I first became aware of cowboy songster Andy Hedges at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada in 2019. I was impressed with his guitar playing, singing, and general knowledge of cowboy and western culture. He was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1980, the son of a schoolteacher and a former rodeo cowboy turned preacher. Andy grew up engrossed in the stories of the West. He currently records music, produces a podcast, and performs. Hedges regularly takes the stage with legendary songwriters like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ian Tyson, and Dom Flemmons.
Hear a sound-rich audio interview with Andy Hedges.
Hedges explained that the word songster is an old time term that identifies a person who is known for their repertoire of songs rather than for songs they’ve written. A songster plays in a variety of styles.
“The term is often used to describe some of the early African American musicians who weren’t just blues players,” Hedges said in a phone interview. “They played the blues, but they also played the popular songs of the day. They played novelty songs and they played old ballads and they were almost like a living jukebox. They were just there to play whatever song the people wanted to hear. They were capable of playing those songs and all these different styles. I really liked that idea. And for me, that kind of resonated with what I tried to do with old time cowboy music and with the idea of the music of that time and the music of the old time cowboys and the trail drivers. The music that they would have been hearing and singing and playing was not just old-time cowboy songs but was a lot of these other influences, gospel songs, popular songs, novelty numbers.”
Cowboy music has roots in Celtic songs. English, Scottish, and Irish ballads came from the old world to the United States along with the music of slaves and freed slaves who were playing the music that would eventually become the blues.
“All that’s kind of coming together in cowboy music, developing out of that, and so I thought the term songster just kind of fit what I do, kind of trying to tap into these different styles and play a wide variety of songs,” Hedges said. “I do write a few here and there but that’s not really primarily what I am. I don’t really think of myself as a songwriter, more of an interpreter of songs. So I just adopted that term songster, at least for a couple of records, you know that I called the Cowboy Songster and then Cowboy Songster, Volume Two. Some folks certainly refer to me as a songster now.”
2020 marks the 20th year Andy Hedges will attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Hedges said he loves playing and attending the the event that has inspired and deepened his interest in cowboy culture, but his father got him started.
“My dad used to ride bulls and is kind of a cowboy type of a guy, so when I came along, I grew up hearing his old rodeo stories and I grew up listening to music that he liked, which was old western music, things like Jimmie Rodgers and Tex Ritter and Sons of the Pioneers, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Gene Autry, things like that.
“So I loved that music as a kid and I just, for whatever reason, I love all things to do with the West and all things to do with Cowboy Culture. I didn’t really grow up on a ranch and never really never considered myself a working cowboy. But I did grow up in the country and I grew up around cows and horses and kind of grew up around that culture, at least to a certain extent and just had this fascination with it.”
The Elko Gathering helped show a young Andy Hedges that there was a vibrant contemporary cowboy music scene. Hedges said he believes the treasure trove of song and poesy that has flowed from the Elko event since 1985 has helped spur a contemporary renaissance of cowboy music and poetry.
“I would have been four years old when the first gathering happened, so it was a few years later in the early ‘90s when I was a teenager that I discovered these other gatherings were happening in Texas and I discovered some of the artists that had come out of that like cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and the great balladeer and songster, Don Edwards and Michael Martin Murphy. I discovered that and just fell in love with it and was really excited to learn that there were people currently playing this music that I had grown up listening to, and it was much broader, deeper than I’d ever realized with all the old time music and then the contemporary songwriters, and of course, the cowboy poetry tradition.”
Andy has expanded his study of the western song and poetry tradition with his well-informed podcast called Cowboy Crossroads in which he speaks with important cowboy poets and songwriters. Hedges said he has discovered several western culture podcasts of interest and enjoys hearing from songwriters, performance artists, and insiders like session musicians and producers.
“I was especially inspired by one (podcast) called Thanks For Giving a Damn that Otis Gibbs produces. I just had the thought that man, somebody should do this with cowboy poetry and cowboy music because there’s so many interesting characters and interesting artists. They have these great stories, and it kind of occurred to me that hey, maybe I’m the guy to do that because I know all of these people and I often find myself backstage or going down the road or visiting someone’s ranch and hearing their incredible stories and getting to know them. I thought, you know, it might be a neat thing to be able to record that and share it with an audience. So I had that decision and just jumped into it without really knowing what I was doing, I really had the idea. And within about a week, I think it was my first interview and I was trying to figure out how to use the gear that I’d bought, and that’s just kind of continued on for the last three years. It’s really an extension of what I’ve been talking about with my interest in the old time music and my fascination with cowboy culture.”
Earlier this year Andy released a record called Shadow of a Cowboy. The album’s title track has a story.
“That’s one (song) that I gathered, but it’s not an old time song. It was written by a songwriter named Tucker Zimmerman who was originally from the U.S. that lives over in Europe now and has for many, many years. It’s a bit of a long story, but I became aware of him because of his connection to a guy named Daryl Adams, and Daryl Adams was an old time banjo player who had moved to Belgium back in the I think the ‘50s when he first went to Europe and ended up settling in Belgium, and at that time when he went to Europe, he went with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He and Jack used to play in a in a duo together. So I became a fan of Daryl Adams and he had recorded a song that Tucker Zimmerman had written. Tucker Zimmerman’s a friend of Daryl Adams, and that song was called Oregon, which I also recorded on this new record. And just through looking into that song and who Tucker Zimmerman was and trying to look him up, I also discovered this song, “Shadow of a Cowboy,” and I just loved it when I heard it and decided to record it.”
Andy Hedges is scheduled to perform at the 2020 Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering January 27 through February 1, 2020. This year’s event will feature black cowboys along with a long list of poets and musicians to include Cat Clifford, Dom Flemons, Hot Club of Cowtown, Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, Joel Nelson, Henry Realbird, Joel Nelson, Paul Zarzyski, and Carolyn Dufurrena from Winnemucca, among many.
Will Houk is musical arts reporter for Nevada Capital News. Will hosts Roots, Rednecks, and Radicals, a weekly radio show/podcast that showcases the genres of Americana, Roots and Folk Music. Will earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada in Reno. He is a faculty member of Carson City High School, teaching U.S. history and Psychology. He believes that if he didn’t become an educator, he would have chosen journalism. Will is an amateur guitar player. He and his family are lifelong residents of Carson City.