Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Jim Brooks: The Right Stuff

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 2, 2005


 

 



I'd come to Elko to take in their annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. A first-timer, I was neither a cowboy nor a student of cowboy poetry, but I'd been enjoying the performances and the friendly atmosphere among the ranchers, cowboys and the friends of cowboy culture. 
     It was the second day of the festival and I'd taken a break to visit Capriola's, a place I was told not to miss. It was full of all kinds of cowboy gear. Looking around, I almost wished I owned a horse or two.
     Someone walked past me carrying a rig that looked something like a sawhorse (later I learned it was a practice dummy used by young cowpunchers learning how to rope a heifer.) The clerk called out wanting to know what was going on.  
     "Jim Brooks told me I could put it in the back," the man said.
     'Oh. That's okay, then," the clerk replied.
I had no idea what to make of that little drama, but I could see that whoever Jim Brooks was, his name carried some weight. 
     Stepping out of Capriola's, I couldn't help noticing a striking figure standing there, the first Black cowboy I’d seen in Elko. He was talking with the same guy who'd carried the sawhorse thing past me in the store. I had no idea I was looking at Jim Brooks himself, a cowboy legend. But I didn't need to know who this man was. I couldn’t resist stepping in closer to eavesdrop.
    
It wasn’t long before I managed to wedge myself into the conversation. Trusting my intuition, I was sure the Black cowboy would be worth learning more about—and I knew I'd have to act then and there. So introducing myself to the stranger, I asked for an interview. Brooks sized me up and I explained myself as best I could and he decided to accept my request.
     Later that evening I met him at his room in a local motel. As I was setting up the recorder, our conversation turned toward doing the things one loved to do. Brooks observed how people, when they retire, often die not long afterwards because of the loss of meaningful work. I quickly turned on the tape recorder right there…

Richard Whittaker:  Is that something you think about? What are you going to do when you’re seventy, say?

Jim Brooks:  Well, I’m not going to sit in a chair. I’ll probably do the same thing I’m doing now. I’ll probably die doing the same thing.

RW:  You’re happy with what you’re doing.

JB:  Yes. Everything I do, I love doing. Otherwise, at this stage of the game, Richard, I wouldn’t do it.

RW:  A lot of people can’t say that.

JB:  I know. I’m a very lucky person; I realize that. I realize that God has blessed me with a lot of things; not monetary things; I’m a poor man. But I have my health; I have a good wife. We’ve been married for thirty-five years, and I have good animals that I need for my work.
     I’m blessed also in the thought of gaining monetary things, not worrying, you know. My folks never had any money. Nobody in my family ever had any money. The only reason my folks came here from Africa was they were dragged over here. They didn’t come willingly…

RW:  Your grandparents, their grandparents. Slaves…?

JB:  Slaves. Right. 1619. They came over in chains. But over the years, kids were born here, and now I don’t know any other country. I don’t like being called an African-American. I want to be referred to as a Black American same as you’re a White American. I went to college and everything…

RW:  Where did you go?

JB:  I went to Penn State. It’s a great university. I went to college to learn landscape design, but I didn’t do that. I figured that if I got hurt—not if, but when—I’d get into the landscape work. Well, so far, that hasn’t happened.
     I like doing what I’m doing and I think the people I deal with like what I’m doing. I mean, we wouldn’t be keeping the west, Western—my part of that anyway—if I had a job like landscape management.
     Some of the kids I teach to rope go on to become good hands. I’m talking about the West now. Some of those kids get ranches, and it adds to the economy; they’re buying and selling horses and cattle and so on.

RW:  You went to Penn State, and so what got you into cowboying?

JB:  I was into cowboying since I was a little kid, but there was no way or means to follow my dream. At least, I didn’t think so. I’m telling you, this fellow God, we’ve got up there—I hope you’re not an atheist. [smiles]

RW:  No. It’s okay with me if you talk about God.

JB:  I’m not a religious nut, now—by no means—but I believe this fellow God up there has a plan for everybody. I had no means of any kind to do what I’m doing. But whenever I want to do something—Richard, it’s weird how it happens, but it happens!

RW:  Really?

JB:   I kid you not! I’m just a cowboy, you know. I don’t have enough money to hobnob with these guys I’m with up here at the festival, but whatever I want to do, it just happens! I just do it! The same with cowboying. There have been lots of times where I shouldn’t have been doing what I’m doing, but He intervened and gave me the opportunity, and I’m doing it! I could have been standing on the corner selling drugs, or burglarizing your house.

RW:  Where did you grow up as a kid?

JB:  I was born in Georgia in Brooks County. That’s in south central Georgia down near the Florida line. I think the fellow who owned a plantation down there probably had some influence, and they probably named the county after him. Well, my folks worked for him. We didn’t have any names, you know. When we left the plantation after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, why they kept the name: Brooks. There are a lot of “Brooks” coming out of Georgia down there.
     During the civil rights days or before that, the Blacks in Florida, Alabama and Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina—when they went north, they went to New York or New Jersey. Now Black people in Mississippi and parts of Alabama and New Orleans, when they go north, they go to Chicago. I’ll give an example: Louis Armstrong. People who live in Texas, in that part of the country, they go west to California. See how that happens?
     So when my folks left the south, they went to New York, but my family ended up in Pennsylvania. So I spent my childhood years in Pennsylvania on a farm up there.

RW:  So you were on a farm?

JB:  It was a great farm! It was a Quaker farm, and the Quaker people took an interest in me because I was a tenant and I worked real hard. First, my dad worked for them, then, as I grew up and got a little bigger, I did things like mow the lawn and clean the stalls. Finally they realized I liked animals and could handle them. Well, they kind of adopted me and I became like a second son in the family.
     They also had this nursery, meaning trees and plants, and they wanted me to learn how to do that. So along with an athletic scholarship and their help, that’s how I got to Penn State. But I didn’t follow up on that because I didn’t want to stay back there.

RW:  You didn’t follow up on the athletic thing either.

JB:  Oh no! I didn’t want to play football. I was seventeen when I graduated from high school and I had some relatives in Montana. I went out to see them and once I got out here, that was it! I didn’t want to do anything else except cowboying: punch cows, rodeo and that kind of thing.

RW:  So it was in Montana where you first started doing cowboy work.

JB:  South Dakota, Montana, in that area there. I went to work on ranches and I never looked back.

RW:  You said when you were working for the Quakers that they saw you had a knack with animals.

JB:  Yes, and they encouraged that. They worked with horses a lot. Every Sunday morning we would drive to meeting. We didn’t take a car. Sometimes, in bad weather, the old folks would take a car, but the rest of us would just get in the carriage and…

RW: …it was horse drawn!

JB:  Yes. Ride in the carriage and go to meeting.

RW:  So you grew up in the Quaker church.

JB:  Yes. You bet!

RW:  Now, they’re very quiet, right?

JB:  Very quiet!

RW:  They just wait until someone feels something, right?

JB:  That’s right. You don’t say anything. You just go to meeting. Of course, you shake everyone’s hands; you don’t even say anything when you shake hands; you just go inside and sit there. You have your own thoughts about God, and whenever you feel like saying something, you just stand up and say it. When you get done, you sit down and someone else might get up and say something.
     The meeting is an hour long, and at the end you get up and you can start talking about things. Of course, the elders will have their meeting afterwards, a business meeting.
     See, that fit me, as far as wanting to be a cowboy, because nobody is telling me what to do. Whatever’s there, you take advantage of it. If you don’t want to take advantage of it, you don’t have to. I thought, man, what a great religion!

RW:  I’ve never attended a Quaker meeting, but it always sounded appealing.

JB:  It’s a great religion. I’m not downing anybody else’s religion, but I don’t like to be preached to. I don’t like some guy to tell me fire and brimstone! My folks were Baptist, you know. They would go to church Sunday morning and the preacher would preach to them and talk about hell and burning fire. Next thing you know they got the choir going and  people are falling out, fainting all over the place. It’s a mess.

RW:  I’ve been to a couple of those, and you could get a lot of good feeling from that.

JB:  Well, yes, you do. But the problem with that is that you don’t have your own thoughts; you’re listening to someone else and you are reacting to what they say. You’ve got other people’s thoughts in your head. But, in a Quaker meeting, you just have your own thoughts. To this day I’ll be sitting and thinking about God, thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong; putting my own thoughts into it, and it seems to work alright.

RW:  Well, I guess if you’re given the space where you can kind of wait for something, that might be part of it.

JB:  It is! If you force something, it’s not going to happen. I think our lives are programmed, and whatever we’re supposed to do, that’s what’s going to happen. If you try to force it one way or another, I think that’s what screws things up. Every morning when I wake up, I always say, “well, let’s see—I wonder what’s going to happen today?”
     I’m telling you Richard, sometimes when it comes to getting hay for the horses, or something like that, I don’t have a nickel to my name. I say, “Well, let’s see. How am I going to get this money?” Every time it comes through! I don’t know how it happens! My God is right here. He’s always with me. And riding horses? When I was riding rough string horses…

RW:  What kind of horses?

JB:  Rough string horses. They’re the bad horses on the ranches. When some of these ranchers would see me coming with this black face, “Oh boy, here he comes! We’ll put him on the horse no one else wants to ride” —or can ride, you know. I don’t know how I managed. I’m telling you, horses would fall down with me on their back—I’ve got a picture right here. [a photo of Brooks on a bucking horse falling over backwards with him still astride] This is the kind of stuff that I’m telling you about. See this horse that’s about to fall over on me?

RW:  Wow! I see it.

JB:  Isn’t that something? I know some guys who have had a horse fall over on them like that; they can’t even walk now; broke every bone in their body. Me, I mean I’ve had lots of them fall over like that.
     I was riding the rough string. I learned how to do it. What you do is you crawl up the horse’s neck. I don’t know how I learned that. You crawl up his neck and if anything hits you when they fall over, it’s just the head.

RW:  That’s an amazing photo. It’s not likely you’d get a photo of yourself just at that moment.

JB:  Exactly. This little gal took this picture. Her name was Tony. She was a town girl. We were out on this ranch, and that day she wanted to go along. It was like running round-up, I said. So she come along and she took that picture right there and she sent me the picture! I never saw her again after that.
     When I was riding horses like that, horses stepping in gopher holes, horses bucking, bucking through barbed wire fences, bucking off the side of mountains, hills and things—I never got hurt. I mean, I’d get a scrape and a bump.

RW:  And that happened to you quite a few times.

JB:   All the time! The only horses I’d get to ride to punch cows was whole strings of those horses.

RW:  That sounds like a tough deal. You’d have a hard time because you were new on a ranch, but how much of it—I’ve heard that ranch life, cowboying, was one of the areas in our culture where there were a lot fewer racial problems, because there are Anglos, Hispanics, a tradition of Black cowboys, even Hawaiian, but how did that work out for you? I mean, you must have faced those things.

JB:  Everything you say is true, but most of the time you don’t have all those people in the same place. Most of the time you’re with the White cowboys. Every once in a while you’ll see an Indian cowboy on a ranch. You don’t see them too much, and of course, Hawaiians are in Hawaii.
     In my whole life, I’ve worked with only two other Black cowboys. That’s all, and they were twenty years apart. So it’s mostly White boys you work with and, of course, most of them are damned good guys. All they want you to do is hold your end up. If you hold your end up, there’s no problem.
     The problem comes when the socializing starts—when you’re around the women, you know. When I was punching cows, some of them didn’t like that. Some of them thought that Blacks should stay with Blacks. I don’t know how they’re thinking today, but I don’t care about that. That’s where the trouble would start. Right there. That would bring all this up, you know, “Blacks this and Blacks that.” It’s in their mind.
     It’s like a wolf. If you get him when his eyes are open, he’s always going to be a wolf. If you get him when the pup still has his eyes closed, then you can train him to do different things. That’s the way it is with prejudice. If kids grow up with that—they might control it really good until something happens, or when they get drunk. That’s when a lot of problems happen.
     From being raised in the Quaker religion, I learned that you never take advantage of a drunk person. So whenever they would get drunk and start doing that stuff, I would never say anything, but if they were sober, they’d have an ass-kicking coming.
     But yes, the prejudice and bias was there and it’s always going to be there. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s always going to be there because that’s just the way it is.

RW:  Fear of the other. All this projection.

JB:  Yes. Even among the rich people, highly educated people, there’s that prejudice. It’s there, but they’re smart enough where they can keep it under wraps, and it never comes out. But with the person who’s not that highly educated, the person who has a problem with what he’s going to do tomorrow for money, it’ll come out a lot easier.
     Some people think that it’s only white people who are prejudiced. Being Black, I know a lot of Black people who are prejudiced, too. Stupid stuff.

RW:  Well, I’m curious because I’ve heard about Black cowboys and here you are! Now I wanted to hear more about your knack for relationship with animals.

JB:  Well, I seem to get along with them good. I’m talking about horses and cows and things like that, now. I have a way with them, I guess. That’s what they say.
     Breaking and training a horse, for instance, that a lot of people have trouble getting going, I don’t seem to have that. Don’t get me wrong, it takes me a little while to get him to do what I want him to do, but if you’re patient enough and let him know you’re not going to hurt him, he’ll do what I want him to do. This horse here, for example, [pointing to the photo he showed earlier] he fell over and tried to kill me, but then once I got him on his feet and got him going, you know, he was a good horse that day. Even though he was a bronc, he did what I wanted him to do.
     Now a lot of guys you see riding rough string horses out on the range, all they do is ride the horse. They don’t do anything else. They ride the horse and maybe push a cow or something, but when I was riding them, I got work out of them. I’d rope off of them, I’d cut cattle off of them. They were my horses; they were the horses I used.
     They’d laugh at me saying “look at him riding that no-good horse,” and I’d say to them, “the worst horse in the cavvy”—which is the herd of the cowboys’ horses—“the worst horse in there is usually the best horse in my string.” Whatever they gave me, those are what I’d get my job done with. That’s how I learned to rope and cut cattle; on bad horses.

RW:  Say more about how the worst horse on the string was your best horse.

JB:  The herd of horses in buckaroo country is called a “cavvy.” Buckaroo country is all of the states west of the Rocky Mountains. The states east of the Rocky Mountains is cowboy country.
“Buckaroo” comes from the Spanish word vaquero. It has that California influence, that Mexican influence, from the western, Pacific side of Mexico. On the western side they kept the Spanish flavor, the big tapaderos, fancy silver on the saddle and so on.
When we put the horses in a herd east of the Rocky Mountains, in the cowboy country, that’s called a remuda. West of the Rocky Mountains, the herd of horses is called cavvy. Within that herd, the cowboy gets his string; they get from six to ten horses, most of the time.

RW:  Does that mean all ten, let’s say, are your horses?

JB:  All ten, as long as I’m working for that outfit. If there’s ten cowboys working for the ranch, then the number of horses in the remuda, or the cavvy, is one hundred, see. You have extra horses, too. If you’ve got a wagon, you have to have wagon horses. So sometimes you have a herd of two hundred, three hundred head of horses.

RW:  But I still don’t understand why the worst in the cavvy is your best horse.

JB:  Okay. The worst horse in the cavvy is the horse that nobody else can ride, or don’t want to ride. Well, my horses are all that way. My whole string, ten head, They’re all that way. They’re all broncs, see? So the worst ones in the cavvy are the best ones in my string. They’re the only ones in my string, see? [laughs]

RW:  Does it ever happen that maybe some of those bad horses really are better when you get on their good side?

JB:  Well, sure. Yes. When they throw a first rough horse into your string, the reason they put him there is because somebody else has screwed him up. He’s bucked people off, he’s fell on them, he’s kicked them. I’ll just use myself as the principle character here; they put him in my string. Well, he don’t know me. He don’t know nothing about me, but he knows I’m a human. He knows he’s going to fix my wagon as soon as he gets a chance.
     So you have to read him first, find out what his whole game is. If he’s a horse when I go up to catch him, he wants to paw me with his foot, I put a rope around his feet and hobble him. That’s the first thing I do, just hobble him with a rope. You don’t want to bend down to put a short hobble on him to do that because he’ll paw you; hit you in the head.
     You just take a rope, see like here, flip it like that behind his front feet and just back him up. He’ll step into the rope, and then you’ve got his front feet. Most range horses, once you put a rope on his feet, he’ll just stand right there. If he don’t, then you just let him go and then you yank on him or dally around a snubbing post, and it throws him down. But usually he’ll stand there and so you go ahead and start bridling him, saddling him, and if he tries anything else, well, you have to counter that, too. If he tries to bite you, you have to snatch him around, or get a stick and you might have to pop him a little to let him know, “hey, don’t do that!” But as soon as he stops, you leave him alone. If you keep fooling with a horse, especially if it’s hurting him, that’s abuse. So if you’re not hurting them, pretty soon they figure “Oh, this old boy, if I do this, he’s going to put me on the ground, but if I do this, he’s going to pat me on the neck.”

RW:  Would you say that you develop a relationship?

JB:  You do. Here’s a story about a horse named Bay Bud. I wrote a song about this horse. This was on the Key Line Ranch in Wyoming. The Key Line Ranch needed a rough string rider.
     I was hanging around in Newcastle, Wyoming looking for a job and this old boy come along and said he had a job at the Key Line Ranch. This was the only time I’d been out of a job; it’d been three days. I was sleeping down at the fairgrounds every night in my bedroll and going up to the cafe. You could get a meal for a couple of bucks back in those days. You have to wait around town until somebody comes in. So I’m hanging around and someone comes in and asks if I wanted a job. He said, “We got some horses for you to ride.”
     So I go out there and they’ve got this string of horses, sure enough. They were rough string horses. The others wouldn’t ride them. At first there were six of them. I started riding them and was doing my job on them, but there was just this one horse, this bay horse; Bud. We called him “Bay Bud.” He was a thoroughbred, a gelding, and kind of a dangerous looking horse. No nonsense. He didn’t fool at all. He didn’t like you to pet him, none of that kind of stuff. He’d try to buck you off. He just didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with anybody. Just “feed me and leave me alone!” So that’s what I did.
     Every time I climbed him, he’d try to buck me off. He wasn’t bad other than that. He wasn’t a kicker. He’d let you saddle him and he’d let you climb on him, but he’d buck, now. I mean, he could buck you off. He bucked me off a couple of times. [laughs]
Anyway, one day I’m a-riding him out there in this big open. It’s cactus and grass out there in Wyoming. Wyoming looks like it’s all grass, but underneath all that grass is a whole heap of that prickly pear cactus! So I’m a-riding this old pony out there and we’re making a big circle and heading back to camp. I don’t know what happened, but the next thing I know, I’m in the air. Now I’m on my back in the grass with cactus sticking in my rump, and he’s gone! “Oh man!”
     I’m wearing boots with three-inch heels so my feet won’t get stuck in the stirrups, because there’s nothing out there except antelope and deer, and I got my big batwing chaps on. Camp is ten or fifteen miles away, and it’s already afternoon. I figured I got to walk all the way back to camp and by the time I’d get there, it’d probably be midnight. You can’t walk very fast in those boots; have to take tiny little steps.
     Well, I walk over this hill and I see this horse standing down there in this little valley. Up on the hill, I notice there are a bunch of wild horses. They’re looking down at this gelding down there, and the gelding is looking up at them. All I can think is, “Well, he’s going on towards home, so the only thing I can do, is head on down towards him.”
     So I head on down and he spots me right away, up on the hill. I figured, well, he’s going to high-tail it. But as I got closer, he just stands there. I get closer, and he’s still standing there. Closer and closer. He walks around a little bit, his head up and blowin’ a little bit, but he’s not running off. So when I got close enough I started saying “Whoa, boy. Whoa boy.” And sure enough, Richard, he stood right there and let me walk up to him and catch him! I climbed on him, and with the cactus, ooohh man!—but anyway I rode him on in.
     To make a long story short, after that—now this is the truth!—after that, I don’t remember that horse ever bucking me again. I mean, he was still a bronc. You didn’t fool with him. Sometimes, when I’d saddle him up, he’d hump, but he never did buck with me anymore. It’s a true story.

RW:  That’s an interesting story, too.

JB:  It was just another cowboy story to me, and then I got to telling it and I thought, you know, that’s very interesting. That horse never ran off, and he never bucked me anymore. And I worked for that outfit a time or two after that.

RW:  Every now and then you hear a story that makes you wonder if there isn’t more going on than we really understand.

JB:  I know there is! There ain’t no atheist that’s a cowboy, and if he tells you he’s an atheist, he’s a liar! There’s too much stuff that goes on out there! There’s all kinds of things with the animals, with the cattle, going on out there. Little calves finding their mothers or getting lost from their mothers and other cattle taking them in. Sometimes a mother will leave the calves to go to water and a big old steer will stay and watch the calves. All kinds of stuff like that.

RW:  I used to play fetch with my neighbor’s dog, Kpoly, a big, fast dog and he’d fetch as long as I wanted to keep throwing. One day I came home and stopped at my mailbox at the top of this long driveway. I spotted him about forty yards away just sitting there watching me. For some reason, I thought to myself, “I’ll just make the smallest move in my body towards the throwing position and keep moving little by little to see when Kpoly gets the message. I wondered how soon that would be. So my first movement was as small as I could possibly make it, almost no movement at all, but at that very instant that dog practically exploded into the ready position! I’m ready boss! It really shocked me because I had no idea such a tiny movement could be perceived at all.

JB:   You can’t ride a horse and have him help you if there’s no body perception. You can’t always move your hands, because you might have your hands full of something. So you use your feet, or you use your body, just lean. They read all that. Another thing. Animals read your mind, too. Your mind comes through your body. If you’re a flighty person, your horse will be the same way. If you’re a nice calm person, your horse will be the same way, because everything comes through. Your mind comes through your body. So that dog—you didn’t have to do this [making an arm gesture]—he saw what you did, and he was ready for you.
     Animals… You know, you don’t have to be mean to an animal. I’ve never been mean to an animal just to be mean, but I’ll tell you what, I have been firm with animals; otherwise I wouldn’t be walking around.

RW:  I’ve heard that in the buckaroo tradition there’s great pride in their horsemanship. I’m guessing that one thing that means is that the horse doesn’t have to be manhandled, so to speak.

JB:  Yes. You’re talking about what they call the “jerk and spur method.” That’s what these horse whisperers talk about, and they blame that on the cowboy. But that’s a bunch of bull because real cowboys—and I’m not talking about these rodeo hands or these Sunday afternoon riders with their saddlebags full of beer—a real cowboy doesn’t do that.
     If I had done that to that Bay Bud horse, you think he would have waited for me? Hell no! He wouldn’t have waited! If I had done that to my rope horses that I use to make my living, you think they’d help me? Hell no! When I go to the corral to catch them, I don’t have to rope them. Before I even open the gate they see me, and here they come!
     Cowboys don’t do that kind of stuff. That’s people who don’t know what they’re doing. But things get said that make people think that’s a cowboy way of doing things. You don’t have to do that to a horse.
     If you see a horse helping a fellow and doing what he wants him to do, and there is no jumping around, that means that fellow has been humane to that horse. They work as a pair. But if you see someone who is jerking a horse’s head around and the horse is looking over this way and doesn’t want to help, that horse hasn’t been treated right.
     The real cowboy is not abusive to horses, I guarantee it! I’m talking about the guy who makes his living punching cows.

RW:  I don’t doubt it. Now I was curious about your music. How did you get into music?

JB:  When I was a kid my granddad used to put me in front of him on a big old draft horse. Down there in Georgia, my folks were sharecroppers, the last generation to be sharecroppers. Anyway, my granddad every once in a while would be riding this big old horse, and he’d put me up in front of him.
     That’s the only thing I remember from when I was a tiny kid, and it was the greatest thing in the world! And as I grew up, I started watching these Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies. Of course, I saw Trigger and Champion and I couldn’t wait to get home to ride my granddad’s horse. And remember, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were singers, too.

RW:  Oh, yes, that’s right.

JB:  And Rex Allen and Jimmy Wakely. So everything just kind of fused together. As I got older, I started listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. That’s the only thing they tried to discourage me from doing. They said, “Don’t be listening to that stuff. That’s White man’s music.” It was. We’re talking Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Jimmy Rodgers,  Kitty Wells. They didn’t even call it “country” music then. It was Hillbilly music. In those days, it was a big deal to have a radio. Whenever nobody was around, I’d turn that radio on and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. I wanted that country stuff, and as I got older it just got more and more so.
     What happened was, in Montana, I started going to talent contests. I’d go and I’d sing some of the songs that I’d learned. They paid two places, first and second; fifty bucks and twenty-five, something like that. A lot of those guys who would win, even in those days, would be guys who were singing rock and roll songs. I’d sing a country song or a western song, and I’d sing the best I could, but I never did win. I might not have been a very good singer.

RW:  Maybe there was some prejudice.

JB:  No. Well, it could have been. That’s always a possibility, but I didn’t think of it like that. I wasn’t going to start a riot.
     When I came to California, I started hitting the contests down there. It was the same way! It paid two places, and I never did win! So finally, I says, “well you know, I like this music so I’m going to keep it going.” I was riding horses and breaking horses and training them and working them, and one night I went up to the American Legion. This was fifteen years ago. This little band was playing. This one boy was a hell of a fiddler. He had on a hat with a whole bunch of fish hooks around it. It didn’t look Western at all. Another boy was singing and he had a hat on, but everybody else was dressed like rock and rollers.
     I thought, “I’m going to get something going here!” So after they finished their set I went over and started talking with them and finding out who they were. I asked them if they wanted to do some more music. They said, “You get some gigs, we’ll do the music.”
Whenever I found someone who wanted a band, I’d get these guys. At first, I didn’t even have a guitar. I’d just go and sing with them. Now I strum the rhythm guitar, too. There were four of us at the beginning. We started getting more gigs. The next thing you know, I said, “We need to name this band.” They said “What are you going to name it?” I said, “The Ranch Hands,” and they agreed. Finally, the lead singer got in trouble with his mortgage and just walked out. So I started singing, and the next thing you know, I’m fronting the band. It’s been going like that since ’89. I’m the head of the band.

RW:  That’s about sixteen years.

JB:  Yes. And now, we’re up here at the festival! We make CDs and everything. I don’t know how long this is going to last, Richard, but that’s how it got started. Then I started writing songs back in about 1995, and now I’ve written about three or four hundred of them. I’ve had some play on the radio. I’ve had a bunch of them played in Australia. They love me in Australia!
     When I first got started, we made cassettes and some old gal in England ordered one. I sent it to her and she in turn sent it to a friend in Australia, Shootie Gert who runs a station down in Melbourne. Shootie writes to me and asks if I have any more. I just happened to have finished one so I sent that down, and I’ve been sending her stuff ever since. What I like about the whole thing is that the musicians like the songs. I’m tickled about that.
     So that’s how I got into music, right there. And to me, right now, playing here at the Cowboy Poetry Festival is like Carnegie Hall!

RW:  I can understand that.

JB:   You have to take it in steps. It’s like getting my gold card in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

RW:  Now tell me again about the gold card.

JB:  See to start rodeoing, first you have to get what is called a “permit.” It allows you to participate in certain rodeos; little rodeos. You buy it for a hundred and fifty or two hundred bucks and you have to win a thousand dollars before you can become a full-fledged member of the rodeo association. Once you get to be a full-fledged member, then, after you’ve won a certain amount of money, you become a lifetime member. Then you get your gold card.
     Some guys don’t think that’s a big deal, but you’re up against the very best rodeo hands in the world. I tell them, “Try to win just one dollar in there against those guys!” [Brooks pulls his wallet out and fishes his gold card out] That’s it right there.
     See, you can go to a lot of rodeos and not win any money because everybody is faster than you are or better than you are. What I had to do is go back to the ranch again, work and punch cows until I got my next paycheck and could go to another rodeo. Or maybe it was round-up time and I might not be able to go. Then I’d go to another rodeo and hopefully, I’d win something. If I won something, then I’d go to another one, and another and another. But if I didn’t win anything, then I’d just have to stay on the ranch.
     Well, some guys have so much money, from their sponsor or their parents or something, they can just go from rodeo to rodeo. Those are the guys you see on TV. You don’t see a lot of cowboys on there, because we’ve got to work on cowboy wages. It’s not that they’re better than us, it’s just that they’ve got more money than we do.
     What I’m saying is that this [holding out the gold card] is like my world championship in the rodeo association. I had to beat some tough guys to get it.

RW:  It’s a real achievement.

JB:  I’m really tickled about this.

RW:  I’ve learned a little about how your life has unfolded, but I can also see that you have a real strong spirit, too.

JB:  Before I went to college I wasn’t sure of myself. When I spoke, I wasn’t sure I spoke the right way. But when I went to college, Richard, I could speak any way I wanted! Once I got that confidence, I just went out and talked the way I talk. Another thing is when I went to college, I was like a bull in a china shop. I’d get to table and didn’t know which fork to use and so on, so I took an Emily Post course. It’s a little tiny thing, but to me it was big, because now, I’m confident no matter where I’m at.
     Another thing I learned is that, if you’ve got an education and this door closes here, that door over there might open up. If that one doesn’t, just keep going. That next one there is going to open. I learned that I’m just as much an American as the president of the United States! If I get enough people to believe in me, I could be president! Once I learned that, man, this is the greatest country in the world! I mean that’s why I’ve got the spirit I have.
     Now don’t get me wrong, there’s always roadblocks, cliffs, and you can fall down, but if you keep going, I’ve found I’m going to be okay.
     I didn’t go to college until I was about twenty-five. I didn’t want to. I wanted to learn how to punch cows first. But when I went to college, the whole world opened up. I came back a different person.
     Now get this, I’m a cowboy from out of Montana, and we had over four hundred students in our Penn State graduating class. They made me the master of ceremonies! I ran the whole graduation thing. ∆
     
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding director of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine    

 

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