboy singer from Texas. This is very cool, I love it!!!"

The ironic thing about this is that Robert Redford just wanted a cowboy singer in the movie and for Don to be treated in this was just goes to show the respect Redford had for the music genre that Don has dedicated his life to.

"I think he did a very good job with the film. He was very particular with every little detail of Robert Redford - The Horse Whispererthe film. I was very sceptical that they would have Hollywooded it up and it would have not been real. But he painstakingly took hours with people like Buck Brandenan and the wranglers and the cowboys and all the people that working on the movie. And he wanted every little detail right. I was very impressed with that and very respectful of his attitude and that he went about it that way…it was a thrill.

Robert Redford was not the only cowboy actor that Don Edwards has worked with. Rex Allan was the last of the singing silver-screen cowboys. Sadly Rex died in a strange accident with his own car in 2002 around 12 months after making a CD of cowboy songs with Don titled 'A Pair To Draw'.

"That was a labour of love, I'll tell you!!! Snuff Garrett had been a huge Hollywood producer in the 60's - 70's, but had been a huge fan and friend of the cowboy stars; Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allan and it was through him that I got to know Rex personally. I'd always loved him and loved his singing…I'd loved all those guys. These both sides of that world! There's the real cowboys like at this gathering, the working cowboy who is primarily a cowboy who sings. I do the western as well, which I consider Rex Allan and Roy Rogers, Gene Autry they were the western part of the cowboy music. Snuff asked me….do you want to make a record with Uncle Rex??? I said… you got to be kidding me! He said no! Uncle Rex Allan and Don EdwardsRex said that he'd do it with you. I said, wow that's a compliment that he'd even consider it. Low and behold we go into a studio in Mesa, Arizona for five days and it was the best time…I'm telling you…I just loved it. It was not just the songs we were singing, we were just picking these songs off the top of our head…we had no rhyme or reason! We went in there and Rex would say Donald you know such and such and I'd say yeah. And for that entire five days, Rex Allan could not figure out how me and three other musicians that backed us up, were so into this music and knew it. He kept turning round to look at Rich O'Brien and say who's that guitar player Don? I'd say that's Rich O'Brien, then Snuff would say that's Rich O'Brien Uncle Rex. He'd say that's who he is, damn, he's good!!! But he'd keep saying it all the time! He just couldn't make the connection that there were people actually carrying on what he had already done…he'd been there, done that, you know what I mean. In the movies, he was on WLS in Chicago, he told us all those wonderful stories about being on the National Barn Dance. The guy that was recording it…Clark Rigsby at Tempest Recording Studios at Mesa, Arizona…he unbeknown to any of us, kept a machine going the entire time we were there. He's got all those stories that Uncle Rex told. It is just unbelievable, because we had the best time. It was like we had the clocks going and we're just sitting there talking. Rex is telling all these unbelievable great stories you know! Then he'd just pop up with a song…so you know "Bridle Hanging On The Wall"?…Yeah, that's Carson Robinson…How the hell do you know that?!! This is what he would do…I'd say Uncle Rex this is all I listen to…it's you guys that is all I go for. I said, after 1953 I don't know what happened in the world!!! I couldn't care less, this is where I am in my life. So he'd just laugh….let's go have a smoke Donald. He'd go light-up another cigarette…it was the best time. You say Rex Allan with his band -  fiddle player Johnny Gimble on the left"highlights of your life" that's one of them….the Last Singing Cowboy. Just picture that. He is the last singing cowboy and god rest his soul, he died a year later.

To do that album with Rex was just one of the thrills of my life! I can ramble on for ever, but I can't enough about what an experience that was. O actually be a fan of somebody on the screen when you're a kid and then here you are in this recording studio sitting across the microphone from him and we're singing these songs together. Every one of them came about like…do you know this…yeah I know that…or this reminds me do you know this one. And as it were, as it started to take a picture, it was kind of spooky…the songs that were in it, to think that Uncle Rex passed away a year later…that's what's kinda spooky about it….like "Empty Saddles" and "The Bridle Hanging On The Wall". I got choked up when he started saying…do you mind if I say cocoa…there were some moving moments in that deal. It was fun, I really loved it."

The year before this project Don had payed tribute to Gene Autry for his 90th Birthday.

"We were friends with all the people at the Gene Autry museum in Burbank, California. They called and wanted us to come out for the festivities for his 90th birthday. I said yeah, I'll be there in a minute…Johnny Cash and everyone was there for that. I thought that we'd be a little bold and say…do you think we could record this? He said…Well, I think that it might be a little hectic over there at the Gene Autry playing guitargala event. But if you want to do it like a day before we can let you have the Wells Fargo Theatre and well have a show…let people come for a concert and record a couple of them. I said…gee that would be wonderful, lets do that. Well, I'd be darned…we went down there and I did all those Gene Autry songs. That was paying tribute to a guy…a lot of people wouldn't do this, but some do. Growing up, he was one of my idols musically and in the movies too… he was another one like Rex…a hero of mine! But he had a huge catalogue of recordings, more so than any other singing cowboy. Gene Autry sang blues man!!! That's how far Autry went! We did just like the older stuff. We didn't do stuff like "Rudolf The Red Nose Reindeer", stuff that was a gimmee you know! We did the older stuff. The only thing we did, was a little version of "Back In The Saddle" and I had to do "Silver Headed Daddy Of Mine". It was his first major hit record. We did that, but basically we did everything that was more or less obscure. We did that and kept our fingers crossed. Gene said…I really like that! I said ohhhh great! What if he'd said he hated it. (laughs) Oh man…that would have been horrible! But it was another thrill, to be able to do that and have him sitting there. Oh man, that is Gene Autry!"

post script
In the second week of January 2003 following this interview I received an e-mail from Don Edwards wife Kathy to inform me of the prestigious accomplishment of a Grammy Nomination for Best Traditional Album - High Lonesome Cowboy.