I love the sound of jingling spurs
The creek of saddle leather
And watch the steam rise off the backs of 500 head of cattle
Me and my old pony seen a thousand miles together
Nine hundred pounds of heart
And not an ounce of quit
Some years we’re doing good to just break even
But it ain’t how much you make that makes a living
Cuz when I see that painted sunset
It’s hard not to think that
Right here on this ridge is where the Good Lord hangs his hat
The snow capped rocky mountains, oh they sure feel close to heaven
So when he finally calls this cowboy home
It was a crisp morning in Fort Worth when we arrived at the stockyards last Saturday, with just a hint of fall finally blowing through the air, and the cobblestone streets were abustle with activity as folks meandered. Music seemed to reverberate off every surface, soft melodies and rich voices carried on the cool wind throughout the historic city blocks. Gentlemen, dressed in chaps, boots, bolos and long western coats, tipped their hats and said hello when we passed, strangers spoke to one another as if they were old friends, and the entire morning had an air of nostalgia and innocence to it. The delightful scene, something that would seem to those not in the know perhaps as if it were out of a movie, was just the beginning of the 29th annual Red Steagall’s Cowboy Gathering at this historic Ft. Worth stockyards in Texas.
That feeling; a homecoming with old friends and colleagues, lasted throughout the entire weekend as Steagall and his cowboy compatriots celebrated the Western way of life. There is one important thing to note as I discuss this weekend – this weekend is not an escape from life, rather a celebration of. These are not men and women who go to their corporate jobs Monday to Friday and dress the part of the cowboy on the weekend. This is not a Hollywood production of what it means to live off the land; between the ranch rodeo, the chuck wagon cook off, the various musical sessions, and the culmination of it all in Cowboy Church on Sunday morning, this is true representation and coming together of the men and women who have farmed our land for hundreds of years. Red Steagall said it best himself when he greeted every attendee with a personal note:
“The day we gathered in the coliseum to talk about an idea that Jalyn Burkett and John South had about an event seems just like yesterday, not 30 years ago. This is our 29th event presentation. It has been a joy to see so many of our friends celebrate the men and women who make their living on horseback, working cattle, providing beef for the dinner tables of America. It’s those folks that we celebrate, not the hard-fighting, two-fisted drinker portrayed on the silver screen. Even though movies and television introduced an image of the cowboy to the rest of the world, they don’t always portray him in the proper light. The cowboy that we celebrate still honors the heritage and traditions of the western way of life, and he lives by a code of conduct that creates a harmonious society. We’re so glad that you joined us for a genuine, authentic, family western weekend. Have a great time, and be sure to visit Fort Worth every chance you get.”
There were so many different offerings of things to do at the gathering we had to narrow it down to get a taste of everything. Below is a summary of what one can experience during this outstanding weekend.
Live music: From start to finish nearly every day of the gathering there is a concert happening somewhere within the stockyards. With such celebrated western artists as Jean Prescott, Dan Roberts, Mikki Daniel, Hailey Sandoz, Kristyn Harris, R.W. Hampton, and of course Red Steagall and the Boys in the Bunkhouse, the musical pedigree at the event is astounding. As fans of Jean Prescott we took every opportunity we could to see her play live. With several solo sets and a round in the two-hour long Gospel Concert on Sunday morning, we were able to hear the majority of her catalog and chat with her. A tried and true cowgirl, Prescott has written an impressive collection of story songs that portray life on the prairie in Texas. Prescott’s music stands out as genuinely western; it calls on the roots of what we call country music today and harkens back to a time when families sat on the porch with their instruments, singing songs about goings on in town, God, and their own loved ones to pass the time on long, hot evenings. Her songs serve as both a celebration of the western way of life and the history of our genre with gentle melodies and crying fiddles, reminiscing about the times country music was categorized as such by the stories, not the sound of a manufactured steel guitar or a clap track.
The Western Swing Festival: The Western Swing Festival, which took place on both Friday and Saturday evening with Red Steagall and the Boys in the Bunkhouse, Jake Hooker, Bobby Flores, and Jason Roberts, was a truly iconic celebration of Western Swing music. These musicians are the best of the best; their talent and passion for their music is unparalleled.The festival evenings have a feel of their own; the concerts are a genuine throwback to barn dance evenings of old. If one attends the Cowboy Gathering the Western Swing Festival is the number one thing not to miss.
Rodeos: From the Tejas Vaqueros and Ranchero Visitadores Invitational team roping on Saturday morning to the final Ranch Rodeo on Sunday afternoon there was an impressive spectacle of sportsmanship all weekend long. By Sunday afternoon, all of the men participating in the Ranch Rodeo to close out the gathering had participated in three events. They were tired and battered and they still gave their all to represent the ranches they work for everyday. The rodeo included Bronc Riding, Team sorting, Calf Branding, Mutton Bustin’, Maverick Branding,and Team Doctoring. At the final show on Sunday Mr. Steagall himself rode the arena on horseback in remembrance of his nearest and dearest friends and long time attendees of the gathering, including his own brother Carroll Steagall, Leon Rausch, Jerry Williams, and Keith Maddox. All remarkable men in their own right, Steagall took the time to remember them for their achievements and contributions to the Gathering: Leon Rausch as the “backbone and undeniable star of [our] Western Swing Festival” and member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Jerry Williams as a true upstanding cowboy and oilman who loved his children and grandchildren and taking them to rodeos, Carroll Steagall as a loving and supportive brother who never missed a Cowboy Gathering since they’d started, and Keith Maddox as “an iconic figure in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District, talented hatmaker, a devoted husband and father, true professional, a perfect gentleman, a true friend, and a role model to a multitude.” May these talented and remarkable men rest in peace and know how much they were loved and will truly be missed by the Cowboy Gathering family.
The Red Steagall Sculpture Dedication: This particular gathering carried special meaning for Mr. Steagall; or at least for his image. On Saturday afternoon, there was an unveiling of the official Red Steagall sculpture in the middle of the stockyards. A truly gorgeous piece of art, the sculpture stands for all of Steagall’s contributions to Fort Worth and to preserving American, Texas, and cowboy heritage. Designed and sculpted by artist Bruce R. Greene, past president of Cowboy Artists of America, the sculpture depicts Red Steagall on horseback, pointing into the future. The sculpture was dedicated to Mr. Steagall by Brandy Minick, Bruce & Janie Greene, Mike & Sheila Ingram, Gary & Debra Kinslow, and Johnny & Jana Trotter, with special thanks to Cali Steagall and Hub Baker. The plaque on the statue reads: “Red Steagall / Always Riding for the brand / Fort Worth, Texas / Where the west begins/ by Bruce Greene, CA”. As friends and family commemorated the occasion several folks stood to speak in honor of Steagall, including Mayor Betsy Price who remarked that she had been told by her mama, “Take your God given talents and use them to benefit others and your community.”
Cowboy Church and Gospel Hour: The weekend culminated in a beautiful morning together in Cowboy Church, brought to the gathering by Pastor George Westby and his congregation. As our first experience attending Cowboy Church, this service was everything we could’ve hoped for. With timely readings from Leviticus, John, and Mark, we were reminded to love one another as our own and treat others as we wish to be treated. Jay Michaels, Cross Timbers, David Isabelli, The Terry Family, and Red Steagall followed up the gospel with poignant and touching musical dedications, and we all visited like old friends, shaking hands and saying hello after the service. The two-hour Gospel Concert followed immediately after, allowing the congregation to extend their worship throughout the afternoon.
As a writer, not a full time cowgirl or farmer, I had a unique perspective on the weekend. These were not folks we see at rodeos or auctions throughout the year. These were strangers who had no reason to speak to us, much less welcome us with open arms to experience a taste of what the western way of life is like. Welcome us they did; from the moment we stepped on the grounds of the stockyards we were greeted with warm hello’s, friendly conversations with musicians and ranchers alike, and even a post-service hug from Mr. Steagall himself. There is no such thing as a stranger at the Cowboy Gathering. There is only old family and new, depending on how long one has been in attendance. Folks are accepted exactly as they are to visit and watch the impeccable talent on offer, to worship together, to pray for one another, to celebrate the back breaking work that is done day in and day out, three hundred and sixty five days a year. It is a celebration of a simpler way of life; of living honestly off the land, loving your neighbor, and putting in a real day’s work to provide for the rest of our country.