QCS Managing Editor
When Steve Cormier sings a cowboy song, you can hear more than a seasoned folk voice and smooth guitar picking. His performance reflects deep from both hands-on experience and thorough academic examination of history, especially ranching history.
Cormier performed before an appreciative capacity crowd in the 75-seat lecture hall of the North American Wind Energy Center Friday night. The Tucumcari Historic Research Institute sponsored Cormier’s performance.
The songs he chose for his performance weren’t the stuff of Hollywood’s West, of which he also has first-hand knowledge. They were the songs that actually rose from campfire flicker as early as the 1870s.
The melodies of real cowboy songs are simple and the lyrics often strained and rough, but they speak volumes about cowboy craft, lore and legend, and a cowpuncher’s humor, joys and longings.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, singing was so important to cowboy life, Cormier said, that often a cowhand would be hired more because he could sing on-key than due to his prowess with a rope. That, he said, was because “boredom was a big part of the job,” and singing filled much of the down-time.
Cormier’s first song included lines about tying a knot in the tail of a steer to recover the animal from a ravine. Although the song was humorous, Cormier said, it accurately described “methodologies for catching a steer” that had wandered into a ravine.
A “brush popper” had to climb down steep slopes to capture a rogue steer. Often the animal had to be hog-tied into a “three-legged toy” with its own tail, then dragged out, Cormier explained.
Other songs memorialized the “rankest” of bucking horses. One was Tipperary, whose bucking dance, had some “bebop thrown in and a quadrille from old France.”
Songs also spread the legends of individual cowboys, like the dude, dressed in a suit and brogan shoes and sporting a large vocabulary, who was offered the rankest horse in the outfit, while the cowboys snickered at the expected outcome. What happened?
“Every educated fella isn’t a plum greenhorn.”
Then there was the cowboy who used only one spur, because, “if you get one side movin’, the other’s sure to follow.”
Some songs were about unrequited love that drove cowboys to the range or back to it—“the false-hearted love, I forget I knew.” Another song describes a former cowboy leaning against a corral fence, saying, “I’m not lookin’ for pity, just someone to keep me company.”
Cormier said he acquired his knowledge of cowboy life in the1980s, when he worked ranches in the Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner area. His conversations with other former ranch hands, like Oran Watson of Tucumcari, demonstrated knowledge of subtleties like times when it’s better to be left- or right-handed when roping a steer.
His experience, however, includes academic achievements to Ph.D. level, folk-singing in urban coffee houses and clubs in the 1970s, and even time in movies and television as a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild.
He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. His dissertation covered ranch history in New Mexico. That led to his 20-year history teaching career at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque.
Cormier’s craggy looks and riding skill, he said, have led to appearances in television series like “Breaking Bad” and “In Plain Sight,” which were produced in New Mexico. He also has had brief speaking roles in major films that include Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp,” in which he has a 90-second scene as the Tent bartender. He had the lead in a low-budget independent film called “Wild Bill,” in which he portrays western legend Wild Bill Hickok during a single day in the gunslinger’s life.
After the Tucumcari performance, Cormier and his wife Linda Oldham were off to Clayton for another one-man show. His focus these days is singing and touring.
When he gets into something, he explained, “I jump in with both feet.”