HUMORIST and poet of the ranch and the barnyard, Baxter Black has been variously dubbed a latter-day Will Rogers, the dean of cowboy bards, and the Art Buchwald of the Stetson-and-Levi's crowd. Although he plays primarily to audiences whose livelihood is agriculture, his humor touches the down-home in many of us. His self-published books have sold well over 150,000 copies (unheard-of in the business), and he writes a column that appears in nearly 100 farm publications. His appearances on Johnny Carson, his frequent presence on National Public Radio, and reviews in national newspapers and magazines have helped him to attract a wider audience.
Courtly and graceful on stage and off, Mr. Black projects sensitive masculinity - boyish sweetness and diffidence paradoxically mixed with brash self-confidence. His humor tends to pick up on quirks in human nature - those little self-deceptions and flights of fantasy that reveal character. Unlike so many other comics, Black keeps his work free of meanness. His affection for those he skewers is felt. His humor is sometimes pretty earthy.
There's no mistaking the source of his wit and wisdom: the age-old conjunction between man and the animals he cares for. ``A lot of myself is real `cowy,''' he says, relaxing in his spacious ranch house about 10 miles outside Denver. ``What I do pertains to the cow business. I don't cuss, and I don't tell sexual jokes, which is the basis of most humor now. But the animal world is kind of graphic. And there is a collision with the outside world.''
Steeped in rural values
Black grew up in the country. His father was dean of agriculture at New Mexico State University, and young Baxter had already owned his first cow and horse by the time he reached third grade.
Rural values, he says, stem from the care of animals and nature as well as from traditional religious values: ``It all boils down to one human caring for an animal,'' he says. ``It doesn't matter if it's 400 cows or a chicken house or a horse. ... There's something intuitive about that care. You're dealing with [beings] that respond to kindness and feel pain. When I feed my horses, I don't think of it as putting gas in the car....''
Most rural people are religious, he adds, and among the folks in his world is a reverence for life, an unsentimental view of death, and a sense of integrity that harks back to a former age. He admires men and women of principle even if he emphatically disagrees with their points of view. During a three-hour interview, he returns again and again to principle and integrity. The only actual scorn Black vents is directed toward dishonest types in politics and show business. He signs no contracts. ``I'd rather have the word of an honest man,'' he explains. ``I've done 100 performances a year for 10 years and in all that time, only once have I not been paid. That one time, the man went bankrupt - the IRS tied up all his assets, and I just felt bad for him.... Rural America is pretty honest. If I tell you I will do something, I will do it. We get honest cow dealers. But,'' he adds wryly, ``a horse deal is a different matter,'' because a winking shrewdness is expected in horse trading.
A licensed veterinarian, Black spent 13 years practicing that trade on huge agribusiness spreads. He gave it up once he began performing. Over the last 10 years he has produced a column a week (sometimes serious, sometimes funny) concerned with all things agricultural. ``On the Edge of Common Sense'' runs in 94 publications, which makes him the most popular agricultural columnist in the United States.
``Common sense has to prevail somewhere,'' he says, though he adds that he often pitches over the edge of common sense.
In one column he mocked animal rights activists and vegetarians. ``What I was trying to do was just examine the difference between me and them and it all has to do with anthropomorphism,'' he says. ``Most of these people are four generations removed from the land. They don't even know anyone who owns a cow. Their idea of animals is a cat who eats lasagna....''
An often-requested poem
Two of his columns this month are ``The Vegetarian's Guide to the Cowboy'' and ``The Cowboy's Guide to Vegetarians.'' One of his most-often requested poems is ``The Vegetarian's Nightmare'' - loved as much by vegetarians in his audience as by cowboys. Subtitled ``A dissertation on plant's rights,'' the poem includes this stanza: ``I had planted a garden last April/ And lovingly sang it a ballad./ But later in June beneath a full moon/ I, forgive me, I wanted a salad!''
Black runs Coyote Cowboy Company, his thriving book business, self-publishing all of his own work. He doesn't believe in agents, publicists, or middlemen much, and sells about a quarter of his tapes and books after performances. He operates out of an office in his own home where his wife Cindy Lou leads the office team. A great big map of the United States dominates one side of the room, dotted with hundreds of colored pins indicating where Black has performed. It's an audacious lifestyle - living outside the usual show-biz channels - and he is succeeding.
``I was over 30 when I started writing poetry,'' he says. ``I told jokes all the time, of course, but jokes can't capture the rancher who rises every morning at 5:30, builds a pot of coffee, and then, because it's winter and he hasn't anything else to do, sits around figuring out who he can call and wake up. A joke can't capture the relationship between a cowboy and his dog. Poetry is a way of doing something you can't do any other way.''
Black acknowledges his poetry is considered doggerel in academic circles. But he doesn't mind. Cowboy poets know each others' work, and most of it rhymes. He points to the poetry of Paul Zarzitsky, considered one of the finest and most serious of cowboy poets:
``We've always teased him 'cause his poetry doesn't rhyme. He says `I know it's poetry because it's jagged on the right.'''