"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
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
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
"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
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.