Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It’s an easy-going tempo these jazz musicians work through, a gathering of old friends putting together their best stuff during a live recording session along the bayous of the Mohawk in upstate New York. They’d never guess, if any of them are still living, that their soulful lyricism wafts itself daily through my Jeep stereo speakers as I wind up “Killer 82,” headed to Aspen Mountain.
They don’t monkey up their repertoire with crafty lyrics, the piano player being clearly the most talented at creating poetry out of wordless sound, although the man on the clarinet gives him some competition on a couple of tunes.
As they play, one can almost hear the rustling of autumn leaves against the stark vitality of relentless time, detect an occasional riff of brutal reality from a white-walled car tire cruising the damp country road, and the piano man’s two sons board a Greyhound bus bound for Colorado, the enigmatic land of cowboys, itinerant do-gooders, and freedom.
“That guitar ain’t gonna do you much good, resting in a hand-carried case while the rest of your belongings are slung in a pack across your shoulders. Son, you’ve got talent and it won’t do to travel out west. Stay near the cities.”
There’s a home waiting over the Continental Divide, high on a mesa above Woody Creek, at the end of a narrow, winding road, and the folks ranching there are glad to see a big, stout kid who wants to work. The bunkhouse “boys,” they stack up neat; L.C., the old man who’s been through it all and is now relegated to cabin cook; Jay, the American Indian, a man you could trust to cover you in the worst of times, but if you made an enemy out of him, you’d better sleep with one eye open; and the new hand, the one with the guitar. “Hell, every kid comes west has a damned guitar, seems like.”
The boss is a tough case himself, one who often drinks too much, sometimes knows too much, and who frequently rides his men harder than they deserve. But, he’d back them up to the death against an outsider, including the law, right or wrong.
With time comes change. Ol’ L.C. gets dragged out boots first and Jay ducks to get out of the way before trouble starts. Mostly it all happens because the ranch is being sold. The bunkhouse, once their home and gathering place, becomes unfriendly and cold. The handshakes are firm, promises to keep in touch polite but meaningless, and the kid, who’s learned to ride a bronc with the best of ’em, knows he doesn’t want to work for any more outfits with a “V” in the brand.
The years pass, and the kid finds himself in a middle-aged way. Somewhere along the path, just as he envisioned it would be, he gets billed as a nationally renowned cowboy-poet, famous not only for the poems he writes, but also for the music he puts to the words, making the old west come alive for his listeners. The years in the bunkhouse and riding with the big boss and his family have given him enough material to last forever. Also, due to a resolve developed in his early youth, the U.S. Marines make him an honorary member, perhaps the only one, ever.
And he says to me the other day, “I’m proud to give you this CD of my dad playing the piano. He’s good, matter of fact, some claim he was a genius. Wonder what the hell happened to me?”
Yes, I hear your dad, and his talent has inspired me. And I hear your poems about the cowboy life, set to music, and it’s clear nothing “happened” to you. Just like your father, the expressive poetry flows from your heart and you too, could be called a genius.
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