Depending on your particular temperament (and your inclination toward conspiracy theory) you may have your very own, very personal reasons for being suspicious of any artist who appears on an album cover wearing a cowboy hat and chaps. And for that, you really can’t be blamed. I mean, we all know that the closest some of today’s Tennessee Pop stars ever get to "country-country" is when their limo breaks down more than five miles outside of Nashville. But before you write off every artist in "traditional garb" as a poseur, take some time to listen to the music of cowboy troubadour Don Edwards and rediscover a performer who was "retro" before the term had been invented and "country" before the word needed a qualifier in front of it.
Edwards has knocked around the "cowboy scene" (or notable lack thereof) since his days as a real-life cowboy in Texas and New Mexico. A career that began with a singer-actor-stuntman gig at the new (circa 1960) Six Flags Over Texas theme park has most recently been parlayed into an appearance in the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer, not to mention thirty odd years of singing songs about dusty trails, horse’s hooves, and sunsets on the prairie. In light of his big screen hobnobbing with ‘ol Golden Hair and the release of The Best of Don Edwards, 1998 may prove to be the biggest year of all for the man known as "The Minstrel of the Range".
The Best of Don Edwards is an admittedly over due and somewhat incomplete assemblage in that none of the material dates back further than 1992. Exclusion of pre- 1990’s material notwithstanding, this collection does an excellent job of covering the highlights of Edwards’ three previous Warner Western releases and unveils two previously unreleased tracks to boot.
The CD opens with "The Habit", a bouncy bluegrass ode to travelin’ from the 1996 Wrangler Award winning release, West Of Yesterday, which features the subtle fiddle work of Randy Elmore and the rich vocal harmonies of Tim and Mollie O’Brien.
But don’t let the picture-postcard romance of the opener fool you, most of this collection concentrates on the more melancholy realities of the cowboy life; the loneliness, the low pay, the hard physical labor, and the challenges of wrassling with cantankerous cattle and the powers of mother nature. Or, as Edwards himself sings in "The Cowboy Life, (one of the two previously unreleased tracks on the collection) "the cowboy life, is a dreary, dreary life / all out in the heat and cold / while the rich man is sleepin’ on his velvet couch/ dreamin’of his silver and his gold".
"The Cowboy’s Song", an obvious ‘pardner’ to "The Cowboy Life", is a wrenching tale of death on the trail and a clear look at how the reality of "pushing horns" for a living tends to be radically different from the world of the big screen cowboy. (Especially interesting subject matter in light of Edwards recent appearance as, what else, but a cowboy in The Horse Whisperer.)
Another stand-out cut, "The Freedom Song", showcases Edwards’ ability to join political subject matter (in this case, a Cherokee cowboy who refuses to sing along with the Star Spangled Banner) with the long standing tradition of the simple, heartfelt cowboy ballad and make it seem like the two were meant to be together.
"Coyotes" follows in a similar vein and manages to take the timeless formula of the ballad to a new level. The narrator in "Coyotes" is an aging cowboy and the song centers on his grief over the destruction of his land and livelihood at the hands of big business and urban sprawl. Eventually, the prairie is completely empty, save for the cowboy and "those damn coyotes". If you’ve never considered the possibility of a cowboy being downsized before, join the club. And if this song doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, you’ve got some big problems, pardner.
The "bounce" of the opening track makes a brief return visit on the swing-time number "Goin’ Back To Texas" (where your best friend is your bronco and your gun…) and the polka flavored "Lone Star Trail", but otherwise The Best of Don Edwards sticks, appropriately enough, to what Don Edwards does best; the tried and true cowboy ballad.
As a singer, Edwards exhibits wonderful control over his weathered drawl of a baritone throughout the record, shifting easily between plaintive, almost spoken lyrics while still managing to yodel out clear "whoopi-ti-yi-yeas" and "whoo-yips" on more than one occasion.
The arrangements on The Best Of.. are simple and understated, driven primarily by an acoustic guitar and Edwards supple voice and filled out earnestly with fiddle, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, dobro and steel guitar just to name a few.
The modest production adds a certain down-home realism to the collection and serves to remind the listener that in the singing cowboy genre, the songs are necessarily the spotlight feature. And for a storyteller like Don Edwards, as long as there are dogies to be roped, cattle to drive, and stars to sleep under, there will always be songs to sing. And big ‘ol hats to wear and traditions to carry on, trends be damned.
-- Mike Kerlin