In the first two decades after the Civil War, more than 10 million cattle were driven north from Texas to railheads in Kansas, where they could be shipped to larger markets in the east. Fighting boredom on the trail, cowboys would often improvise poems and songs. They’d sing on horseback and around the campfire, collectively writing verse, adding a new line or amending an old one, usually in the form of an English ballad. Thus cowboy poetry was born.
While the cattle-drive era has long since passed, the poetry hasn’t stopped. In the early 1980s, a small group of folklorists, having stumbled upon this underground genre, sought out cowboy poets from all over the west. In 1985, the Western Folklife Center hosted the results at the inaugural Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. This year, the center hosted its 33rd gathering, a weeklong event that now annually attracts thousands, urban and rural alike. The national event has spawned a tight-knit community of poets and musicians, among them Andy Hedges. The 36-year-old cowboy poet and singer is also the host and creator of the new podcast Cowboy Crossroads, a refreshingly diplomatic effort to connect today’s vibrant cowboy culture with a world only vaguely aware of its existence.
Cowboy Crossroads explores the genre’s ongoing evolution—and initiates newcomers—through its interview-driven episodes. Each approximately half-hour segment features a special guest, usually an artist. In the first eight episodes, Hedges has chatted with the cowboy poets Ross Knox and Waddie Mitchell, and the musicians Michael Martin Murphey, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Noel McKay. Upcoming episodes will include the singer-songwriter Martha Scanlon, and Dom Flemons, the founder of the band Carolina Chocolate Drops, who is currently recording an album of songs by and about black cowboys.
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