National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu presents a plaque to 2014 NEA National Heritage Fellow Manuel “Cowboy” Donley at the NEA National Heritage Fellowships Awards Ceremony on September 17, 2014 at the Library of Congress. TOM PICH
Austin-based Tejano music icon Manuel “Cowboy” Donley accepted the National Endowment for the Arts’ lifetime achievement award for folk and traditional arts in Washington, D.C. last week.
The beloved singer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer was among 13 master artists and advocates in folk, traditional arts and jazz to receive the 2014 National Heritage Fellowship, which included a $25,000 prize. Donley, 87, also performed at a special NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert, which was streamed live and can still be viewed online.
While at the ceremony with friends and family, Donley says that he was filled with emotion when his name was announced first. “It’s quite an honor (to receive an award) for things I’ve done all my life. And music, well, that’s all I can do. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen.”
The last time Donley performed in Washington, D.C. was in 1974 for the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, where he was among several musicians invited to represent Mexican and Mexican-American musical traditions.
At the NEA concert Donley and his band, which included his daughter Sylvia Donley, performed many of his hits from the 1950s. Donley’s career began in the 1940s when he lit up dance halls across Texas and the Midwest with his band Las Estrellas.
“I’ve tried to do my best throughout the years,” Donley says. “It’s been my pleasure and honor.”