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The Cowboy Philosopher: A Tale Of Obsession, Scams, And Family

As a young girl, Stacya Shepard Silverman idolized her dad. He was handsome and smart and a great cook. He spent his days typing away in their small Hollywood apartment on a massive writing project: an encyclopedia that would cover the entire history of American vernacular music.

Richard Riley Shepard's interest in music stretched back to his childhood. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade and decided to try his luck as a "hillbilly" musician. In the 1940s, he cut country western records, including a few small hits. He also worked as a promoter for a variety of famous singers, including the Andrews Sisters and Red Foley.

But by the time his daughter Stacya was born, Riley had dropped out of the music business and begun work on his encyclopedia.

"I was told constantly that we were artists," recalls Stacya. "That there were artists, and there were ordinary people, and we were artists."

Stacya says her relationship with her dad changed when she was 12 years old. One day, the house phone rang, and she picked it up. It was an old man.

"His voice was shaking and I could tell he was elderly and he just sounded like a mean old man to me," Stacya recalls. "He scared me, and he told me that my father was a crook, that my father took his life savings. The phone is in my ear and he's saying, 'Your father is a crook, did you know that? Your father is a crook!'"

This week on Hidden Brain,we trace the life of Riley Shepard. He was a hillbilly musician, a music promoter, a porn writer, a man with an all-consuming obsession and, perhaps, a genius.

Additional Resources:

Read an excerpt of Stacya Shepard Silverman's essay about her father and the moment she received the phone call alleging he was a crook.

You can also learn more about Riley Shepard at a Facebook page that Stacya created, find a discography of his music here, and see Shepard's encyclopedia online on the Internet Archive.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.