Check out other article and interviews by Graham

 Red Steagall

  Red Steagall's
Cowboy Gathering

by Graham Lees


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 Graham with Don EdwardsGathering 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. Quebe Sisters with Joey & Sherry McKenzieOne 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 Red Steagallgathering 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 glad typical cowboy menuthat 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 wouldCamp Cook preparing the meal 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 camp cook at work at chuck wagonthat 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 Chuck Wagon pulls into Fort Worth Stockyardsdo 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 Texas Longhorn Steersrange 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 all started.

"Well there is a chuck wagon association. And we let the Western Chuck Wagon Chuck Wagon at the StockyardsAssociation 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 Chuck Wagon pulling into the Stockyardsforth! 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 Red Steagallrealised 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 Stockyard cowboyshands 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 Cowboy poet Larry McWhorterstories.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 recite."

Red has a new album (reviewed in the CD section) called Wagon Tracks.

"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 cover of Red Steagall's new album Wagon Trackshe 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 in Texaswagon train sets off 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 Marlene with Stockyard cowboy Walter Morsethe 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 music scene.

" I started in 1956 writing songs. I had a band in college and played rodeo dances Red Steagallafter 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 Reba McEntirewould 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 ever have!

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!!!!!!!