Not A Cowboy

This particular post, and the next one, is an attempt to clear some of my memories of Montana out of my head. I recently sold and gave away 2/3 of my previous life, a storage room full of memories of my time as a musician and a Montanan. The furniture and most of the tools weren’t too hard to turn loose, but the pictures, scrapbooks and paintings… the little treasures I’ve had with me for 50 years or more… not so easy. And my lifelong love of Montana has kept cropping up, to the point where I need to purge myself of its iron grip on what’s left of my memory. So here we go… please indulge me.

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Not A Cowboy!

Never was a cowboy. Never wanted to be one.

“What? Never wanted to be a cowboy? Growing up in Montana??”

Nope. I never really wanted to be a cowboy.

“Unbelievable! What kind of person/thing are you, anyway?”

I know, I know. Seems right unnatural, doesn’t it? Doesn’t everyone from Montana want to be a cowboy? Well sure, to a point. We all played cowboys and Indians when we were growing up. We did cowboy-like shit too… rode stick horses, played stick-‘em-up, hombre… bang bang, you’re dead! But we all did that, didn’t we?

Yeah, we did all that. But somehow it didn’t take, didn’t stick. I was in grade school from ’47 through ’57, when cowboys were still the thing. Oh, they still are in much of rural Montana, cows still need to be herded, roped and branded, fences still need to be mended. But the cowboy lifestyle was much more high profile than it is now. Of 20-30 of my male pals back then, not a single one became a cowboy. As tough and hard-edged as a lot of them were, ( I know, I got pounded regularly all through grade school ) they became ranchers and farmers… but not cowboys. As the saying goes, cowboys are a special breed.

Well Now, Howdy M’am

I used to enjoy telling Eastern folk that I was from Montana. Almost always they would smile and say something like, “Do you know any cowboys?” To which I’d usually smile and say something like, “Hell, I was a cowboy for awhile.”
“No!. Really? My god, that’s great! Marge! Come over here, This guys’s a real cowboy!”
I would give Marge my usual “Howdy, M’am.” To which she would often smirk and say, “You don’t look like any cowboy I’ve ever seen…”
“I understand, M’am. Y’see, we try to clean it up some when when we’re back here in the flat lands.”
“But where are your boots? Your cowboy hat? I thought all cowboys wore cowboy hats…”
“Well now, we mostly do when we’re workin’, but it don’t seem polite to wear dirty boots in pleasant company, you know, the smells and all, so we leave our hats, boots and chaps back at the ranch.”
“Wait! Chaps??” ( We pronounce them “shaps” in Montana )
“That’s right. You’ve heard of them, and seen them in movies, right?”
Nervous laugh. “Well, yes… but I guess I never thought that cowboys really wear them… they look uncomfortable.”
“Oh no, they’re not. They protect our legs from all kinds of nasty, uh, stuff. I don’t usually leave the barn without them.”

“Chaps” is derived from the Spanish word chaparehos, which meant leather britches or “legs of iron”.
I put a pair on only once. They were heavy and my legs got hot right away. I couldn’t wait to get them off, but I understand their protection factor. If you’re branding, or even riding through sage brush or cactus, they quickly become your best friend.

In truth, I did have a horse one summer. The local mortician had me take care of his horse, Chief, for the summer, saying I could ride him any time I wanted, as long as I kept him fed, watered and groomed. I didn’t think much of the feeding and grooming part, but Chief and I became pals, and I ended up enjoying riding him around town and taking care of him. That summer went way too quickly.

Cowboys frequently came into our bar, as our little town was smack in the middle of some serious cattle country of SW Montana. I knew a few of them while growing up there… they were, and are definitely a culture all their own. Watch Yellowstone, they’ve got it right. Wild, rough and often lonely, cowboys loved the land and usually understood it better than the rest of us. Cowboys have always been big on freedom, and if you’ve ever been in Big Sky Country, you’ll get the draw. It’s big, strong, wildly free and open, and has everything a good cowboy could want… except people. Hell, even that can be a positive…

Don’t Fence Me In

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever, but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the Western skies
On my Cayuse
Let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
– Cole Porter

Okay, so I digress, but this time on purpose. You see, Cole Porter was perhaps the best, most creative song writer of his time. (1891 – 1964). He and Richard Rogers are my two favorites. Some believe Cole wrote “Don’t Fence Me In” on a dare to write a cowboy tune, but that’s not true. “Don’t Fence Me In” was based on text by Robert (Bob) Fletcher, a poet and engineer with the Department of Highways in Helena, Montana. Cole Porter, who had been asked to write a cowboy song for the 20th Century Fox musical, bought the poem from Fletcher for $250. Porter reworked Fletcher’s poem, and when the song was first published, Porter was credited with sole authorship. Porter had wanted to give Fletcher co-authorship credit, but his publishers did not allow it.

Cole Porter began to achieve success in the 1920s, and by the 1930s he was one of the major songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Unlike many successful Broadway composers, Porter wrote the lyrics, as well as the music, for his songs. As I said, he’s one of my all-time favorite composers, who wrote “I Love Paris,” “Night And Day,” “You Do Something To Me,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “All Of You,” Just One Of Those Things,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love),” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” and my fave, “True Love.” You know, that song Bing Crosby sang to Grace Kelly in the movie, “High Society.” Loved that movie, too, but “True Love” always tears me up.

There, You see? Still Not A Cowboy

And now you’ve found me out. Yes, I was a song writer once. But never a cowboy. There was a time when I actually thought I might be something of a mountain man, but never a cowboy. Not even in my wildest dreams. There are those back East who still call me “Cowboy,” but it’s just a nickname, a tongue-in-cheek nickname. D.J. Quinn took me out on his fine ranch back in Montana one afternoon to repair some of his barbed wire fence. He showed me how, and I guess I was doing well enough when some guy rode up on the other side of his fence on a 4-wheeler, stopped and asked D.J.,”What the hell you guys doing?
D.J. looked up at him, then in his low gruff voice, “Teachin’ Hulse here how to mend fence.”
The other guy snorted. “Good luck with that,” and rode off.

I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande
But my legs ain’t bowed and my cheeks ain’t tanned
I’m a cowboy who never saw a cow
Never roped a steer cause I don’t know how
Sure ain’t a fixin’ to start in now
Yippee yi yo Kayay
Yippee yi yo kayac

I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande
And I learned to ride, ride, ride ‘fore I learned to stand
I’m a ridin’ fool who is up to date
I know every trail in the Lone Star State
Cause I ride the range in a Ford V8
Yippee ki yo kayay
Yippee ki yo kayay

I’m an old cowhands from the Rio Grande
And I come to town just to hear the band
I know all the songs that the cowboys know
‘Bout the Big Corral where the doggies go
‘Cause I learned them all on the radio
Yippee ki yo kayay
Yippee ki yo kayay

Strange as it might seem, there were some perks to growing up in Montana, especially when you leave it. Being from Montana has always been a distinguishing element of one’s character, especially at house parties or cocktail parties back east. You don’t need to wear an expensive suit or sport a foreign accent to stick out or at least be noticed. One whisper of “See that guy over there? He’s from Montana…” is all it takes. Occasionally it felt like the wrong time and place, especially when I was in “jazz piano man ” mode and some wise ass would say something like, “How does someone learn to play jazz in Montana??” Over time, I overheard just a little too much of that crap.

Back then Montana, for all its cowboy and mountain man culture, was a fairly wide-open state of mind that would allow, even assist, a young man to become anything he wanted to be… as long as it was honest and honorable. Arts were not a big priority for many Montanans, but it was tolerated, indulged, and even occasionally appreciated. I caught a ton of shit in school for being a tap dancer. Piano players were tolerated, but even then I lost a few teeth in college there, just because I was a piano player. What the hell, they say it builds character, right?

In self defense, however, I feel that Montana instilled in me the “almost” ability to be a bonafide mountain man. No, really! I was maybe one fifth of the way there from time to time. I could catch fish, clean and eat it over a campfire. I could sleep outside in the mountains overnight. But the other, more important stuff? Eh, forget it. I couldn’t kill anything larger than a fish, skin it and eat it; I couldn’t fight an animal with a knife, which almost all of them had to do from time to time. I couldn’t live for months at a time out there, hah, no way. So like I said, about one fifth. Not bad for a jazz piano player, eh?

I guess it’s about time we get to the bottom line of all this falderal, right? If I were you, I’d be thinking, “Okay, you’ve told us what you think a cowboy is and what a cowboy isn’t… what’s the point of it all?”
To which I reply, “Probably little to nothing, mon frere. Perhaps nothing more than a little self analysis, which I always enjoy; a cathartic ride through the sagebrush of my memory, with perhaps a small sprinkling of the old Montana culture you might not have been aware of. Aside from that, the whole spiel might say and do nothing more than highlight our potential for dual personalities, or at the very least, define the sometimes vast difference in who we wanted to be with who we became. A little self-reflection in that regard might prove interesting, right?

For me, regardless of my early dreams and ambitions, it seems, in hindsight, that I was born to be a musician and composer. Luckily I stumbled out of my beloved Montana and into that line of work, which turned out to be probably the one and only profession in life that I could be successful at. To become what we do best, to do what our hearts gravitate to, is a blessing beyond words. I have never, for a moment, regretted my life in music. And never have I regretted, for even a moment, that I am not a cowboy!

Steve Hulse