Manuel “Cowboy” Donley

On Wednesday I went to visit Tejano music pioneer Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, who kindly invited me to his house in East Austin.

Señor Donley was born in 1927 in Durango, Mexico and grew up in Austin’s East Side from the age of 7. A self-taught musician, he performed extensively in bands from the 1940s. In 1955 he established six-piece big band Las Estrellas, performing across Texas and around the US for several decades. He recorded 150 songs, by his count, on 5 different labels. He still performs today. 

Amongst his many accolades, he was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1986, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in 2012, and became a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 2014. 

We spent an hour talking to him, and I was immediately impressed by his energy and vivacity. It was difficult trying to take his photo, as he kept moving and gesticulating. At one point, while he was telling me how he taught himself to play the guitar by watching white friends from Arkansas playing or talking about his early musical career, he’d grab the guitar and break into song.

Señor Donley will be featuring in my artist film No Place Like Home.