Austin-based Tejano music pioneer Manuel “Cowboy” Donley on Wednesday received the National Endowment for the Arts’ lifetime achievement award for folk and traditional arts.
Donley was among 13 master artists and advocates in folk, traditional arts and jazz to receive the 2014 National Heritage Fellowship, which includes a $25,000 prize.
Donley, 86, a beloved Mexican-American singer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer, is often called the “Godfather of Tejano music.” He’s elevated the trío romántico musical style and has been influential as an orquesta bandleader, a type of music that he helped popularize that blends Latin rhythms with popular American musical genres such as rock and jazz.
“It is musicians like Mr. Donley that have been instrumental in building Austin’s reputation as a music city with a diverse musical heritage that allow us to call ourselves the Live Music Capital of the World,” wrote Rose Reyes, the former director of music marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, in a letter of support.
Donley, a self-taught musician, was born in 1927 in Durango, Mexico, and moved to Austin when he was 7. The Tejano Music Hall of Famer began his career in the 1940s and lit up dance halls in Texas and the Midwest with his big band-inspired group Las Estrellas. He later listened to his softer side and revisited the romantic boleros that he says filled his heart. In 2012, after a recording hiatus, Donley released “The Brown Recluse Sessions.” He still performs today.
“Well, God blessed me because I didn’t even finish school,” Donley said. “I’m flattered about this, of course, and I still remember being too bashful to even ask for help (with learning how to play the guitar). I would try to peek at how older musicians would play when I was young.”
News of the award has inspired Donley to record another album before the fall, he said. “I have some arrangements that I’ve never touched that I wrote back in the 1960s,” he said. “I’ve kept them, and people have never heard them before.”
Donley blazed a trail in the Mexican-American music community that inspired many other musicians. “During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Donley had a very significant influence on my own musical career,” Grammy Award-winning artist Little Joe Hernandez noted in a letter of support. “Like Manuel, I aspired to play guitar, but never came close to his level of playing.”
Donley has been recognized locally throughout the years with honors such as inclusion in the Mexican-American Trailblazers exhibit at the Austin History Center in 2010 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in 2012.
“His important contributions to the development of the orquesta style have not been extensively documented in the few books written about orquesta … however Donley’s contributions are widely acknowledged and respected by those who have closely followed the musical scene in Central Texas,” wrote Raul Alvarez of the Austin Latino Music Association in the nomination letter.
Donley will be honored at an awards ceremony on Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., and at a concert at George Washington University on Sept. 19. Events will be open to the public, but those who can’t attend can stream the concert live at arts.gov.
Catch Donley perform on some Tuesday evenings at El Gallo restaurant, 2910 S. Congress Ave., www.elgallorestaurant.com.
Get more coverage of the Austin area’s Hispanic community every week in our free Spanish-language edition, ¡Ahora Sí! and online at ahorasi.com.