Sunday, July 12, 2020
A long time ago, when I was going to college and for a while afterward, I worked at a radio station. I was the morning disc jockey and I played country music.
“Pop” country was all the rage at the time, so I spun a lot of songs by singers like Olivia Newton-John, Charlie Rich, Donna Fargo, John Denver, and so on. But I also played a lot of what we called “pure” country, as well as oldies. Now and then, I would slip in an old cowboy song.
Hang on for a little explanation for the younger set.
Most of the music we played was on “records” called “singles”; vinyl discs that were about seven inches across with a big hole in the middle, with one song on each side, that played on a turntable at 45 revolutions per minute. Sometimes we would play album cuts, from discs that were about twelve inches across, with a little hole in the middle, containing several songs, that played at 33 revolutions per minute.
You can imagine the bizarre sound if you played a record at the wrong speed, say a 45 rpm record at 33 rpm, which could and did happen on occasion.
Back to the story.
Sometimes, just for fun, I would play an old Tex Ritter song titled “Blood in the Saddle.” I liked playing it because, inevitably, someone—or several someones—would call the idiot at the radio station and tell him he was playing the record at the wrong speed.
If you’re not familiar with Tex Ritter’s “Blood in the Saddle” give it a listen (the link will take you to it).
And, no, it is not playing at the wrong speed. Not then. Not now.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
No, my calendar is not out of whack. Today, July 2, is the day in 1776 the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. John Adams, a leader of the revolution who would become the second president of the new nation, said this in a letter to his wife, Abigail:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
But, alas, despite Adams’s prediction, the official celebration is on July 4, the day the congress ratified the language of the Declaration of Independence. They did not get around to signing it until August 2, so an argument can be made that we should be popping off fireworks and holding parades on that day.
Me, I’m sticking with July 2 and am flying the flag today.
Friday, June 26, 2020
Twenty years ago and then some, CowboyPoetry.com showed up online. Established under a veil of mystery, the site started out sort of campy. But the brains behind it soon learned that cowboy poetry, even the funny kind, is a serious art.
The brains behind it turned out to belong to the remarkable Margo Metegrano, who rode herd on the site, driving it to grow and develop into an institution. It became the world’s largest archive of cowboy poetry, both contemporary and classic. It promoted and reported on cowboy poetry events across the country. It featured relevant essays and commentary. And it spun off a blog and a Facebook page.
It established Cowboy Poetry Week, and saw it ratified in the US Congress and by the governors of several states. It formed the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry, which, among other things, produced a series of annual CDs featuring thematic collections of poems recited by folks from across the country, and distributed them to libraries everywhere.
It was all a labor of love for Margo, who worked tirelessly to promote an art she had grown to love, becoming, perhaps, the most important and influential person in the cowboy poetry community—all the while content to stay in the shadows, all but invisible, save to the poets who came to know, love, appreciate, and respect her.
Tireless finally turned to just plain tired, and Margo recently decided to hang it up. No one can, should, or does blame her. She deserves the rest. She earned it.
But that doesn’t mean the cowboy poetry community isn’t mourning the passing. And its unlikely we will soon recover, for there will never, ever again, be anything quite like CowboyPoetry.com.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
Having something to look forward to makes life more interesting. At least I have always thought so. It can be something big or small, important or trivial, consequential or just for fun. But having something, anything, on the horizon helps spur us on in the direction of life.
At this writing, I have three new books on the shelf next to my bed that I cannot wait to get to. As soon as I finish the book I am enjoying now, I will open one of them—and I cannot decide which will come first. The books bear little resemblance to one another, but each is written by a writer I admire.
There’s The King of Taos by Max Evans. If it’s anywhere near as good as his Hi-Lo Country or The Rounders, it will be well worth the wait. I once had the privilege of having lunch with Ol’ Max Evans and a few other writers. He said something I will never forget; in fact, I used the line as the basis for a poem. He was telling us a story—something, he said, that happened a long time ago. He paused, then said, “Hell, when you get to be my age, everything was a long time ago.”
My friend Marc Cameron has a new novel, Stone Cross, featuring Arliss Cutter, a Deputy US Marshal stationed in Alaska—an assignment Marc knows all about, and his Arliss Cutter novels demonstrate that. Marc also knows about writing, and his political espionage thrillers featuring Jericho Quinn can keep you up nights.
Finally (for now), I have a new collection of short stories by Wendell Berry, Stand By Me. I have read many, probably most, of the stories elsewhere, but Berry is such a remarkable writer I can’t wait to read them again.
But I will have to wait.
I will wait shivering with anticipation.
Sunday, June 7, 2020
For some reason I have never been able to discern, certain words and phrases spread like viruses and, seemingly overnight, become buzzwords, banalities, clichés, trite, and hackneyed.
As so much of our discussion of late has turned to the spread of another kind of virus and the associated illness, there are a couple of phrases that are so overused they are making me sick.
Was there an “old normal”? Is there even a “normal”? We live—as has humankind as far back as history can teach us—a fluid, ever-changing existence, where expectations are seldom realized and the unexpected is ever-present. “Normal,” whether new, old, or otherwise, seems meaningless in any concrete way. Now, perhaps, more than ever.
Then there’s “game changer.” What started out as a sports cliché is now used to describe almost anything that might affect something. Or everything. The “things” involved don’t seem to matter. Nor does it matter that there is no game involved. If “game changer” was ever an apt metaphor, it has long since lost its power.
Why not just say or write what you mean? Why not describe the behavior or activities that are changing, rather than tossing out meaningless twaddle like “new normal”? Why not explain the effect something will have rather than just calling it a “game changer” and leaving it at that?
The answer is simple. Tossing around clichés is easier than thinking. The inability to think clearly, then speak or write clearly, seems to be the new normal. And that could be a game changer.
Tuesday, May 26, 2020
With most everything having been shut down over the past few months, Five Star, the publisher of my Western novels, has reined up the release of books, putting the whoa on them for six months. Which means they will not take the hobbles off A Thousand Dead Horses, scheduled for release this August, until February 2021.
And, of course, the other books they have from me, And the River Ran Red, All My Sins Remembered, and This Thy Brother will likewise be delayed.
Another of my publishers, Oghma Creative Media, where Saddlebag Dispatches magazine comes to life, and who will be releasing paperback, e-book, and audio editions of my earlier novels as well as an original “Rawhide Robinson” tale, and likely some other books, is also ground-tying their saddle stock while they figure out how to negotiate the trail ahead.
The coronavirus mess has likely reached us all in some way. I learned recently a man from my hometown, who I grew up with, died of it. He’s the first personal acquaintance to do so—that I know of—and I hope he will be the last.
Stay safe. And spend some of this down time in the pages of good book about the American West. It will be time well spent.
Sunday, May 17, 2020
My home state is big, ranking thirteenth in land area of the 50 states. But when it comes to population, Utah ranks thirtieth. So, you might think we’re spread pretty thin here. However, we rank seventh in the nation in the percentage of our people who live in urban areas. Then again, only four of our 29 counties qualify as “urban.”
Which means we are pretty tightly packed in a fairly small area.
Eighty percent of our 3.2 million people live in a band some 25 miles wide and just over 100 miles long. The county I live in is home to more than a million people, on a land area that, if square, would measure just over 27 miles on a side. I can stand on my roof and see most of it.
What’s the point?
The point is, that despite it all, it’s easy to get away from it all in Utah. You can drive tens, scores, even hundreds of miles on mostly empty roads. Get off the road, and there are vast areas where you find little, if any, trace of mankind.
A few days ago, we went hiking. My oldest daughter took the photograph above. You would be hard-pressed, I think, to find a more beautiful picture or place anywhere. It’s calm, it’s quiet, it’s restful, it’s serene.
As the crow flies, it’s about three-and-a-half miles from my house.
Friday, May 8, 2020
A few days ago while watching a movie I heard a snippet of “Never Been to Spain” by Three Dog Night. It was written by the late, great, Hoyt Axton and was a big hit back around 1971.
The song, as they sometimes will, got stuck in my head. And it set me to thinking about all the places I’d like to go but have yet to see.
As the song says, I’ve never been to Spain. And although I would not object to seeing Barcelona play at Camp Nou, a trip there isn’t really on my list. The fact is, most of the places I long to visit are much closer to home.
For example, there’s Death Valley.
I have visited places north, south, east, and west of there, but have never seen Death Valley. I fully intend to go there one day. Judging from photographs and reading, it’s a stark, harsh, barren place. Some people don’t appreciate such beauty, but I have come to. One can never imagine that dirt and rocks come in so many colors until you see the deserts of the American West.
And, to imagine the suffering and hardships—and the joy—experienced by the Indians, the explorers, and the travelers who visited there in days gone by is inspiring. Especially when you realize they looked upon the same scenery you see today, and it is relatively unchanged.
Death Valley, here I come.
One of these days.
Monday, April 27, 2020
When I speak or present workshops at writers’ conferences, I always explore what other writers—both those attending the conference and other presenters—write about. With few exceptions these days, it’s fairies, or wizards, or vampires, or zombies, or witches, or elves, or dragons, or dwarfs, or demons, or space aliens, or other such make-believe things that do not exist in the real world. Even the “worlds” are mostly made up.
I wonder why.
What is the attraction of these non-existent, unrealistic, fantastical characters and the make-believe worlds they live in? What draws so many to write about them? What attracts so many to read about them? I have read a few such novels over the years, and most escape me in their appeal. Others are well written, enjoyable, escapist reads.
But a little bit goes a long way. I soon find myself craving realistic landscapes, realistic characters, realistic conflicts, realistic lives, realistic rights and wrongs, and the ambiguity of the real world.
Perhaps I would find more success as a writer if I invented pretend worlds and populated them with fantastical characters. But, for my money, fairies and dragons just can’t compare to cowboys and horses and cows and the American West.
So, I guess I’ll stick to the subject.
Saturday, April 18, 2020
April 19 through 25 is Cowboy Poetry Week—a time to celebrate the poems and poets who honor cowboy life through poetry. Cowboy poetry is a long-standing tradition, stretching from the nineteenth century to our day, and destined to last as long as there are, or memories of, cattle and the horseback men and women who tend them.
The poem below is posted in observance of the seven-day jubilee.
In spring and fall in the country where I grew up, v-shaped strings of Canada geese honked their way overhead as they migrated in spring and fall. The regularity of their flights reminded me of the cycle of cowboy work, specifically spring branding, and the gathering and shipping of beef cattle to market in the fall. And, the anticipation that accompanies the rhythms and rounds of nature and life and work.
The Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry has been, since the year 2000, and will continue to be, a driving force in preserving and promoting the poetry of cowboys. Your support will be welcome. Enjoy browsing the archives at CowboyPoetry.com, as well as regular postings on the Cowboy Poetry blog and on Facebook.
I hear them in the evening winging northward—
Their eager, maybe longing, kind of sound.
It reminds me that we’ll soon be done with calving;
That branding time ain’t far from coming ’round.
And I think how fall works really ain’t that distant;
Shipping calves under sundown pewter skies
Wherein arrowpointed flocks are winging southward,
Trailing echoes of urgent, mournful cries.
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Wendell Berry is, and always has been, more committed to doing things right than in doing them quickly, or efficiently. If he is still farming in Kentucky at his advanced age, he will be farming with horses, as he has done throughout his life.
And when he writes, he writes in longhand, with a pencil.
He writes poetry. He writes insightful and challenging essays. And he writes fiction. All of it is worth reading. Not quickly, but attentively, and thoughtfully.
Most of his fiction is about a made-up, but true, place called Port William, Kentucky. It is a farming community; a close-knit agglomeration of people, all with stories worth hearing. As much as his novels and stories are about people, they are about place, and how people and places are connected, and how those connections make our lives, and create the communities and world we live in.
A Place on Earth is but one of many novels about Port William, this one set during World War Two. In its pages, you meet—more than meet, become acquainted with—many of the families and individuals of Port William of that day; families and people whose pasts and futures populate other Port William novels.
There is one passage in A Place on Earth that seems to me to speak of the curious times we are living in today: “The life of the house will change, accommodate itself to the needs of the new life, and then in a few days the new will be learned, what once was unexpected will become a habit—and they will go on as before.”
Monday, April 6, 2020
Monday, March 30, 2020
It has long been a curiosity why, when we have perfectly good words in our rich language, we are so eager to jump on the bandwagon of the latest Rube Goldberg-concoction and turn it into a buzzword.
A somewhat recent example: “Going forward.”
Now, I am a soccer fan. And, for as long as I remember, “going forward” is what a soccer team does when it is on the attack. It’s a simple, apt description of something or someone moving in a defined direction in the physical world.
Nowadays, it has become almost standard vernacular used to describe something else. And the description is not nearly so apt, if it is apt at all.
We used to say, “in the future” or “from now on” or, if you wanted to sound pretentious, you might say, “henceforth” or “hereafter” or “from this time forth.” All those words and phrases mean what they mean, cannot mean anything else, and are perfectly descriptive.
“Going forward”? Not so.
Then there’s the long-standing philosophical argument about whether time moves in a “forward” direction at all, or whether it moves around and around in a cycle. But we’ll leave that discussion to the philosophers.
Years ago, in a meeting at the office, a coworker used “going forward” when it was still fresh and new. Afterward, I asked him why, and he said he did not know any other way to say what he meant. I guess he forgot that, as recently as the day before, he would have been perfectly happy to say, “from now on.”
Friday, March 20, 2020
The release of my newest novel, Pinebox Collins, is days away. It’s about a one-legged itinerant undertaker in the Old West. In his travels from place to place, Jonathon “Pinebox” Collins sees the West grow and change. He spends time in cowtowns, mining boomtowns, small towns, and thriving cities. And he crosses paths with some of the wildest characters the Wild West has to offer, including “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Next in line, slated for release in late August or early September, is my newer novel, A Thousand Dead Horses. That’s the cover, above, seen here in public for the first time. Set in 1840, it is based on a historic horse-stealing adventure, when mountain men and Ute Indians followed the Old Spanish Trail to California and robbed ranchos there of some 3,000 horses and mules, many of which did not make it across the Mojave Desert alive.
These books are going to need shelves to sit on, so please make room on yours. Thank you.
Friday, March 13, 2020
Friday, March 6, 2020
In days gone by, you heard a lot about “horse whisperers.” These trainers had developed a knack of communicating with the animals that revolutionized handling horses. It’s a good thing.
But some trainers go beyond merely speaking a horse’s language. Some, like Joe Wolter, are just as adept at listening to horses as talking to them. Joe Wolter learned from the best, including Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers.
But, mostly, he learned from horses. And he passes that knowledge along at horsemanship clinics across the country.
A friend of mine, Cameron Wilkinson, has put together Joe Wolter clinics at the Utah County Fairgrounds in Spanish Fork, Utah. If you’re within trailer-pulling distance of the place, you’d do well to load up your horses and hit the road.
The clinics are June 12 through 14. But the registration deadline is coming right up, so reserve your place by April 15. (It’ll be a much more pleasant experience than filing your taxes.) Space is limited, so don’t wait—contact Cameron by e-mail today (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Listen to your horses. They want to be there.
Monday, February 24, 2020
As noted in the previous post, the week that turned January into February was a busy one. The morning after attending anniversary ceremonies at the site of the Massacre at Bear River, we packed up and headed to Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Besides enjoying the poets and musicians from the audience, I was also gathering material for an upcoming feature story for Saddlebag Dispatches magazine.
The story focuses on the wide variety of cowboy music on offer at the Gathering, “cowboy music” being defined as any damn song a cowboy likes.
I had the opportunity to interview (or “sit down with,” in banal journalistic babble) several artists who write, compose, and/or perform music. That included Jessie Veeder (pictured), a North Dakota rancher who sings about the life with a contemporary twist; Andy Hedges, a songster who collects and sings old-time, traditional cowboy tunes; Dave Stamey, widely recognized as one of the best Western songwriters and performers on stage today; Geno Delafose and his French Rockin’ Boogie zydeco band from the Louisiana prairies; Denise Withnell of Canada’s Cowboy Celtic band that pays homage to the even-more-ancient roots of many old cowboy songs; Wylie Gustafson of Wylie and the Wild West—“wild” being the operative word; Montana poet, songwriter, and singer DW Groethe; and honey-voiced horsewoman Trinity Seely.
And that’s not even counting the many other artists I had neither time nor space to feature.
As you can imagine, the variety in the musical offerings at Elko, and everywhere else Western enthusiasts gather, is rich and varied—something and someone for every cowboy (whether cowboy in fact or in spirit) to enjoy.
Saturday, February 15, 2020
The week that turned January to February was a busy one around here. Or, not around here, as the case may be.
On January 29, we boarded a bus with a group from Utah Westerners and traveled north on the more-or-less same trail Colonel Patrick Edward Connor took with his cavalry troops in 1863 on a mission to seek out and destroy a Shoshoni winter camp—and the people there.
Every year, the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, descendants of the few survivors of the massacre, meet on the killing field to remember the fateful day. And they gracefully host all interested parties who care to join them. One newspaper report estimated this year’s crowd at 500. Larry Echohawk (pictured), former United States Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, offered the keynote address.
I have written widely about the Massacre at Bear River, the latest effort being a novel based on the horrors of the day. When released in 2021, It will carry the same title as a song I wrote the lyrics for, “And the River Ran Red,” by the great Western singer Brenn Hill. Brenn was at the ceremony and, as he did last year, sang “And the River Ran Red.”
The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, under the direction of tribal chairman Darren Parry, is in the process of creating the Boa Ogoi Cultural Interpretive Center at the site. Your financial support will help. Donations of any size are welcome.
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
Saddlebag Dispatches has a new issue available. As always, it’s big and colorful and filled with all things Western. A few of the items in the magazine have my name at the top.
A new short story, “Black Joe,” is about a wild mustang stud and his clashes with a rancher. There’s a feature article about the PBR Ty Murray Top Hand Award, and the collaboration between Ty Murray and the designer and sculptor behind the award, Jeff Wolf. My rodeo poem about how the Star Spangled Banner affects bareback riders, “Long May It Wave,” is given a beautiful presentation. And, finally, my regular “Best of the West” column features what must be the oldest of the Old West’s best towns, Taos Pueblo.
If you don’t read Saddlebag Dispatches, you’re missing out on a fine publication, offering a lot of variety in its presentation of the American West, old and new. Follow the link and take a look.
Sunday, January 26, 2020
Bob Schild’s ride is over. He left us January 20. And, no matter what criteria you use for judging, Bob made the whistle on a winning ride.
The years found Bob in a variety of arenas. He was a rodeo cowboy of the first order, successful in all the rough stock events with numerous championships to his credit. He was a businessman, establishing and operating B-Bar-B Leather for decades, building and selling saddles, rodeo gear, and providing all manner of horse equipment; a business passed down to his sons. He was a poet, long before cowboy poetry became the thing to do.
When I first thought to pen poetry, I looked to Bob’s work for inspiration and an education. Beyond mere rhyming stories, Bob’s verse showed literary technique, deep thinking, and attention to craft. I wanted to meet him.
I tracked Bob down at the National Circuit Finals Rodeo one year, where I found him sweeping up under the grandstands. That’s the way Bob was—always willing to lend a hand and do any job that needed doing. He was happy to make my acquaintance and willing to talk poetry and rodeo anytime, any place.
We became friends, and for years engaged in a one-sided admiration society. I had little to contribute to the relationship. Bob gave it his all. I wish time and distance hadn’t gotten in the way of my spending more time with him.
A few magazine articles focusing on Bob found their way into print, and it was difficult for me as a writer to maintain any semblance of objectivity when writing about him.
I will never forget Bob Schild. Even though the whistle has sounded, his winning score is permanently inked in the record books.
Monday, January 20, 2020
A “short story” has been defined as one that can be read in one sitting. That being the case, Hobnail and Other Frontier Stories, a new anthology from Five Star, is good for seventeen sittings.
Some of my favorite Western writers, including Loren D. Estleman, Johnny D. Boggs, and John D. Nesbitt are featured here. And there is a story by yours truly.
“The Times of a Sign” is about mules and jacks and horses and thievery, as it tells of a young man who takes part in a horse-stealing expedition to California, which leads to establishing a mule- and oxen-breeding operation in Missouri. As he explains to a questioner the absurdity of the sign advertising his enterprise, he relates the adventure of establishing the business.
The sign reads:
mules and oxen
What could possibly upset him so? One sitting with Hobnail and Other Frontier Storieswill answer that question.
Thursday, January 9, 2020
As you know, American English is a rich language with enough words and phrases to tell about anything and everything. And yet, rather than just use words as they are meant to be used, we abuse them and misuse them. Usually, in feeble attempts to sound more important. But those efforts fool few of us, and are just plain stupid.
Then there are simple, ordinary, everyday words that get thrown into sentences where they serve no purpose whatsoever. “Different” comes to mind. It has a distinct, clear meaning to describe things that are not alike, or dissimilar, or, sometimes, unusual.
For example: “I talked to three people and got three different answers.” It is clear that each person’s account was unlike the others.
But I hear people say things like, “I talked to three different people,” or, “We visited six different states.” What purpose does “different” serve in those examples? Surely you couldn’t talk to three “same” people, or visit six “same” states.
On the other hand, considering the first example, you could talk to three people and get the same answer.
As far as I know, economy of language requires not wasting words by using them needlessly. Like “different.” You may have a different opinion.