How the West Was Lost

Though I am a Virginia Kid, the West has always had a huge impact on my life.  My parents were both born in the West, my dad had exclusively lived in the West, while only partially for my mon.  They lived in the West as newlyweds and had myself and my three siblings all in the West.  We moved to Virginia when I was eight and I definitely call myself a Virginian first, but there is still something about the West that calls to me.  We were an odd family, for many reasons, but one of which we lived in the suburbs of Washington D.C. but we raised horses and in high school it was rare to see me not dressed in Wranglers, boots, a hat, and even a good-sized belt buckle.  I grew out of that phase in my life.  I mean literally, I learned Wranglers fit skinny cowboys much better than me and I got tired of my buckle digging into my gut.  I still love a good cowboy hat, but my favorite one was stolen in Texas and I have not replaced it.  I live in Oklahoma now which is a strange combination of Western and Southern, depending on who you ask, I don’t see it as either.  I visit the West whenever I can.  I love the South, but I somehow just feel happy as soon as I start seeing the white aspen trees.  Yet not growing up in the West, I had to get my West from other sources.  For me it was most notably from the songs and the stories.

I was raised on John Wayne.  I think I have seen every one of his movies, and some of them so many times I can probably quote every line.  I have also read many a page from Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone.  However, for me the greatest western storyteller is Larry McMurtry. I watched Lonesome Dove before I ever read it, but I fell in love with them both.  The story was captivating, and the characters of Captains Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae are now legendary.  Their portrayals by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall if added to Val Kilmer’s “Doc” Holliday and John Wayne’s as, well, himself, would have to be the Mount Rushmore of Western Characters.   His stories are not happy ones, and the good guys don’t always win.  In fact, most of his characters, unlike L’Amour and Johnstone, don’t always even win the fight.  It’s hard in Lonesome Dove to have so many favorite characters unexpectantly die, but somehow that is what made the book.  In real life the good guys don’t always win.  I went on to enjoy the other books and then the movies for the two prequals and one sequel.  None of them quite as good as Lonesome Dove, but that is a lot to ask for and they were all still great stories.  The best of these movies to me is Comanche Moon.  Not only did Val Kilmer play an excellent Inish Scull, but Steve Zahn’s mannerism’s as McCrae could not have been better if done by a young Duvall himself.

Like many of his characters, McMurtry died last week.  He will leave a huge hole in western anthology.  I should say I read his The Berrybender Narratives hoping for the same magic as Lonesome Dove.  I loved a few of characters, mostly the real-life mountain men he used, but in the end, I was not a big fan of the story line.  McMurtry had other successes as well, but even if he did not, that one book and movie is enough to put him at the top of western mythology. 

Music is the other area where I think about the West.  I could write on and on about country music today and how it is hard to call what’s on the radio today country, but what we call country music is actually more southern music.  Its roots were the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers—all southerners.  What I am talking about is western music or better yet cowboy songs.  I was first introduced to these songs by the Sons of the Pioneers on a record player I had in my room.  Songs like Red River Valley, Streets of Laredo, Tumbling Tumble Weeds, and my favorite Ghost Riders in the Sky kept my brother and I entertained for hours.  These songs were made popular by Singing Cowboys and recorded by artist like Marty Robbins and more recently by Michael Martin Murphey. 

The other memory I associate with this music is in 1989 when I was fourteen.  My family drove back west to visit and one of our stops was Jackson Hole, WY.  Jackson was still a tourist town back then, but not so built up and commercial as it is today.  That night my parents took us to the Bar-J Ranch where we ate a chuck wagon meal and listened to the Bar-Jar Wranglers.  It was one of the most entertaining nights of my life.  The food was great, and those four men harmonized those old songs as well as I have ever heard.  I love that place.  I own several albums and listen to them often, or as much as my family will allow.  I took my wife there when we were first married and a couple years ago, I took my kids.  There is nothing as fun as seeing your kids enjoy an experience you had at the same age.  It’s a place I could visit every year. 

Unfortunately, I just found out that this summer will be the last for the now six Bar-J Wranglers. I instantly made my summer plans to visit the ranch for a last time. I am saddened by their retirement.  I honestly had thought I could one day take my grandkids there and get to experience it anew one more time and hopefully keep these old songs alive.  Its hard in a year to see many important things slip away.  I hope we can keep the old west alive, or at least what one of my old professors Elliot West called, the West of the Imagination.  At least we will always have McMurtry’s stories and the Bar-J’s recordings so that hopefully the West will never truly die. 

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