Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

There's more to Wally McRae than 'Reincarnation' November 24, 2009 by Michael Becker • Published 11/24/09

While Wally McRae may be known as the dean of cowboy poets, he's also done a great deal to improve life in Montana's ranch country.
Photo by Kelly GorhamWally McRae, 73, stands at the edge of a grass fire near Colstrip, Mont.
Photo by Kelly Gorham
Twenty minutes into an interview one summer afternoon at his home south of Colstrip, famed cowboy poet Wally McRae got a phone call. A fire was burning on a ranch a few miles away, and the volunteers were rolling out.

The 73-year-old McRae grumbled beneath his bushy, white mustache. Then, with a resigned sigh, he threw on an old T-shirt and yellow fireman's coat, grabbed his hat and headed out the door. McRae has been fighting lightning-sparked grass fires for 30 years. Like most of his extracurriculars, as he calls them, it's voluntary. He does it to be a good neighbor and because you hope your neighbors will reciprocate, should the fire happen on your land.

As he bounced a four-wheel-drive county pumper truck down a barely-there ranch road toward the thin smoke rising over the hills, McRae monitored the emergency radio and made small talk -- complaints, mainly, about strip mines, the local stockyard, board meetings, neighbors, haying, photographers, reporters and nosy people in general.

As he talked on about his daily life, it became harder to see the poet from the rancher. Is this grouchy old rancher actually the brim-wearing, poetry-reciting embodiment of the West that many people have made him out to be?

Wallace D. McRae was born in 1936, the third generation of the McRae family to make its living in the often harsh southeastern corner of Montana. His family has owned a ranch south of present-day Colstrip since 1886. McRaes have been ranching in Montana longer than there has even been a Montana.

That tradition, however, wasn't going to keep young Wally McRae in Rosebud County for his whole life. Just like many teenagers, he yearned for the chance to get away from home and see the wider world.

So in 1954, McRae went to Bozeman and what was then Montana State College. In addition to his studies, the university provided the opportunity to nurture his love of performing through activities such as theater, rodeo clowning and student government --- he was voted president of his class. McRae eventually earned his degree in zoology, with a chemistry minor, but now he sees the diploma as almost secondary to the real benefit of college.

"The years I spent there made me much more aware of what was going on beyond Rosebud County," he said.

After MSU, McRae decided to broaden his perspective even more, so he joined the Navy. He chose an assignment on the faraway East Coast and spent his tour aboard a ship, learning how to ferry Marines to shore during an amphibious landing.

While in the Navy, he met his future wife, Ruth, and spent four months in Rhode Island attending Officer Candidate School. But then, just 2 1/2 years into his service and as his ship was preparing to leave for Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, McRae, then 24, received bad news from home.

His father was dead at age 58, killed by a heart attack. McRae's naval career was over. It was time to go home.

Photo by Kelly Gorham"It's a big, old world out there, and my first introduction to that world was Montana State." -- Wally McRae
Photo by Kelly Gorham

"If you're a ranch-raised kid and you're the male heir, it's almost obligatory that you go back to the ranch and take over where your fathers and grandfathers were," McRae said. "You don't have a choice. It's expected of you."

After a few years, it became clear that too many McRaes were trying to make a living off of the family ranch, so when a ranch down the road came up for sale, McRae scraped together as much as he could and made an offer.

"The widow who owned the place had some better offers than I could give her, but she thought it was important that she sell the ranch to somebody who was not a speculator," McRae said.

The peculiarities of running a successful ranch near Colstrip are far different than running a successful ranch anywhere else in the state, McRae said. His experience with the land won him the ranch.

However, he quickly learned that experience did not guarantee success. As soon as he took over the ranch, a veteran hired hand quit. Not long after, McRae broke his leg in a horse riding accident and spent six months in a cast. Then, his wife miscarried and was bed-ridden. They had a load of debt and, on top of it all, the cattle weren't particularly good.

"So we were off to a good start," McRae said.

It's a big, old world out there, and my first introduction to that world was at Montana State

-Wally McRae
Things improved, as they do, and McRae found time to rediscover his creative side. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he performed in a local theater group, the Coal and Cattle Country Players. He acted, directed and wrote plays. He also announced rodeos and fairs and sang in a barbershop quartet.

But behind it all was the poetry. He started writing poems in elementary school, mostly about daily life and other country matters. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that his hobby started to get him noticed.

At the time, an agricultural lending bank put out a monthly pocket newsletter that included a short poem. The man who'd written the poems for years was retiring, so McRae wrote him a funny little poem of thanks.

"I'd always kind of dabbled around in poetry, so I wrote him a poem thanking him for the years he'd put in," McRae said.

The bank liked the poem so much, it asked McRae to take over the monthly poem.

"Pretty soon, I had other subjects I wanted to write about, but they were longer than would fit on that card," he said. "So I just started writing longer poems. I had a Nocona boot box, and when I'd finish a poem, I'd pitch it in the boot box."

A few years later, he had a box full of poems and more than a few people asking him if he was ever going to publish them. So in the early 1980s, McRae took the box to Shaun Higgins, a writer at the Billings Gazette who was known for helping poets get published. The writer liked the poems and agreed to put them into a book. That book became 1985's It's Just Grass and Water, which was followed by Up North is Down the Crick, published by the Museum of the Rockies, and two other books of poetry.

"And I was off and running," McRae said.

His most recent book, published this year, is Stick Horses and Other Stories of Ranch Life, a collection of short stories based on his life, published by Gibbs Smith.

Photo by Kelly GorhamFellow Cowboy Poet Paul Zarzyski says that McRae, above, is obligated to render ranch folk "with as much truth and beauty as possible."
Photo by Kelly Gorham

Throughout the 1980s, McRae got more and more involved in poetry. In 1984, he attended the first gathering of cowboy poets in Elko, Nev., an event that has since become a major event, drawing poets from around the world. McRae hasn't missed a year yet.

"People didn't realize it, but cowboys were one of the few surviving occupational groups that still dealt in poetry," he said. "Sailors and loggers and farmers and military personnel all have left a history of writing poetry, but for some reason they quit. We didn't."

Thanks to folklorists, gatherings like Elko brought cowboy poetry to the attention of the mass media around the mid-1980s.

Soon, scores of reporters descended on Elko and the other cowboy poetry gatherings that had sprung up across the country. While the folklorists saw the poetry as a glimpse into parts of American cultural history, the media tended to romanticize the cowboy poets, painting them as Old West legends come to life.

McRae got his share of media attention. He was interviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post and dozens of other papers, and he appeared on television programs like CBS's Sunday Morning. For a while, it seemed like a story about cowboys wasn't complete until someone called the McRae house.

"He's definitely one of the stronger cornerstones of a quarter century of this Renaissance," said Paul Zarzyski, fellow poet and longtime friend of McRae. "I don't think it could have happened without his contribution."

Zarzyski said McRae brings a unique sensibility to cowboy poetry. "He has a need to paint the characters of the West that he grew up with, paint them with as much truth and beauty as possible," he said. "The need to do so has kind of led him toward this real sincerity and this capacity to render a poem with brutal honesty. Brutal honesty."

But the craft was somewhat lost amid all the media attention, which drew wannabes and posers into the business of writing cowboy poetry, McRae said about the people who dressed up in boots and bore fake cowboy biographies and bad poetry.

"Suddenly, the country was saturated with cowboy poetry events, and academics started poking fun at us," McRae said. "Everybody became pretty cynical."

I think that it's important for us to be able to look back and see where we came from and what the value systems were. I hope that my writing reflects some of those values and some of that history.

-Wally McRae
Eventually, McRae came to be known as the "poet lariat" of Montana. He received the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Award in 1990, and President Clinton nominated him to serve on the National Council of the Arts. The Missoulian listed him number 42 on its list of the Most Influential Montanans of the Century. People expected McRae to be at all the gatherings and to recite his most famous --- though certainly not his favorite --- poem, "Reincarnation," an old scatological joke set to meter and rhyme. Much to his consternation, that poem has become almost a required recitation at almost every cowboy poetry gathering.

On top of that, people expected him to show up looking like the classic cowboy. They expected him to be mythic.

"I have come to assume that image is what they want. Otherwise, they wouldn't be coming," he said. "Rather than go through the hassle of playing games with them and having my farm shirt on, I put on the boots and the hat."

People expect him to be an outgoing stage performer, but they also expect him to be the stoic man of few words, McRae said. Balancing between the two identities is hard, so mostly he doesn't try.

"It just seems to me that the guy with the hat and boots and the meter and rhyme in his brain has been done," he said. "Maybe it's not that I'm tired of being cast in that role, but there are a lot of other things that I do that are important to me and the community I live in, things that nobody ever seems particularly interested in."

McRae writes in the winter, when he can get the day's chores done by about noon and have the afternoon to himself. The rest of the year, most of his spare time is taken up with his "extracurriculars."

Until recently, McRae was chairman of a bank board in Colstrip. He still manages the community cemetery, which is on land his grandfather donated to the neighborhood over 100 years ago, and serves as president of the local stockyard association.

And he's involved in politics to some extent, through the Northern Plains Resource Council, which McRae helped found in the 1970s.

"He's not just a member. That would be an understatement about who Wally is," said Teresa Erickson, staff director for the NPRC in 
Billings. "He is the quintessential leader."

McRae has changed positions within the NPRC over the years, from chairman to spokesman and everything in between, but he has never changed in his views about protecting water quality and reclaiming lands used heavily by industry, Erickson said. Once controversial, many of the issues McRae advocates have now become common sense.

"I think he really does live his life by a certain set of principles that compel him to not sit by idly and let the world happen to him or his community," Erickson said.

Then there's the firefighting. Driving back from the fire that interrupted this interview, McRae said the fires keep him out late some summer nights. Between that and his other activities, sometimes important ranch work gets put on the back burner.

"I am overloaded with extracurricular activities, and I still work," he said, his annoyance showing. "I'm too damned old to work the way I have to."

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham

Cutting back isn't possible. "Nobody'll let you," he grumbled. "Yet, physically, I'm not able to keep up and do the things that my occupation demands."

A few years ago, McRae had a heart attack while working alone on the ranch. He was 58 at the time, the same age at which his father died of a heart attack. McRae barely made it to Colstrip's clinic, which sent him to Billings for a quadruple bypass.

Now he's got an aortal aneurism, a swelling of the body's biggest blood vessel. McRae calls himself a "ticking time bomb." If the aneurism ruptures, he could quickly die. Doctors have yet to decide whether he'll need surgery.

Some people would be tempted to pack it in and retire. Not McRae. Retirement is just as impossible as lightening his workload.

"There is no logical way we can figure out how to transfer all this. If I retired, I would have to move out of our house and go somewhere else," he said. "No, you die. You die on a ranch."

Despite his health and extracurriculars, McRae has no plans to stop writing. He has a few more poems left in the Nocona boot box and enough tales to write several more books of short stories. He figures that as long as he's living, he'll have something to write about.

"I so regret that a lot of people that were older than I am didn't write down some of this local history," he said. "I think that it's important for us to be able to look back and see where we came from and what the value systems were. I hope my writing reflects some of those values and some of that history."

And even though he sometimes dislikes being cast as a living myth --- and being expected to show up dressed like someone out of a John Ford movie --- McRae still enjoys the gatherings and recitations.

"I don't do this for a living. I don't do it full-time," he said. "So what have I gained if not money? Friends."

Telephone Call

by Wally McRae

"Did I gitcha up?... Well I'm Sorry.

Don't wanta throw ya in no dang bind.

But, you see, I been thinkin' 'bout dyin.'
Yah, it's sorta been there in my mind.

Well, I've had these episodes lately,
'n hell, kid, I'm seventy-five.

I want to pick me a burial plot--
long as I'm still alert 'n alive.

Now, I didn't call up for your pity,
'n I don't want you takin' it hard,

But I figgered that you was in charge now
of your grandad's local graveyard.

When did John B. deed it over?

You say back in nighteen aught two?

And who'd be the first one they put there?
Well now, he'd be an uncle to you.

Hell, you know that. I'm getting' forgetful
'n lately, I sometimes black out.

'N the doctors, well, they can't find nothin'.
The old lady keeps stewin' about

Me not wantin' to lay with the vet'rins.
Yah, you aughta hear old Iness rage

When I tells her I wants t' lay under
the cactus, bluejoint and sage.

Speakin' on sage, you remember once back
in the Second World War

How yer mom sent that sprig of fresh sagebrush?
It wore out, I ain't got it no more.

Last Tuesday I come in all muddy, my shirt was all

smeared with grass stains.

When I come to, my horse was a-grazin'
a ways off, a-draggin' the reins.

Well, I got to thinkin' of Egan,
yer dad Don, Elmore, and the rest,

Of all them old hands I rode with,
By God, kid, I rode with the best!

Weren't you there when we branded on Rye Grass?
Now, ain't thought a' that for a while.

Outside! we was. Old Ev never missed,
now there was a heeler with style!

Old Carp got bucked off! The bed-tent blowed down!
And Chauncy, the cook, he got drunk!

...The old lady says to git off'n the phone.
Says I'm borin' you with this junk.

So I'll come down 'n pick me a plot.
This old hoss has about run his race.

By chance if I don't, you pick me a spot
in some out-of-the-way sort of place.

You bet. Same to you. Take care of yourself.
Drop in if you git up this way.

I might tell you some stories to write poems about.
So long then. See ya some day."