Ken Graydon:
Cowboy Poet, Singer RIP

October 30, 1933—July 30, 2011

By Ross Altman

Ken_Graydon_with_hatSouthern California’s most beloved cowboy poet, singer, recording artist, author and hotrod specialist, Ken Graydon of Fallbrook, CA lost his eight month battle with metastasized melanoma on Saturday evening, July 30. The cards were stacked against him from the start, when he was first diagnosed last November at stage 4, but like his cowboy heroes he did not go down without a fight—undergoing grueling treatments of chemotherapy and nuclear radiation directly to the brain. Each treatment required preparatory medications to ward off the nausea that accompanied them, some of which were almost successful.

Despite eerily living out the narrative of The Dying Cowboy ( see accompanying tribute) that is not how he will be remembered. For more than thirty years he set the standard for transmuting straw into gold, turning the raw material of local legends and historical vignettes into beautiful, permanently crafted poems and songs, a number of which were recorded by internationally-known artists like Tommy Makem and Glenn Yarborough.

Ken’s cowboy poems and songs, including railroad and sea songs based on stories from the Pacific, are distinctive for their depth of research, their folk-like simplicity of music and poetry, and their dual focus on both the human comedy and tragedy. He was never clever for novelty’s sake, nor did he waste his time eking out one more version of an already well-traveled tale. Ken Graydon had a gift for unearthing real buried treasures that had somehow escaped a poet’s touch, and celebrating unsung heroes.

He turned an obscure narrative by San Francisco whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon from the California Gold Rush into a memorable song, A Whaler’s Tale; he traveled all the way to Galveston, Texas just to see for himself a ship that had been rescued and rebuilt from the briny depths—named the Elyssa. Others would have taken a trip to the library, but not Ken—he wanted to feel the hull with his own hands. Let this ship sink again; its immortality is assured in Ken Graydon’s song.

Ken braved many trips to Death Valley just to find stories about the discovery of Boraxo, which he then wove into a fascinating poem and song. Nobody who has heard it will ever take its simple, colorful box from a grocery shelf again without a small sense of wonder.

Graydon’s trips to Death Valley, along with his musical and life partner, painter Phee Sherline, led to their joining the group Death Valley 49ers which as with so many of their associations, soon put them in a leadership role. In 2002 Ken became their president, followed in 2003 by Phee becoming president.

It wasn’t the first time; in the early 1980s, Ken became president of Songmakers, immediately after Elaine and Clark Weissman left to form the California Traditional Music Society. Ken and Phee remained Songmakers’ spiritual godparents until death did them part.

Ken approached all of his musical work with the intellectual rigor of a folklorist; whether writing his own songs or collecting unknown masterpieces from that anonymous bard known as Trad. He was first to record a little-known tribute to—take this, you “mighty Mizzou”—the LA River, with its inspiring refrain, “Ooze on, LA River, ooze on.”

Phee Sherline sent me a more personal if all too brief account of Ken’s wonderful life, reprinted here in full:

Ken Graydon of Fallbrook, CA died at home home Saturday evening, July 30 following a hard fought battle with metastasized melanoma diagnosed last November.  Ken was best known as a cowboy poet and singer appearing in many cowboy events in the Southwest.  He also specialized in custom auto repairs and particularly enjoyed work, as he put it, on other people’s hot rods. He enjoyed nothing more than sitting in a circle of friends with guitars and trading songs and a handful of those friends was with him singing him home shortly before his death.  He wrote many songs some of which were recorded by various artists, among them, Tommy Makem and Glen Yarbrough.  Ken is survived by his wife, Phee Sherline, his musical partner for many years, a brother, Don Graydon and three step-children: Drew Sherline, Reid Sherline and Monica Stapleton plus six grandchildren. A memorial will be scheduled later in the summer.

Ken’s last recording—The Way I Heard It—a perfect five-word summation of the entire field of folklore if there ever was—became also the title of his most lasting legacy—The Ken Graydon Songbook, which is available from his website.

How this down-to-earth, homespun cowboy poet, singer and storyteller wound up in the entertainment capital of the world is no mystery: he was born in Long Beach, California at the bottom of the Great Depression, October 30, 1933.

But his family traced its roots back to Scotland, from which came many of the classic tunes that were transformed from sailors’ songs and shanties into cowboy songs once they reached the western plains. Ken embodied this passage and transformation in the way he embraced both traditions—the sea songs of his ancestors, and the cowboy songs of his immediate forebears—especially his father, who was a working cowboy in Seligman, Arizona during the 1920s. Many of the stories his father told him made their way into Ken’s songs, thus preserving both a family and historical legacy that we will not see again. If not for Ken, they might have been lost for good.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a more rural, quieter life beckoned and Ken and Phee left Dodge City for the San Diego community of Fallbrook, where they presided over a 4.5 acre ranch that became the hub of the far-flung Songmakers’ members who every July these past twenty years would there convene for the campout and musical gathering of the year—highlighted on Sunday morning with a Pheenominal Pancake Breakfast; until this past July, when Phee sent out a last-minute urgent cancellation.

Ken, her cowboy, was dying. His kidneys had started to fail the weekend before, and he was now under 24-hour home hospice care. Even so about 20 of their Songmaker wranglers didn’t get the message, or let their conscience be their guide and ignored it. As Phee describes, they wound up being a heavenly choir, singing him home at the end. I hope one of them sang, Goodbye Old Paint.

As long as we have known them, Ken and Phee have been an inspiration—for their musicianship, their artistic integrity and their love for each other. They were our Roy and Dale, king of the cowboys and queen of the west. It’s that simple.

If Shelley was right, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then Ken Graydon may have unknowingly penned his own epitaph, meditating on death at The Pioneer Cemetery in Congress, Arizona.

He wrote this poem:


Here, in silent rows convene

You delegates, at rest, serene

To represent the citizens

Of times we will not see again.

In final session here you meet

Your terms of office now complete,

Unconcerned with word or deed,

Sleep on, your tenure guaranteed

Congress Arizona

Pioneer Cemetery

August 19, 1996

As hard as it will be, the best we can do in Ken’s memory is to honor his own song: It’s Time To Start Singing Again. Indeed, thinking of Ken, how can we keep from singing?

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at