He settles on one end of the sofa in his music room, a book-lined sanctuary where he has recorded some of his songs. His white hair is neatly combed; his blue eyes smiling. That trademark high-crowned hat hangs nearby and that mahogany Santa Cruz guitar, his signature inlaid in ivoroid on the fingerboard just below the mother-of-pearl Texas star, is on a stand near a Bob Moline saddle.
Don Edwards has spent his life singing for his supper, and now, as the Cowtown Opry prepares to honor him at its annual Texas Independence Day Gala on Feb. 28, he sits down to talk about his life as a troubadour, but it’s difficult. He finds the music so much more remarkable than his life’s journey.
After more than 50 years in the spotlight, Edwards has become an award-winning performer, a celebrated keeper of cowboy lore and a Western Music Association Hall of Fame honoree.
His name is installed in the Walk of Western Stars in Santa Clarita, Calif., along with those of his childhood heroes, including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter. He’s a Grammy Award nominee who, with a suitcase full of songs, has traveled the world telling stories set to music and has brought home more awards than he can remember.
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At the heart of it all, Edwards is a history lover most interested in the period of American history from just after the Civil War — which in Southern tradition, he calls “The War of Northern Aggression” — to the early 1900s. Two of his anthologies of cowboy songs are included in the Folklore Archives of the Library of Congress, and he has given seminars at Yale, Rice, TCU and other universities.
Best of all, after years of playing cowboy music simply for the love of it, Edwards finds that he has the life he always wanted.
At 75, he still travels more than half the year singing about cowboys, trail drives, drought, dust, cattle, weather, coyotes and the high, lonesome places of the heart.
His fans are many and devoted, but his music — cowboy, not Western — was never meant for light shows, thundering backup bands and arena-packing concerts, he says. “It’s a dying art form…one singer, one guitar.”
To his mind, his life has always been more about the music than about the man, and he is forever looking for ways to keep this music alive — even after the man is gone.
Cowtown Opry leader and cowgirl singer Devon Dawson recognizes that, by agreeing to be honored, Don has given the organization a huge gift and validated its mission of preserving, performing and promoting cowboy and Western music.
He shrugs off the significance of his involvement, saying it’s another chance for him to sing the old songs. “They’re trying to keep things going. That’s the least I can do,” he says of the Cowtown Opry, which presents free concerts in the Fort Worth Stockyards each Sunday afternoon.
“He engenders our respect for his serious study of the history of cowboy music and his faithful representation of it,” Dawson says. “Like a true artist, Don brings his own vision to it and then invites us to share it. With all his presentation of traditional cowboy songs, he is a master of a Western swing song, and tops it all off with a darn good yodel!”
From the start, Don Edwards knew that singing cowboy music would never put him on the hit parade, but he didn’t care. When he was just a boy, he gobbled up all those Western matinees, admiring the good guys in white hats who often crooned a song or two. His father took him to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden and he was completely mesmerized by the big-as-life cowboys.
At 10 or 11, he taught himself to play guitar, and by the time he was a teen, he was a headstrong kid who just wanted what he wanted. His heroes had always been singing cowboys, and if the life of a roaming minstrel was tough, so be it. That was exactly the life he set out to rope, tie and brand.
When his family moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, he lit out in pursuit of his destiny. He was 17, he says, a young blood with a guitar on his shoulder and a belly full of confidence.
His father had played what Edwards calls “rural vaudeville shows” before Don, the first of three children, was born. Then, in need of a more dependable income for his family, the senior Edwards took a job as an aircraft radio technician.
“I think he understood why I had to go,” says Edwards, the only boy in the bunch. “I went to Nashville…and I didn’t want that,” he says. “It was all big business…fame and fortune. It wasn’t about the music.”
He headed West.
He worked as day labor unloading rail cars, took whatever came his way, never asked his dad for money and kept his ear to the ground for any music gig.
“I toughed it out…sang all kinds of music in bars and honky-tonks and took day jobs, but I wasn’t dependable. I wanted to sing and play the guitar, so if a singing job came along, I left the other,” he says.
He rambled around, and in the 1960s landed at Six Flags Over Texas as a singer and actor. It may have been fun, but he couldn’t stay away from Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards, where he became a part-owner in the storied White Elephant Saloon. There, he sang the old songs to a crowd hungry for a taste of something authentic.
He got a lucky break when someone pointed him to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. “That opened a door to a bigger audience,” he says.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, with his reputation as “the real deal” growing, he kept doing what he loved best and prospering. Mindful that sometimes clothes make the man, Edwards made sure he had the right gear. He ordered his signature white hats from the Rocky Mountain Hat Company and custom boots from Paul Bond.
About 1997, actor and director Robert Redford was looking for a cowboy singer for his movie The Horse Whisperer. People kept parading Western singers in front of the him, but Redford knew cowboy music and held out for that authentic sound. He also wanted someone to play the part of Smokey, an old cowhand who had spent his life on ranches.
One fine day, someone put one of Edwards’ tapes in Redford’s car. In short order, Edwards was cast as Smokey and hired to sing Coyotes for the movie.
“It just fell in my lap,” he says. He laughs with wonder. “I always had confidence that I could make a living playing what I wanted to play,” he says. “God gave me an ability to do this, but everything just lined up. If I hadn’t done the White Elephant, I wouldn’t have gone to Elko, if I hadn’t done Elko...” He pauses and focuses on some distant memory. “This is...humbling,” he says. “Maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do...spread the music. But you don’t do it all by yourself.”
For 38 years, Kathy Edwards has helped her husband “spread the music.” If she’s sometimes been his muse, she has also been his traveling companion. But for all their adventures, they both value time at home.
About 10 years ago, they moved from a place near Weatherford to a 400-acre hideaway just on the edge of the Texas Hill Country.
“Weatherford was growing too fast,” says Edwards. “We could see the handwriting on the wall...”
Singing Hills Ranch is a meandering two-hour drive from Fort Worth through small towns dozing in the sun and down caliche-topped back roads. The house sits high above green fields of coastal and pastures planted in native grasses. There are dogs, of course, and longhorns. It is the sort of home they’d always dreamed of owning; a peaceful place to rest after a long pilgrimage.
Cowtown Opry Texas Independence Day Celebration
6 p.m. Feb. 28
Stockman’s Club in Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards
Dinner, silent auction, show and Western dance with proceeds benefiting the Cowtown Opry.
Tickets: adults, $75; children, $40; reservations at 817-366-9675 or www.cowtownopry.org.