Out West

The Cowboy Songster

Andy Hedges holding a guitar

Multi-talented Andy Hedges’ new album, Roll On, Cowboys, is exactly where he wants to be.

“They will sing of our deeds in a thousand songs.
 Roll on, cowboys, roll on…”

The name Andy Hedges may be very familiar if you are counted as one of the many listeners to his ongoing podcast episodes, “Cowboy Crossroads.” Andy has followed his true passion for the music and words of the American West to create a series of in-depth interviews with some of the West’s most important figures — especially in the Western music genre. At last count, he was gaining on just under 100 episodes that feature the likes of Red Steagal, Trinity Sealey, ranchers Linda Davis and John Lacy, Buster Welch, photographer Jay Dusard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to name just a few of the legendary Westerners who have sat down to chat with Andy.

Andy Hedges is a self-described “songster, reciter, storyteller, guitarist and collector of cowboy songs and poems.” He was born in Lubbock, Texas, in the spring of 1980, the son of an Italian schoolteacher and a rodeo cowboy turned preacher. He grew up in the small community of Tokio, Texas, a town not too far from Lubbock. His family rented an old farmhouse and looked after a few head of cattle. It was there that Andy fell in love with traditional music by listening to his father’s myriad of cassette tapes of cowboy songs.

In addition to his podcasts, Andy has released four albums — all of which have celebrated the cowboy and the cowboy way of life. In 2020, Andy’s album, Shadow of a Cowboy, won the coveted Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum for Outstanding Traditional Western Album. This month, he released his new double album, Roll On, Cowboys, a concept album that brings Andy together with both established and upcoming artists to create an album of duets featuring some of the best voices — and writing — in the Western genre.

Roll On Cowboy album cover by Andy Hedges
Cover painting by William Matthews

The idea sprang from a recent recording session that saw Andy collaborating with the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on songs they recorded over two days. Andy came away from the experience excited to see who he could round up for other duets on the project.

“I didn’t really know where the idea would lead me starting out,” he told me. “It just kind of grew as we went along, as well as the figuring of what songs would be included. It ended up I traveled around the country for over a year sort of collecting people that were interested and then deciding on songs we would do — stopping at times to record some in Lubbock as I caught someone passing through on tour. It was a pretty low-tech approach, frankly, but I was fortunate to get some really wonderful folks to participate.”

And he’s not kidding, as the duet performers include the likes of Corb Lund, Brigid Reedy, Randy Reiman, Brenn Hill, Tom Russell, Michael Martin Murphy and Andy Wilkinson among others. So, with names like those, the choice of songs and who performed what was a very important part of Andy’s thinking.

“Each of the songs we chose had a very specific story behind it,” Andy explained, “so it was very important to match the right duet partner with each song. For example, a terrific traditional song on the album titled ‘Dodgin’ Joe’ has an unusual history and involves the folklorist Jack Thorp. He was a cowpuncher from New York and was the first man to collect and publish a book of cowboy songs in 1908 called Songs of the Cowboys. He would later be part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Program in New Mexico during the 1930s.

“His cowboy songbook was a little 50-page booklet that included a handful of songs like ‘Little Joe the Wrangler.’ In his autobiography, ‘Pardner of the Wind,’ Thorp recounts his experiences of seeing the light of a Littlefield Freight Drivers cow camp in eastern New Mexico in 1889 and hearing music drifting on the wind. When he rode into a camp of all Black cowboys, there was a man named Lasses playing the banjo and singing a song about a cutting horse named Dodgin’ Joe. Lasses only knew two verses of the song, but Thorp wrote the verses down in his notebook.

“That experience was a life changer for Thorp. Inspired by the song, he quit his job the next day and began a 1500-mile journey to collect cowboy songs. He never found more verses to ‘Dodgin’ Joe’ and even the two verses he wrote down did not find their way into Songs of the Cowboys. However, musician and scholar Mark Lee Gardner uncovered the two verses in Jack Thorp’s papers at the New Mexico State Records Center in Santa Fe. Gardner included the verses in his book Jack Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboys.

“While thinking about that story of ‘Dodgin’ Joe,’ I started imagining what that song must have sounded like, so with the help of my friend Andy Wilkinson, he wrote additional verses and a refrain, which I then set to music. On this recording, I’m playing Dom Flemons’s 1919 six-string banjo dubbed ‘Big Head Joe,’ made by African American luthier Robert H. McGinnis.  This may be a long way around, but you can see a lot of thought went into each song on the album playlist.”

Andy Hedges standing holding a guitar
Photograph courtesy of Andy Hedges

One thing about Andy Hedges’ work — he loves the old songs and performs them, but he has tried to avoid — his words ­— “the old chestnuts” that have been recorded countless times, instead looking for equally illustrative songs that are more obscure and giving them a fresh performance and celebration. This is not to say he doesn’t include a chestnut or two on this album. The classic “Little Joe the Wrangler” that Jack Thorp found came to be included after Andy and Canadian singer/songwriter Cord Lund had chatted about that and other old songs over the years in Elko or whenever they would bump into each other on the cowboy music trail.

“Corb had told me he had learned many traditional tunes from his grandfather in Alberta, and that he was surprised when he heard people like Don Edwards or Marty Robbins perform them and the lyrics were different — that the regional Alberta references that his grandfather had in those songs were changed — maybe for different audiences. So, when Corb and I decided to record ‘Little Joe the Wrangler’ together, he included those original Alberta references of his grandfather’s in the song, and we were both happy how it turned out.”

The two-CD package features 22 tracks along with a 28-page booklet of photos and detailed liner notes about each artist and song. There are book references and song histories included as well that Andy hopes will enthrall, entertain and inspire a new generation of cowboy music lovers. Here are the track listings and artists that perform on the album with Andy.

Disc 1

1. “Roll On, Cowboys” (Featuring Brenn Hill)

2. “Dodgin’ Joe” (Featuring Dom Flemons)

3. “Little Joe the Wrangler” (Featuring Corb Lund)

4. “Long Summer Day” (Featuring Pipp Gillette)

5. “Root Hog or Die” (Featuring Tom Russell)

6. “Philadelphia Lawyer” (Featuring Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)

7. “Railroad Bill” (Featuring Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)

8. “Desert Sands” (Featuring Brigid Reedy)

9. Ridin’/Commutin’ (Featuring Waddie Mitchell)

10. “Saddlin’ Up Time” (Featuring Andy Wilkinson)

11. “Palo Duro Farewell” (Featuring Andy Wilkinson)

Disc 2

1. “Here’s Lookin’ At You” (Featuring Rod Taylor)

2. “When I Was A Cowboy” (Featuring Dom Flemons)

3. “Punchin’ the Dough” (Featuring Pipp Gillette)

4. “The Broncho” (Featuring Corb Lund)

5. Pitch, You Wild Outlaw, Pitch” (Featuring Corb Lund)

6. “Makin’ Merry with John Perry on the Ol’ Bar Cross” (Featuring Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)

7. “Rounded Up in Glory” (Featuring Michael Martin Murphey)

8. “Old Dolores” (Featuring Tom Russell)

 9. “Passing of the Trail/Cowboy Blues” (Featuring Randy Rieman)

10. “The Old Cowman” (Featuring Brenn Hill)

11. “Good Bye Old Paint” (Featuring Andy Wilkinson)

In addition to all the singing, the tradition of cowboy poetry’s spoken word is well represented. One performance on the album, “Ridin’/Commutin’” features Andy singing and Waddie Mitchell reciting. (This combination of poetry and music was a mainstay of Don Edwards’ and Waddie Mitchell’s The Bard and the Balladeer shows, and Andy chose to dedicate this album of duets to his friend Don Edwards who passed away last October.)

Words by Charles Badger Clark, Music by Don Edwards, Night Horse Songs BMI
Poem by Waddie Mitchell, Waddie’s Words
Recorded on October 28 at Allegro Sound Lab in Burleson, Texas
Engineered by Aarom Meador
Andy Hedges – guitar and vocal
Waddie Mitchell – recitation

This was a highly personal project for Andy. “I felt very fortunate to be able to record with everyone on the album as I really wanted to celebrate the tradition of sharing these great songs. It’s something I have been involved with since I was very young and was a tradition in my family. I have found, over the years, that I am pleasantly surprised by the many letters and emails I get after one of the ‘Cowboy Crossroads’ episodes have aired from folks who are just discovering cowboy music or poetry and finding for the first time the thoughtful nature of the cowboy world and its culture.”

I asked him whom he wanted to reach with the album. “I’m really impressed when I play around the country and do these songs, how many young people get wrapped up in the stories these songs have to tell and hopefully they will start singing them and doing their own digging for those timeless songs that tell us about the West and the people in it.”

Andy Hedges’ vast and varied repertoire includes classic cowboy poetry recitations, obscure cowboy songs, dust bowl ballads and blues. His podcast, “Cowboy Crossroads” can be accessed on his website, www.andyhedges.com. Andy has performed many times with the favorite son of Marshall, California, 91-year-old folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. To launch the album, a concert with 11 of the included artists will he held on April 25, 2023 at the Cactus Theater in Lubbock, Texas. Information and tickets are available online at www.cactustheater.com. This will be an historic event — and like Andy Hedges’ new album — part of the ongoing evolution of cowboy music.

Roll On Cowboys Andy Hedges poster
Concert poster for Lubbock launch event

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