(PRCA Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 07.21.13)
I’m not a cowboy. There isn’t anything remotely ‘country’ about my life, even if there is a little country in my blood. My grandfather was the epitome of country, before country was cool. My mom and her siblings grew up in the rodeo. Ten-gallon hats, shiny belt buckles, barrel racing and cheap beer were staples of her formative years. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she rebelled against the ‘cowboy way’ less than 8 seconds after gaining independence. While her father and brother were busting out the chute, finding joy in pain, she was trading her boots for braids. By the time she was old enough to have an identity outside her family, and a few years before I was born, she was driving a Volkswagen and listening to a lot more Pink Floyd than Patsy Cline.
When I close my eyes to remember “Poppa”, I remember a tough man. He was skinny, with a big beer belly, and strong as an ox. He wore blue jeans and button down cotton shirts. He didn’t always wear a cowboy hat, but when he did, it was a large one. He had rough, calloused hands. But it’s the hand-crafted leather belt, with its big ‘ole buckle, that dominates the picture in my mind.
(Mom and Poppa in San Diego, circa-2000)
He had a great smile. He didn’t always smile though. The sound of his anger was deafening. I know I get my temper from him, but sometimes the ghost of his rage helps me calm mine — I don’t want to scare people like he did. I always thought it was weird that his belly didn’t shake when he laughed. When you got hurt, he’d tell you it was a ‘long ways from your heart’. In other words, “don’t be a wimp”. That might have been the only thing he ever sugar coated in his life. He loved Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He would have loved Jamey Johnson. I doubt he would have dealt with Keith Urban and the rest of this new school of country.
My mom’s father grew up hard and lived hard, but in the end, I think he found a sort of peace on his large ranch near the Oregon/California border — peace among the land and his animals. Peace with his waitress girlfriend and odd jobs. And when peace got a little too mundane, he could always go rouse the deadbeats at the various trailer parks he owned. That was Poppa.
(PRCA Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 07.21.13)
It’s probably a good thing my parents moved me away at a young age, or at least that they didn’t raise me around the rodeo. If that were the case, I probably would have rebelled as well. And although I never took to the ranch lifestyle myself, I did take to country music. Like my grandfather, I lean toward the ‘real’ country. I like the classics. I also like the young artists who stand on the shoulders of the classics. Pop country has no place in my world. Sometimes I wonder if I would have come around to bands like Drive-By Truckers, Lucero and American Aquarium myself, or if it comes from the blood that runs in my veins – that same blood that stained ropes and reins all those years ago.
Poppa had a wooden carving in his kitchen. It had a silhouette of a cowboy on it. It read “Heaven doesn’t want me, Hell’s afraid I’ll take over”. It was probably the truth. But wherever he is today, I hope he knows that part of him was with us in Cheyenne this weekend, and that part of him is with me whenever I’m drunk and singing country songs at the top of my lungs at some
honky tonk music venue.
I’m not going to pretend we were extremely close in life, but I can’t deny there are parts of myself that could only have come from him. Those parts were as strong as they’ve ever been while I watched those crazy-ass cowboys get their asses kicked in Wyoming. And although Dwight Yoakam is a little young for his tastes, I’m pretty sure he would have approved of his style — the Buck Owens covers, at the very least.
(Dwight Yoakam in Cheyenne, Wyoming, 07.21.13)
My mom still has a hard time with country music and rodeos. It’s all a little too real for her. Those arn’t just guys getting kicked to shit out there — they are family. And those arn’t just words Dwight Yoakam is singing — they are real life, real pain. I understand that. I’m grateful that I can enjoy it all from a relatively safe distance. I am also grateful for the other 99% at Frontier Days on Sunday — those real farmers and true cowboys. They are the backbone of our country and I was honored to be among them. My wife (who wears my grandfather’s ring) and daughter loved it as well. I think it’s going to become an annual ‘family tradition’.
Take Hold of My Hand
Please, Please Baby
Streets of Bakersfield
Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose
Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose (reprise)
Blame the Vain
Close up the Honky Tonks
Ain’t That Lonely Yet
Ring of Fire
Dim Lights, Thick Smoke
Honky Tonk Man
A Thousand Miles From Nowhere
It Only Hurts When I Cry
Fast As You
Long White Cadillac
Fast As You Can (reprise)