The Real Life of Texas Folk
By Gene Fowler
“It’s practically died off,” said rawhide braider Travis “Rowdy” Pate, at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio circa 1985, when asked if his art form still flourished in the South Texas brush country around his native Pearsall. “Nobody learned it.”
In the same interview, —practically in the same breath, however—Rowdy allowed, “I guess you could say, maybe it’s increasing….Here in the United States, it’s increasing some….For two, three years I’ve taught several boys how to work rawhide in a little, kind of informal get-together at my house….”
Such contrasting evidence of the survival and/or disappearance of traditional folk culture in Texas motivated folklorist and arts administrator Pat Jasper to conduct the statewide Texas Folk Art Survey in 1984. “I had been working as the folk arts coordinator for the Texas Commission on the Arts for several years,” Pat recalls, “and I’d realized that the preservation of traditional arts needed an increased level of activism.” Acquiring a $25,000 grant, she divided the state into nine regions and, collaborating with folklorists Kay Turner and Betsy Peterson (the latter now serves as director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress), conducted fieldwork throughout the state.
Jasper stresses the fact that the three were looking for contemporary makers of traditional folk arts, not extant examples of such work created in the past.
In the Central Texas town of Llano, Pat met a saddlemaker (she believes his name may have been William West, but is not certain) who influenced her perspective. “He told me that people had lost the ability to read the work of the hand. People could no longer distinguish something made in a factory from something made by hand. And it made me realize that my job was to help people understand the work of the hand, to appreciate the quality of handmade work and the time, skill and personal care that went into it.”
Inspired by their findings, the three folklorists curated the traveling exhibit Handmade and Heartfelt: Contemporary Folk Art in Texas. “We found that the survey and exhibition were important ways to make a statement about the vitality of grassroots creativity in Texas,” says Jasper. To facilitate that continued vitality, they founded the nonprofit Texas Folklife Resources in 1985. Known today as Texas Folklife and headquartered in Austin, the organization conducts a wide range of programming throughout the state. The annual Texas Folklife Festival, produced by the Institute for Texan Cultures in San Antonio, is a separate entity, but preserves and presents some of the same forms of traditional folk culture.
In addition to saddlemakers, the 1984 survey found folk artists making boots, belts, headstalls, quirts and other leather items. The founding of Texas Folklife coincided with a resurgence of interest in American cowboy culture. A landmark exhibition, The American Cowboy, originated at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center in 1983 and traveled to San Antonio and other cities. Baxter Black and other cowboy poets unexpectedly began appearing on TV programs such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When the Western Folklife Center of Elko, Nevada, produced its first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985, it spurred a stampede of such heritage celebrations. And when Michael Martin Murphey’s 1990 album, Cowboy Songs (which naysayers predicted would be career suicide), went gold, the Western folk-arts movement was clearly headed for more than eight seconds—or 15 minutes—of fleeting glory.
Thus, when Texas Folklife started its Apprenticeships in the Folk Arts program in 1987, it included leather artisans like Rowdy Pate as master teaching artists who passed on their skills and knowledge to apprentice students. (In addition to his informal Professor Pate’s School of Rawhide and Horsehair Hitching, Rowdy was known as a stellar “teller of tall tales.”) Though the program was on hiatus some years, to date, says Texas Folklife’s current Apprenticeships program coordinator Ian Hallagan, some 250 master artists—in traditional disciplines ranging from “conjunto accordion and horse saddlery to South Indian vocal music and West African dance”—have participated. My friend Joyce Gibson Roach, author of the classic 1977 book The Cowgirls, studied in the program as an apprentice fiddler in 1991.
Hallagan, who came to Texas after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in folklore, says he enjoys the diverse mix of cultural traditions in the big state. From the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley and from the Trans-Pecos West to the Piney Woods East, he’s traveled some 13,000 miles of Texas over the past few years while coordinating the Apprenticeships program. (His site visits have included the Wichita Falls Boot and Saddle Show.) Generally, apprenticeships last from six to eight months, and during that time the master and apprentice artists meet around 14 hours each month. Master artists receive an honorarium of up to $2,500 for teaching an apprentice. While apprentices must live in Texas, a new twist to the program allows master artists to live across state lines in adjoining states.
Bootmaker Mike Vaughn of Bowie, who has a waiting list of two and a half years for custom boots, has been teaching Fort Worth fire fighter Jeff Moore through the Texas Folklife Apprenticeships program and beyond. Mike formerly worked for the Leddy family of bootmakers in Fort Worth, where he learned the art from brothers Clyde and Joe Vasquez. Jeff says he’s too far along in his firefighter career to switch to full-time bootmaking, but he plans to supplement his retirement with making boots down the road. “It’s a lot of fun,” adds Jeff. “And it’s a big challenge and a great motivator. I like to learn new skills and there’s a lot to learn in bootmaking. You take a pile of leather and a short time later you have a pair of boots.”
The Fort Worth fireman adds that he grew up wearing boots. “My family was from Bisbee, Arizona, and we’d go back to visit twice a year. On the way, we’d stop in El Paso and buy Tony Lama factory rejects.”
Bowie bootmaker Mike Vaughn laments the current state of factory-made boots. “They’ve got so much plastic and foam in ‘em that they can’t be repaired once they wear out. They were better back in the ‘80s, and you could learn a lot about bootmaking by working in a repair shop.” He’s also not optimistic about the current state of custom bootmaking. “There’s not that many good bootmakers still around, and at 53 I’m one of the youngest. There’s not enough younger people wanting to put in the years of work it takes to learn.” Mike does cite one exception. When people tell him they don’t want to wait 2 ½ years for a pair, he refers them to the young bootmaker Jarrett Van Curen of Big Sandy, Texas.
Bootmaker Lee Miller of Austin, who learned from the great Charlie Dunn, sees it differently. “I started at the age of 20 in 1975,” says Lee, “and back then, there were a lot of people who wanted to do something like this. I think we’re seeing a resurgence of that now. Bootmaking is a hard skill to learn, but if you have the desire and work hard, nothing can stop you.”
Apprentice Dana Perrotti definitely has the desire. She studied with Lee through the Texas Folklife program and now works fulltime with Lee’s company Texas Traditions.
Rawhide artist Leland Hensley of Meridian, Texas, where legendary ballad hunter John Avery Lomax first listened to cowboys singing to their cattle on trail drives, follows the Texas Folklife tradition begun by ‘Professor’ Rowdy Pate. Like the master bootmakers who’ve participated in the Apprenticeships program, Leland acknowledges that the time allotted through available funding is not enough for someone to learn “the whole shootin’ match,” but he still finds the program valuable. The noted horse trainer Clint Haverty of Sanger, Texas, was already a talented leather artist (boy howdy—check out the terrific work on his website) when he apprenticed with Leland through the Folklife program. “The main thing is that it helped him get over a hump in his rawhide work,” says Leland. “Rawhide is a fascinating material to work with,” he adds. “It starts out as a rough, crude animal hide, but once it’s braided, it becomes a thing of both extreme strength and beauty. But, it takes a great amount of effort just to get to the point where one can even begin to braid.”
Hensley learned rawhide braiding the hard way, through self-taught trial and error, while attending Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, in the early 1980s. “Nobody was teaching it at the time in Texas,” he says. “I spent a lotta hours looking at photos in Western Horseman with a magnifying glass.” Today, Leland is building a bunkhouse near his Meridian workshop in order to house rawhide braiding students. In addition to the Texas Folklife Apprenticeships program, Leland especially praises the educational programs of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. And, he laments that states like Idaho and Wyoming have bigger budgets and more prestigious awards for commemorating the artistic products of cowboy culture than the grand and storied land between the Red River and the Rio Grande. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” he allows.
Which doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of his curatorial association with the annual Trappings of Texas exhibition at Sul Ross. Others with whom Hensley has shared those duties include Gary Dunshee, Trappings founder and co-owner of Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, who has also participated in the Folklife Apprenticeships program as a master saddlemaker.
When Dunshee apprentice Wesley Mastic finished making his first saddle in 2001, he told Houston Chronicle writer Marty Racine that he would ride the saddle once or twice, just to “know its feel.” Then he would retire the saddle and someday pass it down to his grandkids as an heirloom. His great-grandmother had been a saddlemaker, but sadly, the family retained no specimens of her work. At the time, Mastic had been working with Dunshee for six years, performing basic, repetitive tasks. A former bull rider, Wesley later went on to build saddles at Bader Saddles in Rapid City, South Dakota, and Mortenson’s Silver and Saddles in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before retiring from the art due to arthritis.
Journalist Racine provided a description of the tools Mastic worked with: “For hand tools—punches, knives, edgers, clickers, bevelers, stamps, mallets—Big Bend uses some classics, from old F. K. Russells and Gomphs to a drawknife predating the Civil War.”
Gary Dunshee grew up in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where his mother worked in a Western wear store. When the owners’ son received a Tandy Leather kit, it got passed along to Gary. He soon found he had an aptitude for working with leather and when he realized you could make a little money with it, he was hooked. A visit to Alpine while he was in college further defined his destiny. He enrolled in Sul Ross and went to work as a stamp hand for saddlemaker George Nix at Big Bend Saddlery. In 1977, he bought the business from Nix’s widow.
“Mr. Nix was quite a character,” Dunshee told me recently. “He was an old saddle bronc rider and a World War II veteran. He’d worked with the German immigrant Mr. Werner, who owned Alpine Saddlery from 1926 to 1966.” Nix kept a copy of a famous 19th century harness guide pamphlet, which included a chapter on apprenticeship. But, he noted that the chapter’s intentions were long ignored in the saddle industry.
“When I started back in 1971,” he says, “you couldn’t go to a saddle school.” The cowboy poet Joel Nelson and Dunshee would leave town once or twice a year and visit other saddleries in Western states. “And people would be real friendly, until they learned you were a saddlemaker,” Gary adds. “Then they wouldn’t even talk to you.”
Dunshee recalls that all began to change with the 1985 Great American Gear Show in Flagstaff, Arizona. The legendary Idaho saddlemaker Dale Harwood was sharing tips with a group of young saddlemakers. “One saddlemaker asked, ‘Dale, how do you get your middle string on the seat cut so nice?’ That’s the hardest cut on a saddle. And this older saddlemaker out of Cottonwood, Arizona, said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing. I didn’t work all my life learnin’ how to do this to tell all my secrets to a bunch of damn kids in a parking lot.’ Dale cut him a cold stare and said, ‘I didn’t know there were any secrets.’ And to this day, pretty much any five-star saddlemaker you can find, there’ll be some Dale Harwood influence on his work.”
Last year, Big Bend Saddlery participated in the Texas Folklife program with apprentice Carlos Estevan Martinez, who still works at the shop. And Gary Dunshee introduced coordinator Ian Hallagan to bit and spur maker Jayson Jones, who also taught an apprentice through the program.
In addition to the Apprenticeships initiative, Texas Folklife’s mission of “preserving and presenting the diverse cultures and living heritage of the Lone Star State” is fulfilled with a peppy mix of activities, exhibitions and outreach. Music programming includes an annual Festival of Texas Fiddling at the historic Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco, Texas. The annual Accordion Kings and Queens concerts at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theater draw thousands to performances that include Czech, Conjunto, Cajun, Zydeco and other styles of squeeze-box magic. The yearly contest, The Big Squeeze, travels to all areas of the state that foster young accordion players who compete to reach the finals, held this year on May 11th at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. A thriving storytelling program focused last summer on Native American healing and this summer will explore veterans’ stories.
The Texas Folklife program I most regret missing was the 2004 show, This Is It: The Ultimate Cindy Walker Tribute, at the grand Paramount Theater in Austin, where Don Edwards, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and other blue chip artists paid homage to one of the state’s greatest songwriters. Cindy Walker’s tunes have been recorded by everyone from Grandpa Jones to Bette Midler. Cowboy balladeer Edwards once told me that he includes a Cindy song on almost every album he makes. Bob Wills recorded more than 50 of her songs, including Cherokee Maiden, Bubbles in My Beer and her very first song, Dusty Skies, written as a teenager after reading about the Dust Bowl in her grandmother’s scrapbook. Ernest Tubb recorded some two dozen, including Warm Red Wine and Two Glasses, Joe. Willie Nelson included her classic You Don’t Know Me on an all-Cindy Walker CD he released shortly before her death in 2006. A pink granite guitar marks her gravesite in a Mexia, Texas cemetery.
A distinctive array of other programs and events keeps life real for Texas folks. And it takes a special kind of passion, dedication and cultural awareness to deliver these services on a shoestring arts-funding budget. Charlie Lockwood, current Texas Folklife director, is ideally suited for the job. He grew up in Austin during the “live music capital of the world” era, with parents who introduced him to every breed of sound art that the city’s musicians played.
At Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and UC Santa Barbara, he studied ethnography, musicology and anthropology. He conducted field work in South Africa and Cairo, Egypt. Moreover, he learned to play a Middle Eastern stringed instrument called the oud. His band, Atlas Maior (alto sax, flutes, oud, and percussion), “maps diverse musical traditions, placing Jazz, Middle Eastern and Latin American musical idioms in dialogue with one another.”
Asked to comment on Texas Folklife’s efforts to keep fading cultural traditions – such as polka – thriving and alive, Lockwood reminds me that it’s not a folklorist’s role to invent or impose a revival of a community’s traditions. “Folk tradition isn’t static. It has to deal with change. We have a dialogue with the community to learn what it wants and work to support the community. It’s an interesting dilemma that will never be completely solved. Tradition is organic.”
That, folks, is real life.
Texas Folklife Announces 2019 Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts Awardees
Texas Folklife announces the 2019 Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts program awardees. The prestigious apprenticeship program supports the continuation of Texas traditional arts through mentorship, artist development and organizational support. Master artists and apprentices from across the region were chosen through a rigorous peer panel process and the pairs represent a broad range of arts – from western saddlemaking to Pingelap stick dance.
This year, each artist will be awarded up to $2,500. Each apprenticeship pair will be documented through audio interviews, photography, and video. Documentation will be shared on the Texas Folklife digital channels throughout the year. The selected artists will also participate in a public showcase of their work across the state in late 2019.
Since 1987, the Texas Folklife Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts program has supported the training of hundreds of folk and traditional artists statewide. Traditional arts, or folk arts, are those art forms practiced by a group of people with a shared learning experience. Both the master artist and the apprentice are awarded the time and resources necessary to devote themselves to their craft, thus ensuring that these vital traditional arts are passed on to new generations of Texans.
“The Apprenticeship Program is crucial to our mission at Texas Folklife,” says Executive Director Charlie Lockwood. “This is one of the primary ways we help maintain the transmission of traditional arts across our state and across generations. We are thrilled to support these artists from diverse geographic regions of the state this year, including several from the Houston area, east Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, and west Texas. Thanks to our partnerships with the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, local arts organizations, community groups and community-based small businesses across Texas, we were able to share this opportunity with a wide array of artists who illustrate mastery in a variety of traditions.”
2019 Texas Folklife Apprenticeships in the Folk and Traditional Arts Awardees
- Master Ed Poullard (Beaumont) and apprentice Jesse Lege (Austin) in the art of Cajun accordion building
- Master Nestor Topchy (Houston) and apprentice Adrian Jimenez (Houston) in the art of Pysanky
- Master Shawn Hoefer (Mountain View, AR) and apprentice Sheryl Hartz (Nacogdoches) in the art of custom broom making
- Master Steve Dabbs (Marathon) and apprentice Rance Peebles (Alpine) in the art of custom western saddlemaking
- Master Steve Hartz (Nacogdoches) and apprentice Tony Jurek (Chireno) in the art of luthiery
- Master Derrick Hulin (Humble) and apprentice Lashime Brown (Houston) in the art of Mardi Gras Indian suits
- Master Juan Longoria Jr. (Brownsville) and apprentice Barbara Canales (Los Fresnos) in the art of Conjunto accordion
- Master Sepir Yakana (San Antonio) and apprentice Sabrina Yakana (San Antonio) in the art of Pingelap stick dance
- Master John Davis (Fort Davis) and apprentice Felicia Locke (Fort Davis) in the art of custom cowboy hats
- Master Juan Mancias (Floresville) and apprentice Eddie Garcia (Houston) in the art of Esto’k G’na drumming and singing traditions
- Master Ricardo Izquierdo (Houston) and apprentice Maria Avellaneda (Houston) in the art of Afro-Cuban folkloric dance and percussion
The Texas Folklife Apprenticeship Program is made possible by a State Partnership Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Texas Commission on the Arts, and support from the board and members of Texas Folklife. Additional support is provided by City of Austin the Cultural Arts Division.