Canyon Country resident Joe Herrington is known for his authentic campfire stories about rugged cowboy personalities with characters “as solid as steel.”
The western storyteller and cowboy poet has made it his mission to inspire future generations through wholesome stories of his own childhood that circle around lessons of duty, honor and integrity.
“I feel like it’s a calling,” Herrington said. “I feel like I have found a way to touch young people’s hearts with honor and integrity and feel like someone needs to be doing this.”
In both his personal and professional life Herrington has found success.
By day he works as a media designer for Walt Disney Imagineering. By night he writes new cowboy poetry as a world-renowned western artist.
The Texas-native was named one of the Top Five Cowboy Poets in Country for 2008-2000 and the top Western Storyteller in 2010.
In the middle of it all, he also found time to write a Western science fiction novel titled “Tekoa,” which combines adventure, science and fantasy to explore the truth behind the Marfa (ghosts) lights in Texas.
This year, Herrington was asked by the National Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn. to be their “Storyteller in Residence” for July. He will also be the kicking off the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival April 19 with his stories of “crusty people that worked hard with characters that were unflawed.”
Tradition of Storytelling
Herrington was first introduced to the world of storytelling as a young boy growing up on a ranch in West Texas.
“I grew up with a group of storytellers with my grandad and my uncle who talked in stories,” Herrington said. “There was nothing better than to finish the day… gather around their rocking chair and just listen; we were spellbound.”
To this day, he remembers his grandfather detailing the first time he saw the Alamo in a covered wagon at 16 years old and his uncle reminiscing on rescuing his supplies from the middle of a river in Laredo, Texas.
“Those were amazing stories,” he said. “I thought every kid grew up like that. I didn’t know any different.”
It wasn’t until he was older that Herrington realized not everyone grew up with such a rich history of storytelling traditions.
Professional Western Storytelling
Before entering the world of professional western storytelling, Herrington served in the army and was stationed at Ft. Knox and in Korea as a drill sergeant and as a tactical officer for the Army National Guard’s officer training school.
Toward the end of his stay at Ft. Knox, the Battalion Sergeant Major told Herrington that he would be taking on the role of scoutmaster, leading a group of 100 boys.
Before one of their camporees, the group learned that there would be a storyteller during the trip.
“I was so excited, I told the boys, ‘Oh boys you’re going to love this, this is the best thing in the world, I grew up on this stuff,’” Herrington said. “We got there and the guy was awful, just terrible, and I was embarrassed because I had built this up as being really grand.”
After the initial storytelling mishap, Herrington began to tell the scouts stories from his own childhood, which lived up to his prior praises.
“They were spellbound at the stories and they were also very interested in the wholesomeness of those kinds of stories,” he said.
As he grew older, Herrington discovered the world of cowboy poetry through his brother, who sent him an album full of the stories to rhyme.
“My stories are western stories about the honor and character of the American cowboy and here was this genre that I was not familiar with,” Herrington said. “I fell in love with that and ended up doing that with a humongous fan base for it.”
He found that people throughout the country were looking for stories about character and responsibility and would pay to listen to them.
“When my second album came out in 2009 it was No. 2 in the country as a cowboy poetry/storytelling album,” Herrington said. “People were thirsty for that kind of material.”
Lessons in Stories
For Herrington, the most important elements of his performances are the life lessons he can tech his audience.
“It’s a lost art that is coming back, but there is still a lost part of that, at least in our part of the country, of the wholesomeness of duty, honor, character that is not there,” Herrington said.
He especially wants to make an impact on children, who he said need to hear stories to learn how to communicate, use their imagination and develop strong characters.
“Every time I do a festival, a parent will come to me and say ‘I’m so glad my kid got to hear that,’” he said.
With his poetry and stories, Herrington works to show his audience that the cowboy was a man of integrity. He hopes that through his tales, he will reinstate the value of words like “virtue” and “hero.”
“Today we just toss those words around,” he said. “We just ruin our words; we cheapen our words like heroes.”
Herrington also loves storytelling because it allows his audience to create the imagery of the narrative in their brains.
“When I’m telling a story, they’re creating the sets, they’re costuming the characters, and they’re painting the landscapes in their imagination in their theater of the mind,” he said. “When you do that, suddenly they are enjoying it because they are participating in it. They have contributed something to the story and there is worth in that.”
Over the years, Herrington has shared his tales at festivals, conventions and workshops worldwide for crowds large and small. He has told stories to a wide variety of audiences including groups of lawyers and literature classes.
At festivals, he is the self-described “square peg in a round hole,” or the odd man out, with his western stories and getup.
“A lot of times people don’t know what I am,” he said. “It works to my advantage because I’m the odd ball out, but people want to hear what the odd ball is going to say.”
But once he begins speaking, the audience understands.
“You will sit there and be amazed how everyone can be so engrossed and listening to those on stage telling a simple story,” Herrington said. “It’s a unique art.”
Now, Herrington is working on another album project which he expects to be released in a few months. It will be full of new tales that he has told while performing at venues around the country, like his crowd favorite “The Greatest Generation.”
Until then, Herrington will continue inspiring audiences to focus on the important things in life through his personal narratives.
“I feel like storytelling gets you back on target,” he said. It’s a wonderful avenue for me to do that with people.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_