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The Arts Voyager, 1-26: I'm a reel cow-hand
Chaneling Bob Wills at the Stock Show & Rodeo
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It was supposed to be the Cowboy Poets Campfire Stories day Tuesday (one of four, concluding today beginning at noon) at the West Arena of the 116th Stock Show & Rodeo, continuing through February 4 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, but, borrowing a page from the French, the Western wordsmiths evidently interpret poetry to include music, and far be it from this greenhorn worshipper at the temple of Bob Wills to grouse about an afternoon of cowboy, western swing, and frontier tunes largely presided over by Devon Dawson, a latter-day Dale Evans if ever there was one, and also featuring the band of veterans (of tours with Tex Ritter and Lefty Frizzell, among others) known as the Over the Hill Gang. Youth also claimed its place, chiefly in the person of golden-trelissed sensation Kristyn Harris, boasting a yodel that makes its presence known not only in stand-alone moments, but by adding tremor and tremble to the rest of her singing. It's no insult to say that Harris can belt 'em. The scariest part is that she's not yet 18. Notwithstanding legendary bassist, author ("The Chameleon Rancher"), and Cutting Horse Hall of Famer Pat Jacobs's quip -- referring to the three hardly over the hill cowgirl guitarists ("Mustang Micky" joined Dawson and Harris) who accompanied his Over the Hill Gang for their set -- that "they're here to notify next of kin in case any of us keel over," in fact they were all there to carry on the tradition of concert cowboy music that emerged with Wills, even if it means, as it did Tuesday afternoon, ignoring a flash storm that's knocked the power out and playing on.

Cowgirl singer and guitarist Devon Dawson. Photo courtesy Fort Worth Stock Show.

Before you say, "I hate country music," a) in the context of a rodeo and livestock show, as I realized entering the massive complex behind the Swine Barn Tuesday and hearing it coming over the sound system, it works; and b) cowboy or if you prefer western music (which incorporates western swing and frontier, as Dawson pointed out) has little to do with country. Or, as cowboy poet Teresa Burleson explained to me, "As Roy Rogers said, in country, the singer sings about the neighbor's wife. In cowboy, he sings about the neighbor's horse." To further confound those who get confounded by such things -- and this is a question I'm reminded of right now as I listen to Billy Edd Wheeler -- why do 'bluegrass' and 'cowboy' often sound similar? Here's Buck 'The Big Man' Helton, a towering man with glasses under his cowboy hat, who performed poetry, songs, and stand-up ("That must be the Claude Rains section," he said, indicating an empty section of seats, explaining the reference was to the Rains film "The Invisible Man," bah-dom-dom) Tuesday: "Bluegrass and cowboy music are two sides of the same coin," originating in Scotland and Ireland in the 1840s, and brought to this country by immigrants from those lands. Songs made their way backwards from Ellis Island to California." From those who stayed in Appalachia, bluegrass was born; cowboy music came from those who continued on to the West. To demonstrate his point, Helton strummed and sang an Irish ballad from the 1600s that sounded a lot like "The Streets of Laredo," before eventually segue-ing into that classic. Helton's even got an album tracing these roots, "From the Mountains to the Prairie." You can see him performing regularly on cable television station RFD's Shotgun Red.

Of course it wouldn't be a cowboy poets campfire without the words of Baxter Black, who put the genre on the national map in recent years with his commentaries on National Public Radio, and Black was represented just fine in a reading of his "Cow Attack" by Charles Williams, a past president of the Cowboy Poets who has been there since they first became part of the Stock Show & Rodeo 16 years ago. Black's poem begins with the epic question, "What happened to your pick-up? Is that a buffalo print" on the seat? Williams also read his own condensed Civil War epic, "Hood's Brigade," and "The Piano Player at McGarrity's Saloon," about a female tickler of the ivories:

"We spent hours by the fire
Underneath a desert moon
Speculating about the piano player
At McGarrity's Saloon."

Cowboy poet Charles Williams. Photo courtesy Fort Worth Stock Show.

You can hardly talk about Roy Rogers without talking about Dale Evans, and Harris, appearing in jeans, Western shirt, and the afore-mentioned golden locks under a smart subdued brown cowboy hat, began her set with the signature Dixie Chicks tribute to the Queen of the Cowgirls, "Dale Evans Made a Cowgirl out of Me," following up with Gene Autry's "Way out West in Texas," which includes the lyrics, "If it's all the same to you I'll stay in Texas" and "It's not likely at all / I'll cure my southern drawl." (As an outsider I'd dispute that characterization of the Texas twang; when I hear a southern drawl I usually flinch, but a Texas accent makes me want to imitate it.)

Lest you be misled by my characterization of Harris as a 'belter,' her most affecting song was the poignant original composition "Riding Away," which she introduced with the reminder that "cowboys and cowgirls like to be out in open country, not the city":

"Gonna Ride 'til I see the wide range again
... I don't care where we go
I'll just follow my pony's nose...
... It's my mustang and I
Any tears we have had will dry
While the trail leads us to places we love.
... I'll go from somewhere where folks are tearing out their hair
because they've had too much of that city air.
... I'll ride 'til the blue turns a sunset hue."

The words might sound hokey when you see them alone without the music, but Harris's plain unaffected sincerity makes the song winsome and even slightly sad.

Wearing a pale cowboy hat, leather vest, and long turquoise pleated skirt over cowboy boots, Devon Dawson joined Harris without even announcing her name, so familiar must this audience be with her, chiefly as a performer with and talent coordinator the Cowtown Opry, where she helps mentor young talents like Harris. After Dawson paid tribute to Harris by acknowledging, "I'm a reel cowgirl, r-e-e-l, she's a real cowgirl, r-e-a-l," the pair launched into a winner of a duet, the tongue-in-cheek "Cowgirl Friends," an ironic sister to Clarence Clemens and Jackson Browne's "You're a friend of mine," in which, smiling all the time, the two trade turns thanking each other for good deeds which really weren't. (As when Harris thanks Dawson for the time she served as a mirror when she didn't have one, helping her to put her lipstick on... all over her face.)

Then Dawson sang "Keeping your head above water," a story about Lad, a champion paint horse who survived the Great Flood of '49 by resting his front legs on the door of his stall for three days, as well as an allegory for our trying times. She had me for good with "Cow-cow Boogie," and would have rivaled Ella doing the same tune with the Ink Spots if only the volume of accompanying 20-year-old Chance Terry's Fender telecaster was turned up a mite.

The Cowtown Opry, lead by Dawson with her husband "Chuck-wagon Chuck," Dawson began on a right note, with its theme song "We're the Cowtown Opry" modeled after and thus a tribute to the Wills opener "We're the Texas Playboys." (Wills, in case you're not hip, popularized Western Swing beginning in the 1930s.) But then Jesus reared his head, or rather had his head reared in a particularly aggressive fashion, and they lost me. I'm down with the Christian stuff -- I respect that it's part of cowboy tradition (for a lot of cowboys and cowgirls anyway). Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were big on this in their radio broadcasts, and I don't believe one can pick and choose what one admires about a lifestyle and its traditions. But there's a difference between words and song that exhort you to see the light -- as for example a number delivered earlier by "Mustang Micky," an earnest girl with a pristine and pure voice, also not yet 18 -- and a song that insists that "his Son is the only path to G-d," as did one delivered by the Opry's accordionist. Exhorting one to 'see the light' can be an earnest desire by someone who has been saved to see his/her auditors likewise be uplifted. But when you preach that the only way to Heaven is yours, you're not just urging your audience to see the light, you're suggesting that if it's your way or the highway.

After an interval of cowboy poets including Oklahoma cowboy poet laureate Francine Roark Robison's paene to snakes and her fear of them, the Over the Hill Gang, joined by Dawson and Harris on vocals and guitar, "Mustang Micky" on guitar, and another prodigy, Brooke Wallace Deaton, on fiddle, truly channelled Wills in spirit and array of musical instruments and veteran instrumentalists. These included Bobby Dickson on pedal steel guitar, Phil Babcock on drums, Frank Johnson on piano, and the afore-mentioned and gangly Pat Jacobs on bass. After a set which included Dawson on vocals channeling Roy's sidekick Smiley Burnett's "Lazy Day," the band had just launched into "Panhandle Rag" when the power went out throughout the Rogers Center, leaving only emergency lights illuminated and instantly accousticizing all the instruments. "The show must go on!" extolled Bob Terry, the evening's MC, sometimes tenor with the Cowtown Opry, father of Chance Terry, husband of cellist/vocalist Johnie Terry, who also joined the Gang for one number, and proprietor of Wild West Toys, the last outpost in the West to sell genuine cap guns that reportedly don't break down after the first use. And the band played on.

If I have one criticism of the Cowboy Poets event at the Stock Show and Rodeo, it's the timing: It's a pity that the event is not featured on the weekend, so it could be seen by more kids -- some of them potential cowboy poets and cowgirl singers.

You can't take a gander over to the Livestock Show without commenting on the livestock, and here I'm afraid I'm not such a homer. Roping calves may be necessary in taking care of them so that they can eventually become meat for my table... on an actual ranch, but in a sports arena such as Justin Arena, where I peeked in at the calf-roping contest Tuesday, it's nothing but a sport and one in which the poor animal is outmatched by the 'cowboy,' who roughly throws the animal on the ground after binding her legs and tying the rope around her neck. The one I saw Tuesday was briefly dragged along the ground by its neck by the horse. Hardly sporting and borderline cruelty to animals. It's no wonder the Humane Society of the United States opposes rodeos.

On the other hand, I'd be the last to take offense at the milking cow conveyer belt and milking apparatus on display in one of the cattle barns; it may not be as romantic as the picture of the individual farmer milking the cow, but it allows me to buy my half gallon for $2.38. Who knows whether those cows are happy; the pony in the 'take a picture with pony' booth didn't look so.

Afterwards, the heady sweet smell of the horse-barns still lingering in my nostrils and a light rain falling from the darkening sky occasionally illuminated by lightning, I walked down Montgomery Street, then over to University and the Trinity River. Fort Worth is not known for generous sidewalks -- "We ran out of money two-thirds through the job," a neighbor once explained to me -- and I inevitably got doused with water by a car while under the train and free-way overpass on University. Just then a lightning bolt slashed a Zorro-like Z across the sky above the Trinity. Thinking of the three cups of coffee, orange juice, and bottle of water I'd drunk at the Media Center, not to mention the water that now soaked me through, I saw the headline: "Wannabe cowboy journalist struck by lightning bolt while crossing the Trinity River." In my audacity, I imagined G-d asking me why he should let me get home (hoping he'd be okay with me not going through his Son); what would I do if allowed to live? 1. Be happy, which Camus said was man's greatest obligation. And 2. Find me a home on the range. The buffalo have long-since ceased roaming, but perhaps a singing cowgirl might come along...

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