One of America’s premier cowboy poets, Western singers, preservationists, and musicologists in the field of Western recordings has passed away. Don Edwards, who was active for nearly 60 years in keeping alive the words and ways of the American West died on Sunday, October 23rd at the age of 86.
Born and raised in the rural farming community of Boontown, New Jersey, Don Edwards grew up with visions of the American West in his dreams from reading books about cowboys authored by Will James and others, while taking up the guitar at the ago of 10 to emulate his heroes such as foundational Western artists Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and later Jimmie Rodgers. By the age of 16, Edwards couldn’t wait to run away like his cowboy heroes, moving to Texas and New Mexico to work in the oil fields and experience the West for himself.
Soaking up everything cowboy and Western that he could, Don Edwards became like an embodiment of the West in a living form. That’s why the amusement park Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington hired him on when the park opened in 1961. He worked as a singer, actor, and stuntman for five years, before deciding to move to Nashville to pursue a proper recording career. But Edwards found little reception for his Western flair on Music Row since it was falling out of style for the more Countrypolitan sounds of the time. Edwards did release an album of Western standards and originals for the independent label Stop, but to little success.
Don Edwards moved back to Fort Worth in Texas, but continued to hold out hope for a recording career in Western music, which began to gain momentum in 1980 when he met Los Angeles DJ Larry Scott who helped set up Edwards in the studio with surviving members of Gene Autry’s band and the Sons of the Pioneers to record the album Happy Cowboy. Edwards later visited the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, which inspired him to release numerous book/cassette packages of traditional cowboy songs, and he started to garner a cult following.
In 1992, Don Edwards got the biggest opportunity of his career after he signed with Michael Martin Murphey’s label Warner Western, and began to regularly release albums of cowboy and Western music. Edwards released My Hero, Gene Autry: A Tribute in 1998 aligning with Autry’s 90th birthday, and then paid tribute to Marty Robbins in 2001 with the help of Waddie Mitchell and the Fort Worth Symphony. In 2002, he worked with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan on a project called High Lonesome Cowboy.
Don Edwards ultimately became synonymous with Western music and cowboy poetry. He also worked as an actor throughout his career, most notably playing the character Smokey in the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer from 1998. Twice Don Edwards was nominated for Grammy Awards, and appeared on the Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms by Nanci Griffith via the song “Night Rider’s Lament.” Two of Don’s songs have been preserved in the Folklore Archives at the Library of Congress. In 2005, Don Edwards was inducted into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame.
Both as a performer on stage, and a preservationist behind-the-scenes, Don Edwards was one of the premier individuals helping to preserve the words and songs of the American cowboy. Now a new generation of cowboy poets and Western singers recite the works of Don Edwards as their own influence and hero.