Whether it’s hosting a songwriter showcase in Fort Worth or trailing across the country collecting cowboy songs, it’s all just part of the job for a ballad hunter.
After narrowing the focus of his weekly songwriter’s showcase specifically to cowboy ballads, Jeff Posey’s search for authentic cowboy music has led him from his home in Weatherford to the Hill Country and beyond, to places like California, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
”As long as I’ve got the time and the money to do it, we’ll go as far as we need to go,” he says.
Posey, who's 55, says that a friend once suggested he go to cowboys instead of waiting for them to come to a showcase. “Kind of like (TV show) Texas Country Reporter only with cowboy music." Posey followed that advice, and this fall he plans to start streaming an entire season of Ballad Hunter.
“My initial focus is to go out and visit with actual cowboys who write cowboy songs,” he says. “Then beyond that, I’m going to be visiting with people who are not cowboys but they’ve written great cowboy songs.”
In true cowboy culture, the upcoming show will not necessitate a glamorous TV studio.
"It’s based, I guess, in my Jeep," Posey says. “We don’t have a studio. We go out to the artists and to the cowboy gatherings and festivals and meet with them on location and do interviews there."
Posey says he is practically a one-man team, a lone cowboy dealing with production logistics. "I have two partners that are also the program directors at Farm and Ranch TV, which kept them really busy," he explains. "It’s a new streaming network where this is going to be airing, so I took over all the operations in January, which means I had to learn how to edit and become a director and a photographer in the last few months. And it’s been kind of fun."
Posey is following in the footsteps of another song hunter. "There’s actually a well-documented history of ballad hunters," Posey says. "'Jack' Thorp, in 1908, he put out a book called Songs of the Cowboys. He went out West. I think the story goes that he heard a cowboy song at a campfire, and he just had this thought these things ought to be recorded and documented, so he spent the next several years literally out on the trail, and he was collecting cowboy songs and documenting them."
Now Posey aims to continue that tradition of capturing the Old West's music. "To me the irony is … they knew these songs wouldn’t survive if someone didn’t collect them and write them down and have some written history of it," he says of his predecessors. "Whereas, the reason I’m doing it is the proliferation and the saturation of music is so extensive that these songs are just getting lost in the mix. I think there’s a pretty good portion of people, that if you asked them, they probably wouldn’t even realize people are still cowboying for a living and still writing cowboy songs based on their experiences."
The difference between country ballads and cowboy ballads, Posey says, comes down to perspective. "Cowboy music does focus on the perspective of the rural life, the western life, the actual cowboy life."
The documenting method that Posey practices, he says, is "completely organic, because it’s still evolving."
Because of the nature of the streaming world, Posey says, he doesn’t have the constraints imposed by a network's set-in-stone scheduled programming. "I can do a 15-minute episode, or I can do an hourlong episode," he says. "I do have a structure that I’d like each show to follow, but if I break outside of that I’m OK with it. I’ll let the show and the artist take me where it wants to go."
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This past April, Posey got married in the Hill Country, and one of his favorite cowboy songwriters, Mike Blakely, performed the ceremony.
Posey, who’s also a songwriter, has had many “aha” moments along the way, through his research. He recalls a time when he was searching for information about a friend from school whom he learned had died. Years had passed since he’d seen his friend, and he couldn't find any information about him online. One day, Posey says, he discovered a cowboy song in the Library of Congress that included the lyrics “ride on mighty rider,” and the song, as it turned out, was performed by a black cowboy, Henry Truvillion — who was his friend’s grandfather.
”We were reconnected by a discovery, through a 1939 recording,” he says of the song, "The Mighty Rider," which was recorded by John A. Lomax, another ballad hunter who often focused on traditional blues.
“You know, Don Edwards has a song,” Posey says. “It’s about Jack Thorp. And in the song, he says ‘a cowboy song is just like gold, it’s anywhere it’s found.’ And I believe that. I believe someone can write a great cowboy song from any perspective. You don’t have to be a cowboy to write a cowboy song, but you certainly get a unique perspective if you are.”