You just never know

I love the work of Charlie Russell so I was delighted to see a wonderful article in the Winter 2021 issue of RANGE Magazine by Randy Rieman called “The Cowboy Artist” that showed several of Russell’s letters to friends that he illustrated. Russell wrote hundreds of such letters to cowboys, Indians, actors, artists and patrons. In many cases he even did colorful drawings on the envelopes that the illustrated letters came in. I’ve seen several of these letters in museums and art auction catalogs and in some cases they’ve sold for more than Russell’s oils or bronzes.

Can you imagine receiving such a letter? I sincerely hope none were thrown in the trash!

The RANGE article reminded me of something. I’ve always been a BIG fan of country/western music. While my classmates were listening to the Beetles and Rolling Stones I was enjoying Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc. So it meant a lot to me when years ago I got a call from John Dickson, the Texas based music promoter who stages the best Texas music festival called MusicFest. (Except it’s held in Colorado.) It’s probably the biggest music festival in the state despite a capped attendance of 6,000 lucky folks who spend the week in Steamboat Springs skiing and listening to 50 bands on a dozen stages. After three decades MusicFest has become the largest annual group ski trip in the nation.

I don’t know how John found me but he asked if I would write the welcome and introduction in the magazine that served as the program to MusicFest. The best part of the deal wasn’t the generous check, or the magazine with my intro in it that John sent me, but a two disc CD called “Undone” that featured the best musical highlights of that year’s MusicFest. All the songs were written by Texas legend Robert Earl Keen. That’s when I discovered and fell in love with what is now referred to as “Texas music.” Ground zero for the country/western music I like isn’t Nashville… it’s Austin Texas. The Undone CD was also the first time I heard my now favorite band, Reckless Kelly. It’s a couple Idaho born and bred brothers and some gifted friends who moved from Idaho to Texas.

Please note that earlier I said I was a big fan of country/western music but what is played on most country stations today is actually country/soft rock music. Most of the songs are about drinking beer, smoking dope, Tennessee and falling in love. Although I like his singing, you can’t tell me that Australian Keith Urban is a country/western singer. Neither is Jimmy Buffet. And sometimes I wonder about Taylor Swift. After Garth Brooks took a leave of absence, Nashville took the “western” out of country/western. It took Austin, Texas, to put it back in. The songs on Undone are about such varied topics as gathering cattle, riding trains, stud horses, drouths, working on offshore rigs, an illegal alien and the theft of a Charolais heifer.

During one of the songs on Undone the singer actually spends most of the song talking about a bar in College Station, Texas, called the Dixie Chicken. Or, as most Texas A&M students refer to it… “The Chicken.” The bar has been in business since 1974 and supposedly sells more beer per square foot than any other bar in America. The now-deceased bar owner Don Ganter used to complain about the aspiring musicians that tended to congregate on the back porch of his bar “just plunking on those damn guitars.” According to the legend, many years ago John Dickson asked Ganter if it was true that Ganter had kicked Lyle Lovitt out of The Chicken for singing and strumming on the back porch.

Ganter replied that it was, in fact, true. “But,” he quickly added, “they still come and play on the back porch, but I decided I’d let them. Cause you never know who they’ll turn out to be.”

That’s why I save every letter, piece of art no matter how awful, autographed book, or CD that’s sent to me. Because you never know who those folks might turn out to be. One of them just might be another Charlie Russell.

Lee Pitts

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