The Reinventions of Tyler Beard
By Gene Fowler
“As a child,” wrote the late Tyler Beard in his 1999 book, Art of the Boot, “I had to be coaxed out of my Roy Rogers boots nightly.”
“He loved those little boots, but that may have been one of his whoppers,” chuckles Tyler’s big sister, Debra Conkling, gently relishing her brother’s deployment of a Texan’s birthright to stretch the blanket or redecorate the facts. Cousin David Slack adds that Tyler was seldom without his fancy boots and cowboy hat at the age of five or six. The evidence is right there in black and white on the jacket flap of his 1992 volume, The Cowboy Boot Book, in a photo of little Tyler in his cowboy outfit with his “red, white and turquoise boots and fancy spotted holsters.”
“He called those peewee boots ‘the boots that started it all,’” explains photographer Jim Arndt, who shot all the beautiful botas in Tyler’s three books on vaquero footwear, including the title that says it all, Cowboy Boots (2004). Arndt also handled the images for Tyler’s 1993 opus on the history of sagebrush fashionistas, 100 Years of Western Wear.
“Apparently,” adds Jim, “there were a lot of people out there who really wanted a book on cowboy boots. The first printing of The Cowboy Boot Book sold out in a month. They printed more and those sold out. Then they printed more and it just kept selling.” All of Tyler’s books remain in print. I see them displayed, not only in bookstores, but also in museum gift shops, bootmakers’ workshops and Western wear stores. They’re dang good books.
With that endorsement, I must fess up in full disclosure mode. Tyler was part of the music and art crowd I ran with while coming of age in North Central Texas in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. His sister Debra was my square dance partner in elementary school. Tyler—known then as Barry Beard—played drums in a band that provided music for a 1970-production of one of my plays. And back in the day, Teresa Skelton, the groovy gal he married, was a sweetheart in my own rodeo.
As happens with folks, I lost touch with “T and T” in the 1970s when they moved to Paris, New York, and finally, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and didn’t see them again until 2002 when Tyler organized a reunion of the old gang in Dallas. Sister Debra and cousin David recently helped fill in some of the “lost years” of New England exile. In Portsmouth, Tyler—then still known as Barry—owned a hair salon and the historic, several-story building that housed it. Thin, pale and just a tiny bit goth, he dyed his all-cotton clothing—including his cotton shoes—jet black. During the New England era, Tyler/Barry fastidiously refused to wear leather in any form and required his salon employees to follow that fashion rule. “He even dyed his camping tent black,” adds Debra.
A mid-‘80s Santa Fe vacation inspired the sweet, slow siren yodel that drew the Beards back to the West. Tyler/Barry sold the salon and historic Portsmouth building, loaded Teresa and their dog Babydoll into a Winnebago, and cruised most every blue highway between East Texas and Arizona, in search of the land of myth and romance that America’s leading cowboy balladeer Don Edwards calls “West of Yesterday.”
He found it in Comanche, Texas. Spotting an 1870s chimney and a pile of stones with an old barn, Tyler/Barry knew it was the place. He bought the property, rebuilt the home and commenced his reinvention as an uber-hombre from the immense land mass masquerading as a mere state.
“He showed up for Christmas one year, bulked-up and tanned, his long black hair replaced with a buzz cut, wearing a giant cowboy hat and buckaroo boots,” recalls Debra. “We hardly recognized him at first, but I can’t say we were surprised. We were used to Tyler’s extreme behavior – in a good, interesting way. It wasn’t unusual for him to want to change his name or shift his identity. Through the years he’d instructed us to address him as Dusty Dustin, Mick, L. L. Azuli, and Barry William Beard Esquire Junior George Blondie. In Portsmouth, he legally dropped his last name for a time and went by the one word Barry.”
Of course, it wasn’t lost on Tyler that out West, historically, was where folks went to reinvent themselves. He would often say he was born 100 years too late, that he would have jumped at the chance to go “up the trail” on a cattle drive. I think it’s much more likely he would have been a legendary mogul at an Old West trading post, for that’s partly what he became—in an extraordinary way—in the New West.
Debra recalls that when they were kids, her brother established a “thing-finders club,” prowling the neighborhood for valuable items that had been discarded. On show-and-tell day at school, he even sold his tonsils to a classmate. As soon as he could drive, he scoured Dallas-Fort Worth flea markets, becoming adept at spotting and buying underpriced treasures that he resold for profit. Though his burgeoning style at the time was bohemian-glam rocker, in retrospect, he kind of reminds me of the great Dallas wheeler-dealer, O. L. Nelms, who was photographed wearing fancy Western duds and written up in the Saturday Evening Post as the “Texas Trader.” O. L. placed large signs around the urban landscape reading, “Thanks To All Of You For Helping O. L. Nelms MAKE ANOTHER MILLION DOLLARS.”
In Comanche, smack dab in the West, Tyler started buying and selling cowboy memorabilia. “He took out newspaper ads around the state,” recalls cousin, David Slack, “offering to buy old branding irons, wagon wheels, denim jeans, anything that reeked of the Old West.” Like a grown-up “thing-finders club,” Tyler established a widespread network of “pickers” who would scout their region for Western curios and then head for Comanche. “And every Monday, there would be a constant line of 20 to 50 people waiting to get in his gate and sell him what they had picked,” adds David.
True West, the company Tyler established to resell the Western antiques and mementos, was soon doing a banner business with Ralph Lauren boutiques, Euro Disney and other outfits from California to New York to Japan. Movie prop masters had Tyler on speed dial. With their eye for Western furnishings and décor, Teresa and Tyler became go-to interview subjects for books, magazines and TV reports about the booming revival of Western style. The couple also took time to become formally hitched, taking their vows on horseback in their Comanche yard. Ever the frolicsome galoot, Tyler said “I do,” with a noose dangled loosely around his neck.
Debra and David each cite occasions, in shops in Folsom, California, and Stephenville, Texas, when the trader’s psyche that fueled Tyler’s dreams was revealed in singular, dramatic form. Recognizing rare and valuable Native American blankets in each shop, he bought them for hundreds and later sold them for thousands. “He was literally trembling at the shop in California,” Debra recalls, “and he didn’t haggle with them, which was unusual for Tyler.”
And then of course, there were the boots. His old friends in Dallas began hearing stories about the time, for instance, when Tyler was dining in a café and bought a pair of vintage boots right off a cowpoke’s feet at a nearby table for a hundred bucks. According to The Cowboy Boot Book, he was selling as many as 500 pairs of vintage boots a month worldwide.
“He liked the old-timey styles of cowboy boots,” remembers Terry Barnes, financial advisor with the Edward Jones office in Comanche, who became a friend of the Beards. “The kind you’d see in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Gene Autry movies, with lots of inlaid designs and colorful details.”
“Tyler knew more about cowboy boots than anyone I ever met,” says Holly George-Warren, author of the best Gene Autry biography and co-author of How the West Was Worn. Wendy Lane Henry, owner of the Santa Fe boot-ique, Back at the Ranch, echoes that sentiment. “He put me on the map,” says Wendy. “For several years, we even had a Tyler Beard Room in the shop. He liked for a pair of boots to look worn, like he just walked in off the range. But his cowboy swagger was always stylish and sharp.”
The Beards’ own vintage boot collection often swelling to as many as 150 pair, Tyler found a special kinship with others who shared the “addiction,” several of whom are chronicled in The Cowboy Boot Book. The quotes from collector Evan Voyles of Buda and Austin sound like it could be Tyler himself talking. The vintage boots, Evan said, “were folk art,” and “the heritage, stories and images were out there somewhere. The adventure lay in going out to find those boots and the people who made and wore them. From that point on, vintage cowboy boots took over my life.”
Collector John Tongate of Austin traveled to Ruidoso, New Mexico, in 1998 to attend the exhibition Cowboy Boots: The Sole of the West that Tyler curated for the Museum of the Horse. “It was really comprehensive,” John remembers, adding that there needs to be a suitable archive in an institution somewhere, so that collections like his own vintage boots, bootmaker catalogs and other ephemera could be preserved intact. The histories of boot companies like Nocona, Tony Lama and Justin—and the cool old graphics they produced—are some of my favorite parts of The Cowboy Boot Book.
Whenever Tyler had a new book contract and a whole mess of words to author—he didn’t write them, he authored ‘em—as he put it, “Teresa would have to hold a gun to my back.” Eventually, they developed a system. Since there were too many distractions at home, she would drive him out to a remote motel, drop him off with his typewriter and some grub, (along with Sam Shepard, Tyler was one of the few humans in North America to remain downright ornery in their refusal to submit to the digital universe) and deliver more food periodically, until the sentences were all piled up on the pages.
After Tyler published Cowboy Boots in 2004, he told me that that was about all he had to say on the subject. I didn’t believe that for a minute, but the three books he did produce on the subject pretty much cover the whole shootin’ match. His personal style, though, was beginning to shift again, from bon vivant buckaroo to sophisticated gentleman rocker. He began describing himself as an Anglophile and traveled to Scotland, where he came very close to purchasing an estate. Teresa confided that he was considering another name change. (By this time the couple had sold their historic home in Comanche—it’s a winery now—and moved on, first to a rancho near Goldthwaite, and then to another rock home they restored in Lampasas.) And then the world came crashing down.
Before we all had a chance to marvel at what might have been the next reinvention of Tyler Beard, tragedy struck. Teresa took her own life in 2005. Tyler drifted, lost and heartsick. His friends, old and new, tried to boost his spirits, encourage him to get back on the horse, mostly in vain. At one point, before he bunkered in Santa Fe for a time, he told me he was moving to a cabin in Colorado, where he would hole up and write his memories of Teresa.
After a spell in the land of enchantment and trips to India and Africa (when Teresa was alive the couple trekked to Egypt, China, Peru, etc.), Tyler headed back to Dallas, settling across the street from cousin, David Slack in a 1920s Tudor-style home. And there, in 2007, we lost him at age 53, after years of battling throat cancer.
Tyler Beard rode through this life in a whirlwind that still stirs up dust. Sure, the man reinvented himself and gilded the saguaro a little on his transition from a leather-shunning vegan to rolling out as the “World’s Leading Authority on Cowboy Boots.” But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t authentic. Tyler was the real deal if there ever was a real deal.
Consider, for instance, his profiles of custom bootmakers in Art of the Boot. These guys (and gals) generally have all the business they can handle, aren’t seeking publicity and are usually equipped with some of the best BS detectors on the planet. Most would not have bothered to share their stories in such detail if Tyler had not approached them with a genuine respect for the folk-art traditions they labored to keep alive.
That Tyler Beard last beheld this glorious world from the land of his birth was no accident. “I want to thank my lucky stars that Mom and Dad were native Texans,” he wrote in his 2003 book, Lone Star Living. “I would not want to be from anywhere else.”
I strongly suspect he’d have said the same if he hailed from Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana… anyplace with big open skies where an artistic desperado like Tyler could allow his imagination to stretch out and breathe.
“Before and after the Civil War,” he continued, “my forefathers all hung out GONE TO TEXAS signs, abandoned their southern farms and settled in Texas. My great-grandparents homesteaded eighteen-hundred acres on Bull Creek, just outside Austin… I grew up in a boots-and-hat environment full of tall Texas tales and braggadocio. During hunting season and holidays on the original Beard Ranch, I would lie in the bunkhouse by the light of the crackling cedar fire, and listen in awe to family and state history as told by the elders….”
And you can bet your boots he’s listening still.