The Cowboy Folklorist
July 21, 2023
Written and photographed by MEREDITH LAWRENCE
Though he calls himself simply a “songster and storyteller,” Andy Hedges is compiling a rich, unique audio archive of cowboy music and poetry—and bringing the legends of the genre together on CD and stage.
Driving west across Texas on Highway 20, the land is so barren that even seemingly dead chicory shrubs provide relief from the vast emptiness. Past Abilene, where Route 84 slices northwest toward Lubbock, the roadside dust turns red and sandstone bluffs bulge along the skyline. The horizon levels out again headed into downtown, where the historical Cactus Theater is jam-packed and pin-drop quiet.
On a painted backdrop above the stage, two mounted cowboys ride toward distant mountains behind Andy Hedges, who’s plucking a brisk melody on his Gibson guitar and swapping verses to “Railroad Bill,” a traditional folk ballad, with the fabled Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Beside them, Dom Flemons (aka “The American Songster”) cradles his harmonica, cupping and releasing its air holes to weave in the sound of a train chugging down the tracks. Together, the trio references the only known recording Elliott made with Woody Guthrie (one of his mentors), cut 70 years ago with Bluesman Sonny Terry.
“It’s one of the great joys of my life to be friends with this man,” Hedges tells the crowd of Elliott—a sentiment he echoes often throughout the evening. The sold-out, 2-hour show has gathered a dozen or so of the best-known cowboy poets and folk musicians alive to perform a mixture of folk songs, cowboy ballads, and other Western music and poetry.
I don’t really think of myself as a podcaster,” Hedges says.
Based on “Roll On, Cowboys,” the double album of the same name Hedges released in early 2023, tonight’s show is the culmination of many years of work and relationships, bringing together acclaimed artists like Waddie Mitchell, Michael Martin Murphey, Randy Rieman, and Tom Russell, as well as up-and-comers like Brigid Reedy—and Hedges’ own 11-year-old daughter, Maggie Rose.
Hedges is not a cowboy; he’ll be the first one to tell you that. But his taste for jeans and boots, snap-button Western shirts, canvas jackets, and a good felted hat might fool you. Cowboys and cowboy poets are, after all, his greatest heroes, and collecting their stories his life’s work. For years, Hedges performed traditional cowboy poems and songs, and listened rapt to the stories often swapped backstage. He can recite many classics of the genre off the cuff, and possesses an encyclopedic recollection of their histories.
In December 2016, Hedges launched a podcast, “Cowboy Crossroads,” to share some of the tales he’d heard, and to document a niche American folk tradition as it evolves into the 21st century. With a diligence born of genuine love, he has crafted a meticulous, far-ranging audio collection about the American cowboy, past and present, and about the Americana music and poetry indelibly tied to our relationship with the land. To date, Hedges has released more than 90 episodes and interviewed dozens of legends, as well as emerging artists, building a roster that includes nearly every noteworthy name in the genre. His thorough documentation elevates the project to an oral history repository.
“I don’t really think of myself as a podcaster,” Hedges says. “That’s the medium I’m using; it’s a medium that’s working. But I hope these interviews might outlive the podcast craze and have greater value… I hope it is worthy of being revisited and archived, work that would carry some weight and importance when I’m gone.”
Contrary to Hollywood’s glorified, sanitized cowboy imagery, most of the era’s buckaroos were immigrants, and many of them were not white.
The roots of American cowboy poetry extend deep into music history, sprouting forth from Irish, Mexican, African, and many other folk traditions. But the art form as it’s practiced today is generally considered to date to the late 19th century. In the sliver of time between the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the invention and implementation of barbed-wire fencing in the late 1870s, trail-driving cowboys escorted massive herds of cattle across the American landscape. To pass the time, and to ease the pain of lonely and grueling work, those cowboys made up, embellished, and retold stories around the campfire and on the trail.
Contrary to Hollywood’s glorified, sanitized cowboy imagery, most of the era’s buckaroos were immigrants, and many of them were not white. Bringing together their own musical traditions, they crafted a uniquely American folk music that lives on today—at ranches, around literal and figurative campfires, and through performers like Hedges and company. Cowboy poetry has been featured on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and at Carnegie Hall; preserved in the Library of Congress; funded by NEA grants; and showcased at the Olympics.
Hedges’ pursuit of cowboy music and folk stories affords him a rare, nuanced knowledge of its complex history, says David “Andy” Wilkinson, a writer, performer, and Texas Tech professor, as well as Hedges’ friend and frequent collaborator. “[Hedges] understands the connections between what we think of as a ‘white music’ with the Black music of the Blues. And so in that sense, he is a very studied folklorist.”
I’d trust Andy with anything… I think a lot of people here feel that way.”
Growing up in West Texas, Hedges was fascinated by cowboy culture, devouring the music his father, an ex-rodeo cowboy turned Baptist preacher, kept around the house. When he was 13 years old, Hedges rented a videotape of the 1991 Austin City Limits show, “A Salute to the Cowboy,” which featured Michael Martin Murphey and friends, including Waddie Mitchell and Don Edwards. He was hooked by their performances, and by 16, Hedges was appearing onstage himself, at cowboy poetry gatherings around the state.
Now 43, Hedges is still considered a youngster among cowboy poets. But these days, he collaborates frequently with Mitchell and Murphey, both of whom joined him on his “Roll On, Cowboys” album, and he became fast friends with Don Edwards before Edwards’ death in 2022. And on August 10, he’ll debut on one of country music’s most storied stages: Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Hedges modestly shrugs off the term “folklorist,” much as he balks when he’s labeled “the future” of the genre—a heavy mantle by any metric—but to many of the old timers, that’s exactly what he is.
“I’d trust Andy with anything… I think a lot of people here feel that way,” says Bette Ramsey, widow of the late, beloved cowboy poet Buck Ramsey (a hero and major influence for Hedges, and many others).
You want the old traditions to be sustained, but you don’t want to be so stuck in a singular way that you lose the magic.”
Although poetry study is often considered an academic pursuit, for much of history it was a people’s art form. Working class poetry, like cowboy poetry, logger poetry, fisherfolk poetry—and, to some extent, rap—remains partially exempt from academic treatment, as Wilkinson points out. What further distinguishes Hedges from academic folklorists is the accessibility of his project: It’s not locked away in an archive, but available to anyone with internet access and a computer or smartphone.
Hedges also possesses a knack for rooting out untold stories and filling in overlooked pieces of history, refusing to shy away from its complexities. “He is creating a living tradition with the art that he’s presenting. He’s essentially rebranding a piece of… American literature,” says Brenn Hill, a musician who appears on both the album and the podcast. By reworking the music to appeal to modern audiences, and crafting a historical narrative for it, Hedges keeps his work relevant today, says Dom Flemons, who performs with Hedges often. Andy Hedges’ recitation of “Ol’ Proc,” a poem about a Black cowboy, helped inspire Flemons’ 2019 Grammy-nominated album, “Black Cowboys.” Hedges, in turn, credits Flemons as one of the foremost scholars—and advocates for recognition—of Black influence on country and cowboy music.
“You can just repeat what’s been done before, but you can also regalvanize. Like metal, you can melt it all down and turn it into a brand new thing,” Flemons says. “You want the old traditions to be sustained, but you don’t want to be so stuck in a singular way that you lose the magic.”
Cowboy music often laments the passing of time and of legends. But for Hedges, the immediacy lies in capturing the current generation, not a final one. It’s an attitude that enables him to string connections throughout cowboy art and history, and create a show that both honors the past and hints at the future.
Backstage at the Cactus Theater, where the greenroom walls are crammed with Sharpie-scrawled signatures of past performers, Hedges leads his collaborators in a warm-up exercise. Together, several generations of cowboy poets, ranging in age from 11 to 91, sing the chorus and final lines of “Goodbye Old Paint,” which will be the show’s closing number tonight:
“Good-bye, Old Paint, I’m a-leavin’ Cheyenne.
Old Paint’s a good pony and she paces when she can.”
Hedges smiles down proudly at his daughter, Maggie Rose, who’s playing fiddle. As she and the other performers filter out toward the stage, Hedges reminds them, “We’re sitting around the campfire, so it’s okay if it’s a little ragged.”