There’s no greater mythic American figure than the lone cowboy and his horse framed against a prairie sky. The image has become in many ways the epitome of the American ideal; that simple vision of resilience and strength and wherewithal that doesn’t bend and quit. Every boy I knew growing up wanted to be a cowboy at some point. So did our fathers, who were raised on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Some of us had granddaddies who were the real thing, had spent long hours in the saddle. And we knew from them that the Lone Ranger wasn’t a real cowboy, even though the idea was pretty cool.
But the world’s changed on us in the forty some years I’ve wandered through it, and often these days the term “cowboy” is delivered with derision. It’s as if those who helped carve out the West, and in so doing, the nation’s future, have become clichéd and been cast aside. Artists as varied as Kid Rock and Toby Keith have recorded songs about how they want to be or should have been cowboys, but one gets the sense neither of them would last a day out on the trail. They might look or sound great in the 21st century, but cowboys? No. And at times in modern culture you’ll hear someone say “don’t go cowboy on us” when what they really mean is you should toe the line, avoid independent thought, and hunker down for some gruel at the table of mediocrity. America’s changed over the centuries, and as it has, some of the appreciation for the cowboy, for Western skies, for prairie vistas and the dried sweat of a hard day’s work has faded. It’s a shame, because the core principles of the cowboy way are really nothing more than what used to be the American way. Losing one means losing the other, and son, some treasures just aren’t meant to get lost in the swirling mists of history.
There’s perhaps no more recognizable face or voice in today’s Western world than that of Red Steagall. Red’s career has been long and varied, and it’s bounced between the highs of celebrity and what those whose worlds revolve around People magazine would consider the backwater world of RFD-TV. HBO might get the ratings these days, but RFD is a gem of a station focused on the beating heart of the hard working, honest, real people of the United States. It’s not a place for glam, and the kids from Jersey Shore wouldn’t last a morning in the places where RFD’s on the TV. Which is exactly why Red Steagall fits there so well. He and the lifestyle he embodies, embraces, and passionately lives are a representation of the very best in all of us. Red is a living bridge to a heritage the mainstream has forsaken, and to an America where accountability and doing the right thing always mattered. If we’re ever going to get America back, the one they taught us about in school, it will be because men like Steagall and those of us who follow their trail took a stand and restored honor to the legacy we’ve inherited.
It was a privilege, then, for us at Outlaw Magazine to get to speak with Red and talk a little about what it all means in this topsy-turvy joyride of a life.
DP: Mr. Steagall, first, thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to visit a bit with us. You’re a perfect example of the kind of lives well lived we seek out, and it’s an honor to speak with you. Know a lot of folks are talking with you these days about awards and whatnot, but if you don’t mind, we’d like to take a different tack.
RS: Alright, I appreciate you looking me up. Let’s do it.
DP: Let’s start with a little bit of background on why you do what you do. Obviously it’s a lot. The cowboy gatherings, things you do with the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, the Bunkhouse show on RFD-TV (which, by the way, we’re big fans of). But under all of that, just seems like you’re a man working hard to preserve Western heritage and a cowboy way of life in general. What drives that, where does it come from?
RS: I do all that because I love the Western way of life. The heritage, the tradition. But primarily the values, the character of the people. They are the folks with dedication to their families, a belief in God, and they practice common decency in the way they live.
These are the people, from an agrarian way of life, whether it’s really cowboy or not, but an agrarian way of life, who helped to build the country that provides us with the opportunities we have. They got their values at their parents’ knees, at their grandparents’ knees, from the front pew at church. They have a sense of values, a sense of loving kindness, a sense of how we can all live harmonious lives with our neighbors.
I just spent three weeks out West on big ranches, living in a tent. Big trail ride. And you know what? The folks on those big ranches today are the very same kind of folks that were there a hundred years ago.
You just have to remember that the two things that are always important to human relationships are respect and common decency.
I just love everything about the life, all of it. And I love horses.
DP: Hard not to love a horse in my experience, although it is fair to say I may have run across one or two that weren’t particularly lovable.
RS: (chuckles) Well, I have too. But I never blame the horses.
OM: That’s the truth, sir. Now given all of that, and understanding that the world continues to change around us, what does the cowboy code mean and how does it translate into today’s world? Seems every few years somebody in Nashville will dust off the phrase and put it in a song, and the mainstream has heard the term, but you get the sense they don’t really understand it. Certainly that they don’t think it’s relevant these days. How would you respond to that?
RS: First, when we talk about the cowboy code, it doesn’t mean that you have to live in the West. It doesn’t even mean that you have to be a cowboy. You may live in Tennessee or Alabama, Ohio, Arizona, anywhere else. It doesn’t matter. You just have to always remember the things that help you get along with your neighbor. Negativity is bred from negative ideas. If we choose to be negative, then we’re just a group of human beings constantly squabbling, putting down people who don’t agree with us.
And nothing grows from sterile soil.
Listen, I don’t have a mission. I don’t have a ministry. I just have a real belief in the principles that led to the founding of the United States. All around the world today we have thousands of young men and women in uniform who are either fighting or standing ready to fight to protect our borders, to keep us safe. Because of them, we have this insulated environment full of freedom. And that means we have a responsibility to get along with each other inside the safe borders our armed forces provide us. It is important to a society that people learn to live in harmony, that they have common decency and respect for each other. That’s the cowboy code.
DP: Excellent perspective, particularly on the responsibility to make the most of the blessings we’ve been granted. Now in that same vein, but a little more specific: the music world’s changed drastically over the years; you’ve seen that and adapted and managed to always carry the torch your way and light the path for what you believe in. But understanding all the changes, and the commercialism which pervades the music world today, what would you tell a young man or young woman with a guitar and a dream who asks you for advice?
RS: Be true to yourself. You’re in charge of your own destiny. Be true to you, do what you know is right. Don’t let the world sway you.
Look, the music industry changes constantly. It always has. One thing will sell, and others will copy it. Exceptional golf clubs always sell out, and eventually the market thins. So they go back and build a whole new set. It’s the same club, really, but they put a new marketing handle on it. The music business is the same way. Audiences grow from what they’re listening to now. I love steel guitars and fiddles; they’re still what I play. I went as far as I could in mainstream country music, but the audience changed. I didn’t want to change; I love what I love. So a decision had to be made. The record company couldn’t stay in business selling what I’d always done; they had to attract new buyers. So they marketed new acts that were appealing to those younger people. We attracted and appealed to an audience for the time frame between the sad songs and waltzes on up to the Garth Brooks era. Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Kris, they all had audiences and made great money. But their audiences aged and their sales dropped. And the cost to produce a record remained the same.
Every new audience needs somebody to identify with. Garth Brooks gave the younger audience that when he came on the scene. And suddenly groups came along, making tons of money, selling tons of tickets. You know we never really had groups in country music, with a few exceptions, but since Garth it seems like groups are everywhere. It’s just what the younger audiences are able to identify with, what they are attracted to.
I don’t understand what the vast majority of people on country radio today are doing. But I do admire their passion and their dedication to the vision and the dream. It’s an example of how we keep industries alive in this country. I don’t listen to them, but I do admire them.
My Cowboy Corner show reaches half a million people in 162 markets in 32 states. That’s not a big enough audience for Coca-Cola to be interested in us. So we have to be creative in finding advertisers. We know what our niche is, just as you have found yours with your internet show. We know our audience, just as you know yours. So we’re creative, and we find advertisers who also will appeal to that audience. It’s just a matter of being creative in order to support the ability to do what you love.
And I love it. I like the challenges.
So if I’m talking to a young artist with a dream, I’d remind them that there are three key things in writing:
Now if you’re writing a song, you don’t have to have a perfect rhyme. But you do need a rhythm. And you’ve got to have something new to say. Something no one’s ever said before, and you’ve got to say it in your own way, and that way has got to make an audience believe. Your audience has short attention spans. Often they’re just scanning the radio while they’re in traffic. So you have to capture them quick.
If someone tells me they’ve found a girl who sounds just like Reba, well, there’s only one Reba McEntire. Same thing if a fellow tells me he’s got a boy at his church who can sing just like Waylon Jennings. There was just one Waylon. Don’t try to be them. Be yourself.
Write your own songs. Make them your songs. Don’t get caught up in trying to cover or interpret someone else’s work. If you do, you’ll guarantee that your work will always be compared to theirs. If you record a song Conway Twitty did, you’re going to be compared to Conway Twitty. Don’t set yourself up like that. It isn’t fair to you.
You have got to always remember that the cream rises to the top. But it takes work for that to happen. Don’t get caught thinking you’re the cream and that you’ll just rise on your own.
DP: Great point. There’s not a much finer example of the country life’s rewards than a fresh churn of buttermilk. But boy, you can sure work up a sore shoulder getting that stuff churned.
RS: (laughing) Yes, you sure can. But that’s what it’s about. You’ve got to want to do it right, and you’ve got to be willing to work for it.
DP: Mr. Steagall, thanks again for your time. Sincerely appreciate you spending a bit with us, and thank you for all that you do.
Learn more about Red and a life well lived by clicking over to www.redsteagall.com.
And check out www.cowboycorner.com for info on his long-running radio show, along with details on In the Bunkhouse with Red Steagall.
Don’t forget RFD, either. www.rfdtv.com. If you’re not familiar with them, you’re going to want to fix that. Yesterday.
~ Dave Pilot
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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