Baxter Black builds empire from cow stories

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2002

BENSON, Ariz. -- He calls them arrows in the sky, and Baxter Black has shot off plenty.

Take his introduction to country singer Red Steagall in 1979, by way of a horse clipper salesman. Black was working as a large animal veterinarian in Idaho, writing songs on the side. He sent a tape of his ditties off with the salesman, hoping it would somehow land in the hands of someone famous.

It landed in Steagall's, who called Black and told him he wanted to record one of his tunes. He invited him to his ranch in Texas, and there the amateur troubadour discovered his true calling.

One day out on the porch, Steagall produced an autographed copy of Carlos Ashley's ''That Spotted Sow.'' Each took turns reading excerpts of what Black could only describe as masterful cowboy poetry.

''I was just overwhelmed,'' Black recalls. ''It was what I thought I was trying to do.''

Three years later, Black hit the entertainment circuit full time -- performing poems rather than songs. Today he is revered as one of the greatest cowboy poets of his time.

Bull's-eye. The arrow struck, and he hasn't lost his aim since.

From his chance beginning as a newspaper columnist to his six-year stint on ''The Tonight Show,'' his role as a cowboy commentator on National Public Radio and his adventures as an author, Black has managed to turn a fledgling career as a songwriter into a one-man entertainment empire.

He credits the arrows. Steagall, a close friend since their first encounter, cites something else.

''He sees things that nobody else sees,'' Steagall says. ''He has an imagination that is unparalleled.''

With a shaggy mustache that curls down to his chin, his bright bandanas and personalized spurs that read ''Baxter,'' Black is the quintessential cowboy humorist. He doesn't recite his poems, he performs them. Eyes widen, arms flap, strange sounds emit from his curled lips. Like the Jerry Lewis of cowboy poetry, he falls to the ground, sacrificing body and bones for the art.

Through Black's eyes, shoeing a horse becomes a merry melee that ends in ''a cross between the tomb of Gen'ral Grant and a Puppy Chow explosion at the Alpo Dog Food plant.''

Pickup trucks are like welding gloves: ''The pock marks are part of the deal. Not pretty, just built to get the job done. Like the dummy behind the wheel.''

Parsley puts a potato on trial for vegetable defamation (''you incipient fern''!), and the tale of a runaway cow becomes a ''Loose Cow Party'': ''Helpful tourists waved and hollered, horsemen galloped to and fro. Swingin' ropes like polo players, someone takin' video.''

Black's wild imagination almost led to a career designing cars, a hobby when he was a boy growing up in rural West Virginia. It didn't take long, however, for him to realize his future was animals.

'Course, he thought he'd be raising them, not writing about them.

Black's dad, an agriculture professor, was from a farm family, and Black grew up milking cows and raising sheep. He attended agriculture school at New Mexico State University, where he devised a plan to make his entry into ranching.

''I figured if I went to vet school and I wanted to get a job on a cow outfit, they'd say, 'Well what can you do?' And I could say: 'I can fix your cow.'''

And so Black became a large animal veterinarian. Not long after graduation, he landed a job in Idaho as the company vet for one of the largest cattle operations in the country. There, his world changed.

He traveled the West visiting ranching operations, rubbing spurs with all the cowboys and listening to their tales of life on the range. Soon, Black was telling his own stories.

''When somebody got bucked off at feedlot No. 1 and I went to the dairy, I would tell the story,'' he says. ''By the time I told that story 20 times, it was hilarious.''

Black was writing his songs on the side, hoping to make it big in country music. Then one day, he decided to combine his tunes and his tales, and he turned one of his stories into a poem.

When he recited it before a bunch of cowhands, he could see the difference in their eyes.

''Suddenly,'' he says, ''I saw these people seeing themselves recognized in a permanent way. Jokes and stories are built on slippery soil. But when you write a poem, you are welding words into place.''

About the time he met Steagall and discovered that cowboy poetry could be more than a hobby, Black left the ranching operation and took a job in Denver diagnosing trouble calls for a pharmaceutical company.

His duties included speaking at agriculture meetings, be it about lameness or pneumonia or bovine viral diarrhea. He incorporated his poems into the program, and developed a following.

In his two years with the company, he did some 250 programs. When he got laid off in 1982, requests for Black kept coming.

''The next time somebody called, I said, 'Well, can you pay me?' And that's how it started,'' he says. ''I spent five years keeping my vet licenses up, thinking I was going to get another job. Finally I said, 'This is a job, I think.'''

Of course, more arrows came into play. When he first started speaking at the agriculture meetings, an editor for a small Colorado newspaper approached him about writing a column. Black thought, ''Why not?'' Today his weekly column runs in 130 newspapers in the United States and Canada.

In 1988, the year of the great fire at Yellowstone National Park, Black got peeved at National Public Radio for dedicating too little coverage to the situation out West. He shipped them a few poems related to fire and drought. Next thing he knew he was a commentator on NPR.

Then a publishing company came calling after hearing Black on the radio. It wanted to print his poetry, but Black already had been publishing his own poetry collections and doing just fine, thank you very much. ''What else have you got?'' they asked. Next thing he knew he'd published his first novel, ''Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky?''

And so it's gone for Baxter Black, the car designer turned large animal vet turned songwriter turned poet turned commentator turned novelist.

At 56, he's still going strong, although he whittled his show schedule to about 70 appearances a year after the birth of his son eight years ago. These days he tries to balance staying at home and working on his own ranch, south of Tucson, with hitting the road to tell the travails of other ranchers.

''Although my desire to perform is bone deep, I enjoy being home over the weekend and being able to go with my boy and gather the cows,'' he says.

''But,'' he adds, ''you gotta keep firing those arrows in the sky. I still do that. That's my modus operandi. Shoot those arrows in the sky. You're gonna hit something.''

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