"How do I go about writin' it? I don't go about

writin' it. The way I do it, a line will come to me in my

head, and I'll write that down. And then another'n. And


J.B. Allen, cowboy poet

FORT WORTH - "This friend of mine, Jack Douglas, he lives

up there by Littlefield," J.B. Allen is saying. "I come

to find out that he's been writin' songs a long while. He's

an artist kind of feller. Plays guitar. Anyway, I was helpin'

him brand one time and we was settin' around after dinner,

and he said, "I been writin' some poems.' And I looked at

him kinda funny, you know. Cowpunchers ain't supposed to

write poems. But anyhow, he read one or two of 'em off to

me, and they was purty good.

"At the time, I was night-watchin' at a feedlot and had

a lot of time on my hands, and I just wrote a li'l ol' silly

poem 'bout somethin' that happened to me down on the river

one time. One thing led to another and I got to writin'

a lot of 'em. I wrote two or three hundred the first two

years. I just couldn't hardly write fast enough to get 'em

all out of there."

He's as cowboy as they come. But on that fateful night at

the feedlot, he became a poet, too. And during the few years

since then, he has become one of the more original and authentic

practitioners of the peculiar folk art called cowboy poetry

that has lived quietly in Texas and the West for more than

a century, but is just now entering the consciousness of

the rest of the United States.

"How do I go about writin' it? I don't go about writin'

it," he said. "The way I do it, a line will come to me

in my head, and I'll write that down. And then another'n.

And another'n. A lot of times the thing'll take off in a

different direction than what I thought it was goin' to.

Halfway through the poem, I still don't know how it's gonna

end. But I git there."

On the day he's telling these things, Allen is one of the

featured poetry reciters at the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering

and Western Swing Festival, billed as "a celebration of

cowboys and culture," at the Fort Worth Stockyards. He

figures it's about the 16th such event he has attended this

year. Similar gatherings are springing up all over, even

in the Deep South and Deepest Yankeeland. There's even talk

of a "cowboy poetry movement," and everybody, it seems,

wants to join it.

"This Fort Worth deal is one of the gooduns," Allen said.

"Ol' Red knows who the realuns are. But the "cowboy poet'

label has gotten to where it covers everbody and his frazzlin'

dog that ever wrote anything. Some people claim to be cowboys

who ain't, and some people runnin' gatherins don't know

the difference."

Tradition said it was a newspaperman who attached the label

"cow boys" to the horseback laborers who drove the first

Texas herds to the Kansas railheads after the Civil War.

He probably didn't mean it as a compliment. The austere

Midwestern townspeople and farmers considered the "cow

boys" to be rowdy and dangerous border riffraff and avoided

their company, except while separating them from their hard-earned


When dime novelists and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show embraced

the Texas drover, dressed him in dashing duds and introduced

him to the urban East and to Europe, the despised "cow

boy" laborer became a romantic cowboy hero and an American

myth. Hollywood and its big silver screen enlarged him into

a demigod.

By then, the trail herds and the open range were history,

and the real cowboys were hunkering down to the unglamorous

tasks of building fence, repairing water gaps, oiling windmills

and doctoring sick calves. Around the turn of the century,

Texas folklorist John Lomax had begun collecting and preserving

the old cowboy songs that had never been written down, and

a few cowboy poets such as Bruce Kiskaddon, Curley Fletcher,

Henry Herbert Knibbs and Badger Clark were publishing small

volumes of verse about their former lives on the now nonexistent

open range.

"Today, "cowboy' is almost a state of mind," said Steagall.

"The real cowboy who still works on a ranch sets himself

apart from the cowboy who just puts on boots and a hat and

goes to dances on Saturday nights. But the cowboy is about

independence and individualism. He's seen as the last free

American. And everyone, regardless of what walk of life

he's in or where he lives, wants to feel like he's an individual

and he's independent, even if it's just on weekends."

Like J.B. Allen, Steagall grew up in the ranch country of

northwest Texas, where his father worked in the oil fields.

After he graduated from West Texas State University, he

sold agricultural chemicals and rode bulls in rodeos for

a while, then, in 1965, he struck out for California to

seek his fortune in show business. He later moved on to

Nashville, Tenn.

He recorded a number of country hits, wrote several more

that other singers recorded, performed twice at the White

House and discovered Reba McEntire and helped promote her

into stardom. But in 1977 he bought a small ranch near Azle

and moved back home.

"I really love north Texas," he said. "This is where

I belong, and this is where I'm going to stay." For several

years he raised cutting horses, but now his livestock consists

of only four horses, two buffalo, one 17-year-old longhorn

steer and a dog. He still records his songs and tours about

250 dates a year, but his songs now are in the traditional

cowboy vein, not the slick country hits they used to be.

"All those years when I was writing songs, I was very conscious

of whether or not they were commercial," he said. "If

they weren't commercial, I didn't even bother to finish

them. I threw away thousands of ideas that I'll never get

back, that are gone forever."

In 1985, Steagall attended the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering

in Elko, Nev., the event that many cite as the beginning

of the cowboy poetry movement. "I got all caught up in

the spirit of the poetry," he said, "and I realized that's

where my ideas belong. I just absolutely fell in love with

it. For five years after that, I didn't write a song. I

didn't write anything but poems. It's the greatest creative

release I've ever known."

Earlier this year, Texas Christian University Press published

"Ride for the Brand," a collection of Steagall's songs

and poems, and for four years he has run his own version

of a cowboy gathering in Fort Worth. His features lots of

cowboy music - especially Western swing, which originated

in Fort Worth - a two-night ranch rodeo and a chuck wagon

cook-off in which ranch cooks compete against each other.

An addition this year was the Cowboy and Cowgirl Poetry

Contest, in which 1,374 children from 49 west Texas towns

submitted their work.

But the centerpiece is always a daylong string of cowboy

poets from Texas and the Southwest, who stand before crowds

of hundreds and recite their horseback-rhythmic rhymes about

life, work and death on the range.

"A lot of people refuse to acknowledge that cowboy poetry

is a real art form," Steagall said. "For generations now,

some people have refused to accept country music as a musical

art form, and Western novels as literature, and Western

art as art. It doesn't bother me. The people who don't like

what we're doing, I don't identify with their life, either.

But I accept the fact that they have one.