I spurred my horse and slapped his withers hard with my reins as we galloped over open prairie. In a cloud of dust a half mile ahead, the remuda held its lead, but not for long. Leaping arroyos and dodging sagebrush, ten rowdy riders sprinted alongside me in fierce pursuit of the thundering herd. I let my horse have his head as we rapidly approached a particularly wide arroyo. We galloped and leapt. A moment of midair suspension on horseback is one of the most thrilling experiences a human can have; in an instant time slips into timelessness and you glimpse that horses and men were meant to be together throughout the ages. An electric feeling of triumph surged through me upon return to terra firma, and I leaned forward in the saddle and spurred my horse again. Soon we were galloping within the remuda.
A year earlier, in another remuda, my horse zigged when I zagged and, departing the saddle, I broke three ribs while cartwheeling through cactus. So, echoing my wife Melissa's admonition before I headed into the Wind River Mountains on one last cattle drive, our eleven-year-old son, Gabriel, cautioned, "Remember, Dad, you aren't thirty anymore." Indeed. I was fifty-six.
In spite of his concerns, Gabe certainly understood why I had to run one last remuda. He had toured America with me his entire life. The day Gabe was born, Melissa and I promised each other that we would never surrender responsibility of rearing our child to day care facilities. After Melissa took a regular job, however, our time together touring as a family came to an end. Faced with putting Gabe in day care when he was four, I took him with me to Wyoming and the Dakotas for sixty-five days on a summer tour. We lived in the back of our pickup truck for the entire two months. After that, Gabe and I headed out west together each summer, while Melissa remained in Texas. Along the way, Gabe became a musician himself, and by age ten he began opening my one-man shows, playing fiddle. By eleven Gabe was mature enough to "man" our box office while I was onstage. During the summer of 2000 I began performing my epic trilogy, A Ballad of the West, in repertory at Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming, and Gabe and I had just enjoyed our second season of performing together there and living in our tipi. Ironically, at eleven, an age when many cowboys traditionally started working on ranches, he was too young for the High Island Cattle Company's insurance to allow him to join me on my annual cattle drives.
So elevated that clouds often encircled it like an ocean, the sixty-thousand-acre High Island Ranch was poetically named. Even though the ranch advertised "horseback adventures," High Island was anything but a dude ranch. Extending along the northern border of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, it was one of the last American ranches with enough open range to replicate starkly authentic, weeklong, "1800s-period" cattle drives. From food to costume, every detail of the 1880s cowboy experience was meticulously replicated at High Island. Since falling in love with the cowboy life after my first cattle drive in 1992, I structured my itinerary so that I could return there for several weeks each year. Melissa had joined Gabe and me in the tipi for the last week of my summer performances of A Ballad of the West in Cody. Then the two of them flew back to Texas to enroll Gabe in school, and I headed into the mountains on horseback.
My wife and son understood why I was leaping arroyos on horseback. But as I raced across the high desert prairie surrounded by a wild herd of horses and riders, I wondered how I might explain to anyone else why I became a cowboy so late in life.
An answer to that question became crystal clear to me in late summer 1998, as we brought a herd of cattle down from high country to winter pastures. Returning from two weeks in the mountains, we learned that the "King of the Cowboys," Roy Rogers, had died. News of the singing celluloid hero's death summoned profound grief from the group that could only be compared to that experienced upon the loss of a close relative. Nevertheless, having spent decades exploring the life of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in order to write an epic ballad and biography based on the architect of all things Wild West, I immediately recognized the event of Roy's passing as the metaphorical bookend of a uniquely American cycle.
Embarking on his lengthy movie career, Leonard Slye changed his name to Roy Rogers to honor his boyhood hero, Will Rogers. Originally known as "the Cherokee Kid," Will Rogers began his rise to international fame in South Africa in 1902, doing rope tricks during the twilight of Buffalo Bill's glory days; indeed, the Oklahoma humorist was inspired as a child to perfect a rope act when he saw master trick roper Vincente Oropeza performing in Cody's original Wild West. Coincidentally, the Wild West show in South Africa that put Will Rogers on the path to immortality was organized and headlined by Texas Jack Omohundro Jr., son of the frontier scout who, only thirty years earlier, had costarred with Buffalo Bill and Ned Buntline in the pair's very first theatrical adventure. That initial blundering performance of Buntline's Scouts of the Plains gave birth to the beloved art form known around the world as "the western."
Something has always motivated me to connect these kinds of events in history, art, and show business. After researching Buffalo Bill's Wild West in books for most of my professional career, it finally occurred to me in the early 1990s that horses accompanied nearly every important event in Cody's life. I decided I needed fundamental, butt-in-the-saddle experiences with horses in order to write with any authority about the icon. That realization led me to the High Island Ranch, where in nearly a decade of 1800s-period cattle drives, I had accumulated more than a thousand miles in the saddle, and, in doing so, had been presented with just about every experience a man can have with a horse. I had discovered that the Zen of being simultaneously in and out of control with horses, cows, and the elements nourished and tempered my spirit. I learned that twelve to fifteen hours a day in the saddle, breathing dusty, aromatic clouds of cow and horse shit, is a natural antidote to city life in the twenty-first century. In Wyoming, where you can get heatstroke and frostbite in the same afternoon, I had gained respect and appreciation for the constant attitude adjustment required to enthusiastically greet every conceivable quirk of Mother Nature with nothing but a good mount, a slicker, and a bedroll. For many professional, pragmatic, and poetic reasons, I fell deeply in love with the experience of working as a cowboy for two or three weeks a year. Nevertheless, like most who signed up for the annual cattle drives, I grew up on a sugary diet of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and countless other Saturday-morning singing cowboys. Of course that saccharine and truly counterfeit cowboy mythology pendulumed into the era of the antihero of the counterculture with Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone's slow-motion film orchestrations of the violent brutality of reckless men playing with democracy, guns, and alcohol on the fringes of "civilization." Choreographed blood ballet and western musicals aside, three weeks of getting up at four thirty in the morning bone-weary from the previous full day in the saddle puts the cowboy life in a balanced, physical perspective. The old cowboys say if your ass hurts, your stirrups are too long; if your knees hurt, your stirrups are too short. If both your ass and your knees hurt, your stirrups are just right!
So something as simple and exciting as a horse race across the Wyoming prairie had long ago become for me an essential exploration of the landscape of the American West, a detailed perspective that I knew would eventually reappear in verse, song, or prose. Nevertheless, this would be my last horse race. At the end of this remuda I intended to leave the cowboy's life to the youngsters.
Fifteen adrenaline-filled miles later, the corrals of the lower lodges of the High Island Ranch appeared on the horizon. Soon we dismounted and unsaddled our lathered horses. As I fed and brushed my pony, it occurred to me that explaining my cowboy adventures would be a relatively simple matter when compared to the rest of my life. I would also find it difficult to explain why I spent nearly a decade ascending the slippery slopes of the record business in Nashville, Hollywood, and Austin only to bolt from the commercial industry and venture into "unexplored territory" with my balladeering. My unusual life had taken so many twists and turns that for decades the hardest questions for me to answer were "What do you do?" and "Where do you live?" In 1982 I had actually come close to an explanation while singing another man's lyrics: as "the Drifter" in Dale Wasserman's groundbreaking western musical comedy, Shakespeare and the Indians, I sang:
Stages, we go through stages
We don our faces, we heed our calls
Throughout the ages, we wear disguises
From the time the curtain rises 'til it falls."
As I stored my tack, the thought occurred to me that I would have to write an autobiography to ever be able to put my unusual career into any kind of personal perspective. But end-of-the-trail festivities soon overtook thoughts of a memoir, and after my first shower in a week, I hurried to prepare for my evening show to celebrate the end of the cattle drive with my fellow wranglers.
At first light the next morning I headed south through the Wind River Canyon, across the high plains, and down the eastern slope of the Rockies to Golden, Colorado, for a visit with my best friend, Vine Deloria Jr. For a quarter of a century it had been a tradition for me to stay with Vine and his wife, Barbara, in Golden on my journeys between Texas and Wyoming. This time, however, Vine had invited two young men from Kentucky to visit while I was scheduled to be there, and he was eager for me to meet his friends. Instead of "hillbillies," Vine affectionately called the Kentuckians "mountain Williams."
In their late thirties, gregarious cousins Jeff Spradling and Russ Ward completely charmed me. A fan of the great Kentucky short-story master Jesse Stuart, I peppered them with questions about the locations and characters of his stories, and they fired back inquiries about Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and other Texas luminaries. As these conversations continued, the "mountain Williams" seemed pleased to discover that I either knew personally or had worked with many of the celebrities that interested them. In the middle of one of these conversations Vine pulled me close and whispered, "You should write an autobiography."
Having known Lakota author/philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. for twenty-six years, I had learned to listen to what he said. But the synchronicity of Vine's spontaneous suggestion of an autobiography also made my memoir musings in the tack barn at High Island Ranch impossible to ignore. Before leaving Vine's I structured an outline and continued to mull it over as I crossed the Llano Estacado, entered the rolling Hill Country of Central Texas, passed through Austin, and continued south. Soon great blue herons, white cranes, flocks of snowy egrets, lush green foliage, and intense humidity welcomed me to the Gulf Coast, and finally, after another glorious summer in Wyoming performing A Ballad of the West, I was reunited with my family in Houston.
After Melissa headed to work the next morning, I dropped Gabriel off at school, meandered home, and rushed into the house to answer the ringing phone. It was Melissa, weeping. The Pentagon had been struck by commercial airliners filled with American citizens! Moments later, time stood still as the World Trade Center towers fell. Watching concrete dust clouds rolling like grim gray thunderheads through the canyons of Manhattan on that sparkling September morning, everyone instantly realized the world would never be the same. Like everyone else, I now viewed my life from a different perspective. I eventually began focusing on the historical significance of the period in America between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the events of September 11, 2001. I decided that my unique role in the creation of the trilogy A Ballad of the West, and the fact that I had freely traveled the globe as a balladeer singing a truly American story during these decades, was worthy of documentation and explanation.
In October 1963—a month before the Kennedy assassination—I had begun research that would evolve into A Ballad of the West. I started it for the simple reason of wanting to find a folk song about Jim Bridger, but I quickly discovered that no period ballads about the American mountain men existed. This realization eventually led me to John G. Neihardt's five-volume masterpiece, A Cycle of the West. But Neihardt's Homeric Cycle only kindled deeper curiosity concerning why no historically documented musical interpretations chronicling the nineteenth-century Euro-American "settling" of the American West existed. Of course the great Stephen Foster wrote "Oh! Susanna" in the late 1840s, and it became popular during the California gold rush. By the end of the Civil War era Foster's legacy as America's original songwriter was firmly established. But Foster's lyrics and subjects were essentially a bridge between Appalachia and the Deep South. In 1963, aside from the classic "Shenandoah," affectionately known as "Across the Wide Missouri," and rare gems such as "Sweet Betsy from Pike," "Buffalo Skinners," and "The Sioux Indians," the only known "western" American ballads were in John Lomax's landmark collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. I found it curious that practically 100 percent of Lomax's western ballad collection was post-1870. Moreover, aside from the occasional outlaw/gunfighter ballad, virtually all of the Lomax collection was cowboy. Authentic pre-1850 non-cowboy "western" ballads were nonexistent.
Entering the world of the mountain men through Neihardt, history books, and period paintings, I fell enchanted; I had no idea then that what had begun as romantic fascination with Jim Bridger would expand into a trilogy of historically documented epic-scale ballads that would include Plains Indian culture and "Buffalo Bill" Cody. I also had no notion in 1963 that I would devote most of my artistic career to developing the various talents needed to produce the trilogy as hardcover book, paperback book, four-disc recording, one-man show, full-company musical production, and five-hour DVD presentation. Wandering into the unexplored territory of historical western ballads as a callow teenager inspired me to create the form of the epic ballad simply to write and sing the heroic tale of Jim Bridger's important life. But the creation of this new form of ballad also set me on a path that has taken me on a unique journey into American music, culture, and society.
Even though I completed a rough first draft by late January 2003, work on the autobiography experienced yet another delay when I embarked on a twenty-city tour to promote the publication of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. My tour would begin in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so I recognized a splendid opportunity to contact my friend, painter, author, and screenwriter "Ole Max" Evans. We met for breakfast at his favorite Mexican restaurant, Lorena's. It had been more than two decades since we had last sat alone and chatted, and I had missed my "ole pard." Breakfast drifted into lunch and we continued to talk into the afternoon. After the second meal Ole Max grew serious.
"How long have we known each other, Bobby?" he asked. "Thirty years? Long enough for me to tell you there have been at least three times since I've known you that you came within inches of screwing up your entire life."
"When was that, Max?"
"In thirty years there have been at least three times you nearly became famous."
My laughter turned heads toward our table.
"A man can recover from just about anything," Ole Max continued. "Hell, I've had open-heart surgery. Many have survived cancer. The day will come when we'll whip AIDS. But no one can survive fame; fame destroys every person it touches. If you had become famous you never would have composed this great ballad of yours. Every time fame got close, you avoided it. Congratulations, old pard. Well done."
Ole Max hadn't changed a bit over the years. If anything, he had gotten better with age. And he was right; fame, and the responsibility to maintain and survive it, would have destroyed the balladeer I became. Besides, if I had learned nothing else in forty years in show business and nearly as long digging into the tangled mythology and reality of Buffalo Bill's life and legend, I had learned that celebrity is a ravenous cannibal.
As usual with Max's rare, meaningful appearances in my life, fate quickened with his remarks. I left Albuquerque and began the book-signing tour, traveling throughout the Southwest, the Northern Rockies, and finally out on the Great Plains. Vivid memories lingered in each region as I returned to the places where I had lived and worked during my three decades on the road as a balladeer. As I drove from one bookstore to another, racing ice storms, blizzards, and rigid schedules across the wintry Great Plains and Rockies, Max's insight about the disease of fame echoed in my thoughts. Old friends, familiar haunts, and hideouts reminded me of the unique life I had enjoyed as a western balladeer, and I realized that my career had been a lengthy and nimble dance between celebrity and anonymity that I had performed to my great advantage and artistic survival. So I vigorously returned to note-taking for the autobiography. Ole Max's comments about celebrity illuminated my need to clarify the career choices I had made willfully, and those I had been forced to make, in order for my epic trilogy to survive and flourish. His words made me realize that my entire life has essentially been a journey from one artistic frontier to another. As I completed the tour and started the second draft of this manuscript, new meanings returned with lyrics performed in an earlier role, when as Dale Wasserman's Drifter, I sang:
Stages, we go through stages,
We don our faces, we heed our calls
We look for answers, we find surprises
From the time the curtain rises 'til it falls.
From the time the curtain rises, 'til it falls.