Jack Griffith’s recent days have started to mirror the melancholy cowboy songs he sings any chance he gets. Unlike the drovers in many of those tunes, Griffith is not dying, but he is gradually hanging up his spurs.
Griffith and his wife Leona used to host Roundup Suppers at their ranch north of Walton. He would take people out in a coach, pulled by two Belgian horses he raised, to a place in his pasture. During the trek, he would tell cowboy stories. In the pasture, Griffith had fashioned a wooden stage and picnic tables. As his guests ate their meal of barbecue brisket, he would strum his guitar and belt out songs like “Cowboy Jack” and “Streets of Laredo.”
“Cowboy Jack” is where Griffith derived his name; his given name is Kenneth. It’s one of the oldest songs he knows, learning the simple chords when he was just 10 years old.
Griffith said, at 84, he is too old to for those roundup suppers. He used to play at Prairie Rose in Cowtown in Wichita but he is too old for that too.
However, Griffith is not retiring from singing. In truth, he can’t stop. Griffith’s incarnation as a cowboy singer has been a second career over the past 20 years. He has always sung in church though. He plans on continuing to perform a mixture of Gospel and western songs in rest homes and senior centers whenever he can, although not as often as he used to.
Griffith’s voice sounds like strong black coffee and hard tack, enhanced with a bit of sharp prairie wind. It’s hard to imagine him singing anything other than cowboy classics. He said his characteristic deep gritty pitch seeps through for his Gospel renditions.
He identifies with cowboys and he has some traits in common with the 1800s drovers who brought longhorns from Texas to Abilene. Griffith’s first career was as a rancher. Along one of the walls of his home, he has showmanship trophies won from Fort Worth to Denver in the 1980s, proving his cattle-raising chops. Along with the cattle, he also raised red quarter horses, which was part of the inspiration for the roundup suppers.
There are traditional characteristics of cowboys Griffith admires. There’s fierce independence. One of Griffith’s favorite stories is a 1930s ranch hand telling an English visitor to Wyoming that he had no master. The Brit only asked for his boss using the preferred English colloquialism, but it was the spirit that mattered.
“They had a mind of their own,” Griffith said.
There’s also the cowboy code, which to Griffith is doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do. He’s tried to live his life by that code whenever possible. While he never had to stare down a cattle rustler, Griffith was in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, part of an artillery division. Mostly, he has tried to live his life by the code with smaller measures, like pulling a neighbor out of a mud road and asking for nothing more than a simple thank you.
It’s easy enough to imagine a young Griffith, weaving his way between cattle, singing to keep the slow moving beasts on track. It’s even easier to imagine him sitting on a simple stage singing “Don’t Fence Me In.”
More than “Cowboy Jack”, “Don’t Fence Me In” should be Griffith’s anthem because he has lived a diverse life. And he is not quite ready to close all of his gates just yet.