By Wallace McRae. (Gibbs Smith Publishers, 2009. P.O. Box 667, Layton, UT 84041) www.gibbs-smith.com 168 pp. Cloth $19.99
It is difficult to be objective reviewing this attractively bound collection of short stories without some pride in the evolution of cowboy poetry since the mid-1980s, within which Wallace McRae has been a major influence and mainstay. And though there are several published collections of short stories on the genre’s bookshelves, STICK HORSES will be what future collections will be measured against, in part because of his accomplished storytelling style, but also because of his authentic insight.
McRae cements his background with great characters such as “Wilkie”, a Frost-like ‘Hired Man’ with a penchant for alcohol who came and went from the ranch without the formality of being ‘hired or fired’ when McRae was a boy. Whether enjoying the tender awkwardness of his relationship with Cheyenne neighbor “Albert Tallbull” or laughing through “Census” taken to extreme and ridiculous hyperbole, McRae is an excellent storyteller. And not all the stories are humorous, not all questions answered as in ‘Trespassing’ which harkens back to much of McRae’s poetry that confesses and examines certain idiosyncrasies of ranch life.
Storytelling is a lost art for many obvious reasons, but these valuable antidotes tell who we are by where we’ve come from. These tales are full of common sense and a once common rural ethic that has been lost to most all of us with progress. And though these stories may be a window to understanding for urban academics and outsiders, a glimpse of a culture past, this collection may be more important for those still living in rural settings as McRae validates a cast of characters from a lifestyle that is truly and uniquely ours. Thank you, Wally.
By Tom Russell. (Shout Factory LLC, 2009. 2042-A Armacost Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90025) CD $15.99 www.tomrussell.com
I have to smile with Tom Russell’s recent journey away from sure ballad-making with his new CD “Blood and Candle Smoke” on the Shout Factory label. This introspective collection of twelve tracks is perhaps more like orchestrated poetry, certainly more subdued and cryptic than any of his twenty albums since the 70s. All of these tracks are the caliber of songs that will grow on you, becoming richer with each successive listening. And that is the test at this juncture, I think, not whether a Nashville hook line will sell a million copies in six months.
Perhaps I misjudge the music buying public, but Tom may lose a fan or two with this one, yet I’m quite pleased that he continues to explore thought-provoking territory where he will gain even more diverse fans over time, a natural evolution that begs the question, “Do we in our 60s have something (left) to impart, something to leave behind?”
This personal excursion is not light listening, boys (and girls), each track full of pregnant and relevant phrases, expertly and consistently mixed and recorded to enhance the subject matter of each that range from the love song “Finding You” to the more prophetic “Mississippi River Running Backwards” – truly a complete work of art. I enjoyed every single song, especially “Nina Simone”, “Guadalupe”, “Crosses of San Carlos” and “East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam”.
Because there are some rich lines here that really need to be reread and savored, the liner notes and lyrics are deftly placed inside the CD cover. Though fresh and contemporary, all of the uniqueness of Tom Russell’s singing and songwriting style is embodied in this superb collection of songs, a distilled concentrate that should endure for a long time.
By John Reedy. (Twisted Cowboy Music, 2007. 2905 N. Montana Avenue #113, Helena, MT 59601) CD & book. $25.00 www.twistedcowboy.com
Though not fresh off the presses, TWISTED VIGNETTES is new to Dry Crik. The songs on the CD ($13) can be purchased separately from the book of Poems & Photographs ($15), different offerings under the same title at the link above. But order the Limited Edition of both and save three bucks if you want to grin while reading and listening to some of the most original contemporary work in the cowboy genre.
Six of the twelve tracks included on this CD were written by John Reedy, the remainder are covers of songs from the likes of Merle Haggard, Tom Russell & Paul Zarzyski, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen. From the truck-driving tempo and guitar licks of “Buckaroo Girl” to the bluesy cover of Julie Miller’s “Midnight and Lonesome” to the rock ‘n roll tribute to his ’57 Chevy pickup, “Environmental Muscle Truck”, John Reedy exhibits an eclectic style and musical range that kept my attention clear to the end. When the rating on iTunes popped up, I had to give it Five Stars for originality and for craft rooted in this lifestyle. You won’t be bored with this one.
Reedy’s poetry and black & white photographs are appropriately bound together in a CD-sized book. His more minimalist style tends to pivot on irrefutable rural ironies that Reedy shapes into humor more often than not, proving that there can be humor in the open forms and that it’s more a matter of perspective and control than it is the form that includes, or precludes, humor in poetry.
scoured by chinooks
twenty-four hour snow removal
shaking our trailer house
to its lack of foundation.
Furthermore, his ironies are select, homegrown moments as exemplified in the following poem:
Left squirming at the other end of silence,
walking back wondering what it was this time.
Did he rant too much about the sprawl or
how the country has changed or
how cold people seem and
how this breaks his heart,
rips his soul apart,
kills his spirit…
Addicted to connection through conversation,
skilled in the moment they’d quit him,
but unable to stop or change direction,
he’d ramble long after the door slammed –
they’d have to get goin’,
feed the dogs,
hit the road…
Maybe he should have listened more,
tucked in his shirt
talked about the weather.
Perhaps what I admire most about his poetry is that as a poet he’s relaxed and doesn’t seem to take himself or the work too seriously. It’s accessible. John Reedy has also rekindled my appreciation for black & white photography, his shade and contrast that lend more clarity over most common color prints, but with an occasional jester’s eye. Whether you see John in person at Elko 2010 or visit his website, his work is a refreshing departure from the standard cowboy fare.