Watch Program SCV NEWSMAKER OF THE WEEK:
Baxter Black
Cowboy Poet

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, April 17, 2005
(Television interview conducted February 22, 2005)

Baxter Black     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is cowboy poet Baxter Black, headliner at the 2005 Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, coming April 28 to May 1. The interview was conducted Feb. 22 on his ranch in Benson, Ariz. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Thank you for inviting us to your ranch.

Black: Well, it was the choice of this, or your office. We're having what some would consider inclement weather. But of course it's raining in California, too. We like this rain. We don't get the abuse that you seem to get, because you have houses built on the sides of mudslides — and that's not quite an issue here. But rain is so critical in Arizona — and in California — so we sort of take it whenever we can get it.

Signal: Tell us about your ranch. What do you do here?

Black: Well, as you can see, I built it so we could have interviews. No. These rock walls, (ranch hand) Francisco and I have built. I learned how to do it and showed him, and he became better. There are rocks in these walls that are from everywhere, when I go give a speech somewhere. I can show you a rock from the Santa Catalina Island. And everyone and their dog is taking one, so that's why it's getting smaller.
    My horse corrals are built of rock. I like to use what is natural. You would really have to hunt to find something that didn't belong here that we have planted — my wife's roses, an exception. We live with the mesquite and the cat claw and white thorn and the cholla and the bisnaga (barrel cactus). Everything is in Spanish here.
    This is not a place where you can go out and look at your cows. ... When we go out to look at our cows, we're mostly trying to find them. This is a great place to be a cowboy, because you can't drive a four-wheeler 10 feet out into this stuff (the coarse terrain).

Signal: There's a school of thought that you can't be a real cowboy poet or singer or entertainer if you don't go out there and cowboy. But then, there are a lot who don't. Gene Autry never cowboyed before he became a cowboy singer. What's your take on that?

Black: My take on that is simply this: I do not discount that good writing can come from anywhere. And this is not in defense of the stance that you were making, but it could be: It is the truth in humor that makes it funny. That's why there's no science fiction jokes. So if you're going to tell a story about cowboys, you're going to have to know what you're talking about.
    On the other hand, my whole way of looking at it in the Cowboy Poetry deal is, anybody is welcome.
    The difference between a gathering and a show, for instance — a gathering means that anybody can come and stand up there and tell his poemS. And I have always been reluctant to participate in contests or awards for poetry and that sort of thing. The reason is that poetry is in the ear of the beholder. So when you go to critiquing, you're making subjective judgments about someone's writing, and I think everybody can write something that can touch somebody. It don't really make a big deal to me; I don't care.

Signal: How did you get into this? You weren't always a cowboy poet.

Baxter Black Black: I thought I was a songwriter. But when you live in Idaho — I was a vet(erinarian). Going down the road in my vet truck, working cows — and it was a big cattle company that I worked for — and entertaining the cowboys, that's when I first started making up poems about them. What was the question?

Signal: How'd you get into this? Why did you leave the vet business? Did you get tired of reaching up inside a cow?

Black: Well, it left me. I don't know any other way to put it. I worked for three big outfits, and two of the three changed hands, and I went down the road. The last time it happened, I was in a stage of my life before I met my sweet wife when nothing mattered and I was living in an apartment and eating out at the 7-Eleven and paying alimony and traveling all over the country.
    I was working with this outfit that I was giving talks for on animal health products, and I refused to carry slides — which is what you're supposed to do if you're giving a talk. I made my points with humor, and I was obviously more entertaining than I was informative, which made me popular.
    I worked for that last company for two years, and in that span of time I did over 250 banquets or programs, and by the time that happened, they were six months into it; they were calling and inviting me to come speak at their veterinary program or whatever. And so I did, and when that company let me go, I still had this list of jobs booked, and I wasn't really doing them for money. And so I asked them, "What am I going to do with all of these?" "Well," they said, "as long as we get you off the company insurance, we'll give you a little consulting fee to finish these jobs." So I did. But the speaking jobs are still — I mean, they just kept coming in.
    And finally I let my licenses lapse after five years —

Signal: You're not a licensed vet anymore?

Black: Well, I am, but I'm not licensed in Arizona. The deal is, it's a demanding job. If people call in the middle of the night, they expect you to be there.
    So is entertaining. When you book a job — I never miss them. I never miss them. You don't have to worry that I'm not going to be there. I will be there even if I have to shoot the pilot and take the plane.

Signal: It's probably a little more subjective to climb to the top of the large animal veterinary business than it is to climb to the top of the cowboy poetry business, which is where you're at.

Black: Well, you know, let me tell you something about that. I don't know what measurements you're using, but being a poet's a lot like being a golfer. If someone says, "Do you golf?" (And you say, "Sure.") "What do you do for a living?" "I'm a broadcaster." See, it's the same way. Are you a poet? Absolutely. Right here, I got all my business cards, "Cowboy Poet." What do you do for a living? Well, I sell feed or I ride pens in the feed lot or I'm a banker.
    See, it's not something that you measure, in my mind, by an award or an accolade or something. It's something you are.

Signal: It could be a whole new business for you. You could be the regulating body. You could issue a license to go poet.

Black: Let me tell you something. I thought I would. I learned a lesson a long time ago. There was a great man named Carlos Ashley.
    This is why I don't accept awards or be a part of those things that make it competitive. I've been to the Cowboy Artists Association and spoken to them. And they have a very closed society, just like you're talking about. I went home and Carlos was the only cowboy poet that I knew — and this was before poetry gatherings. I set out and I wrote all these bylaws to be the cowboy poet, and what qualified you to join this Cowboy Poets of America. And I sent it to Carlos and I called him up. And he was an older gentleman at the time, and a beautiful poet. I said, "Carlos, are you getting my stuff?" He's in San Saba, Texas. "Yes, I got it." He was a gentleman. I said, "Well I really worked hard on it. What do you think?" He said, "Well, I have some reservations." Then I said, "Well, what's the matter?"
    "Well," he said — and this is a guy who knew Curley Fletcher and Gail Gardner and those people — he said, "You know, anybody that I ever knew that wrote cowboy poetry was kind of a renegade kind of a person, and this is probably the kind of thing they wouldn't be a part of."
    And I said, "Carlos, I got me and you, that's a pretty good start." He said, "Well, I'll tell you what, son. I wouldn't join the son of a —."
    So I took all these beautiful notes that I made and I threw them in the trash right there, and I realized right there that he knew exactly what he was talking about. Because anytime a cowboy poet tries to organize — let me rephrase that. Anytime a cowboy tries to organize something — and I've watched it time and time and again. I've watched Idaho and South Dakota, two good examples. Each formed a cowboy poetry gathering club or association. Well, in both states there were two people that wanted to be the head man, so each one of them at that time, each had two. So they immediately made it competitive. They fought each other. And I've always been thankful that Elko (Nev.) doesn't give awards, because that way, everyone's welcome.

Signal: We don't give awards in Santa Clarita, either —

Black: See, here's the difference. The Hollywood people need awards and they need to be recognized, and there's something to be said for trying to get children involved as some (festivals do), and (cowboy entertainer) Red Steagall gets children involved. There's something to be said for that. But almost every musician — and I'm telling you, the cowboy poetry deal saved Western music.

Signal: How so?

Black: Well, every singer you can name outside if The Riders in the Sky probably wouldn't be making a living if it wouldn't be for the poetry gatherings. The poetry gatherings saved Western music and gave it this renaissance that it's had.
    They all have a chance to make records. They all have a to get a contract. And virtually everyone in this genre has a secret desire to get a record contract or to be able to make CDs that really sell. There is a chance for a singer.
    However, there is no chance for a cowboy poet. You know, if you could name five of them that make enough to buy a car, then you'd be doing good.

Signal: — Who do just that for a living.

Black: Yeah. It's not something you do for a living. It's something — you come to gathering and you're a part of it and you do your poems and maybe get your expenses paid. You can get something. But there's a huge difference between what a singer can potentially get out of it, than a poet.

Signal: So if somebody asks you who you are and what you do —

Black: It's kind of whoever's asking me. It's like, I've written two or three poems along this line: "Are you a cowboy?" Well, it depends on who's asking me. If it's a couple of top hands, then I'd say, "Let me just hold your horses, boys." But if you need somebody to go out and help you gather cows, I can do that.

Signal: Sick steer? Go see Baxter.

Black: Yeah. I can take care of that. My definition of a cowboy is someone who can replace a uterine prolapse in a range cow in a thousand-acre pasture with nothing but a horse a rope. And I know people who can do that.

Signal: And write songs about it and tell poems about it. "Cowboy poetry" kind of sounds like an oxymoron. How much poetry really happens on these ranches?

Black: None. I never knew a cowboy poet until I went to Elko. I shouldn't say that. Nyle Henderson, I had seen a poem of his. I didn't even know the dead guys, and I've been in the cattle business since I was 19, in one form or another. And I didn't know anybody that did cowboy poetry. The only Western singers I knew — I knew Riders in the Sky and Slim Whitman; we listened to country music, growing up.

Signal: Who first gave you the idea that you were funny?

Black: You know, those are introspective things that I never give any thought to. I don't really have a good answer to that.
    I remember thinking that I was funny. I would go to Jerry Lewis movies and come home and "be" Jerry Lewis for a week, or the Three Stooges or the Army Mule. And I got a son now that thinks he's funny. He loves to watch Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis and he can imitate sounds like I can. I go to Australia and come back talking like (them). And we speak Spanish and we do accents.

Signal: You speak Spanish at home?

Black: Well, I didn't speak English to my son until he was 10.

Signal: Why?

Black: So he'd know how to speak Spanish. And it was cool, actually.

Signal: What did he do in school until he was 10?

Black: He spoke English. (My wife) Cindy spoke English to him. So it was just like a lot of bilingual families. Here's this little kid; he turns to her and speaks English, turns to me and speaks Spanish. And he didn't know the difference.

Signal: Was this something you just up and started to do?

Black: Sure. Well I asked Cindy if she'd consent, and she did — and he's got a pretty accent. And anyways, it's a good thing. And it's handy around here.

Signal: Don't you play the guitar, too?

Black: Yes, I do. I do a lot of things not as well as I'd like.

Signal: How well do you play?

Black: Pretty well. I like big band music, but I'm a journeyman musician. I grew up seconding people. And I had a band in the old days. ... Singing, a little bit, but I thought I was a songwriter.

Signal: Do you yodel, too?

Black: (He does.) Eat your heart out, Don Edwards.

Signal: You've had some of your songs recorded.

Black: I have. It's sort of a pity recording, I think. Jack Hannah, Sons of the San Joaquin, has taken three songs that I wrote and rewritten them in spectacular fashion. And Ian Tyson has done the same thing. Red Steagall, Ed Bruce — it's cool.

Signal: Do you think of (cowboy poet) Waddie Mitchell as a rival?

Black: No, no. In a community that is this sparsely populated —

Signal: You've got to figure, if there's one other, that's the rival, right?

Black: Well, it's not a rivalry, because he appears with Don Edwards together a lot, and they do a lot of poetry gatherings and they do little theaters, and I rarely cross paths with them unless I'm at a poetry gathering. I do agricultural banquets. Last week I spoke to the Aurora (Neb.) Co-op, the North Carolina Cattlemen's (Association), and the Cotton Growers of California.

Signal: You get up there and tell them stories?

Black: I tell them stories about farming and cows.

Signal: They pay you to do this?

Black: Yes.

Signal: So you're like a keynote speaker at a banquet of suits.

Baxter Black Black: Yes, that's me. Agricultural banquets. And the rare public radio urban function.

Signal: Yeah — how'd your public radio show come about? Here we are in Arizona; it's a red state. NPR is kind of blue-state radio.

Black: Yes, it is.

Signal: How do your politics fit in?

Black: Well, politics don't fit in. That's not an issue.
    I have made a living shooting arrows in the sky, that's all I can call it. And even as far back as the å80s when I was an entertainer, I was shooting arrows in the sky. You didn't tell people you were a poet. I mean, they would hold up the cross and the garlic. I was calling myself a cowboy humorist, for lack of a better term.
    But I listened to NPR. It was the year Yellowstone caught on fire, 1988. We were listening and they didn't have any coverage to speak of, and it was a huge deal in our life. It was a huge deal in Colorado (where I lived) and the sky smelled like smoke and I had this big tumultuous poem about the range fire.
    Lightning cracked across the sky like veins on the back of your hand / Reached a fiery finger out as if in reprimanding / Torched a crippled cottonwood that leaned against the sky / While grass and sagebrush hunkered down / That hellish, hot July.
    And it goes on and on. So I sent them this. I looked up their address in something — this was before e-mail. I found their address and I didn't address it to anybody. I just sent it to "Public Radio" in Washington, D.C. And two or three days later I get a call back, and I put it on a reel-to-reel — because I was doing radio work even then, so they knew it wasn't just somebody in their bathroom on a cassette player. And they said, "Did you write this?" And I said, "Yes, I did." "Do you care if we run it?" And I said, "I would be thrilled." And they did. And I was. And they called back saying, "Do you have anything else?" And I'm sitting here with a mountain of stuff.
    And that was it. I mean, it was that simple. But it was an arrow in the sky, which is how I've made my living. I do it without agents and managers and middleman. The only place I've ever signed a contract is with Crown Publishing, to do some of the books I've published — and I have to hire a lawyer to read the contract — but virtually all my business is done on a handshake.

Signal: Where do you get inspiration for your poems?

Black: If I didn't go on the road, I would not be able to write. Because they tell me the stories.
    All the places I speak — we do about 60, 70 jobs a year — they all have a story. They all come up to me. And you cannot make up things that are funnier or worse than what they tell you.
    I'll give you a brief (example). I was in Richfield, Utah, out in the sticks. Mormon community. And I'm standing there signing books or something. And (a man) had his hat pulled down just far enough to where the tops of his ears were flat. And I reached out to shake his hand he held up both arms, and both wrists were in a cast. I said, "Carpal tunnel?" He said, "Rodeo." I said, "Broncs or bulls?" He said, "Team roping." I said, "That had to be an awful wreck." He said, "The heeler saw it better than I did." He said, "You know when you've dallied and you've caught him and you're turning off, and the steer's dragging tight and you think your horse can't buck? That's wrong. I bucked so high, I saw God." I said, "Was Bringham Young standing beside him?" He said, "Yes. And he told me, åSon, this is going to hurt.'"
    You can't make up stories like that.

Signal: A lot of poets and songwriters seem to have a couple of recurring themes — reverence for the land, anti-progress, anti-development and things like that. And then for some, there's a lot of God in it. How does that enter into what you do?

Black: We are pretty active church people, and I believe in life after death, and I believe in telling people about it, if I think they need to be exposed, or I would like to expose them. I don't know if God appreciates everything I write, because sometimes you step off into the deep end.
    But one thing that is important to me is that people who come see my programs and buy my books know that there's nothing in there that they can't give to their Baptist aunt or their 12-year-old. They might not understand it, but I don't think I make anything too mean, or — in my world, you can't make a living telling dirty jokes, and you can't make a living being drunk on stage.

Signal: Tell us about Santa Clarita. What was your first impression?

Black: I was on Johnny Carson for awhile, so I got a little tiny taste of Hollywood. But I had never been exposed to Western movies from that sense.
    Suddenly, I could picture the things I had read, on occasion, about how they went out and made movies and every day they'd get up and go to work. Ben Johnson was a friend of mine, and Pat Buttram and some of these other characters who were the stuntmen and (in the) background in those Western movies.
    So I was in a place where that happened, and it was new to me. It was like going to Tombstone (next door to Benson) for the first time. It was cool. It's huge, and it has the California pizzazz that's different from going to Elko.

Signal: Elko, Nev. — you think of ranches and real cowboys. Santa Clarita — we're mostly subdivisions, and our poetry festival — you dress up for a day to be a cowboy.

Black: You're looking it from your point of view. I like it if somebody wants to be a cowboy.
    I can remember when "Urban Cowboy" came out and John Travolta started riding bulls. And everybody started wearing boots and bought those hats made out of oatmeal with the feathers on them. I had friends who were saying, "This is awful. They're raising the price of our clothing and our boots." But even then, I said, "What is the matter with you? Can't you remember what they were calling you — and now they want to be like you?"

Signal: What can people expect if they've never been to a cowboy festival before?

Black: Well, I'll tell you about Santa Clarita. It's a wonderful place to take your family. And it's also "live" — and a lot of it is good! And wholesome. And there's still a desire in some of these kids to be a cowboy. It's like being a fireman. You get them out there and they get to see a horse. And the singing is always so good. That bridges cultures and age groups and generations. So you get to see all that — but you get to see the setting where the movies were made. You get to see the old boys throwing ropes and doing rope tricks and all the wonderful cooking, that these chuckwagon guys (bring) in...

Signal: "Cowboy up" for a weekend.

Black: It's like going to Disneyland for cowboys.

Signal: And Baxter Black will be headlining. Thanks for taking the time out of your day and letting us onto your ranch.

Black: You can come back, or you can find me at baxterblack.com. ... Happy trails to you — until we meet again.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.


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