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Tucson Weekly In The Black

From Field Veterinarian To Cowboy Poet, Baxter Black Has Been The People's Jester.

By Leo Banks

AUGUST 3, 1998: 

BENSON, ARIZONA--IT'S morning in the great room of Baxter Black's ranch house. The place is a blur of activity. One assistant is typing on a computer and answering the steady clang of telephones, while another stuffs cassettes and videotapes into boxes for shipment to Black's fans nationwide. Since 1981, he's sold about 400,000 tapes, and a monster pile of self-published books.

"Total number?" Black asks, stroking his snoozing-ferret mustache. "Why, I don't know, what with all the editions and such. It's more than 400,000, I know that much."

It sounds like the operation of a California self-help guru, or maybe a shrimp-and-ginger-ale diet huckster with a fabulous mailing list.

But Black is actually a cowboy poet, a kind of dirt-road Martha Stewart. He takes the everyday grist of ranch living and turns it into material so entertaining that rural folk pay a handsome price, and sometimes drive hundreds of miles, to see his shows.

Consider this: On a weekend night in Ponca City, Okla., Black will draw 700 people to a downtown theater at $15 a throw. In one of his typically complex explanations, the 53-year-old former large-animal veterinarian says, "I talk to cow people, horse people and hog people. I tell 'em funny stories and they laugh."

Black was born in New Mexico, son of an animal science professor, a man with his boots in the mud and the academy at the same time. Baxter got his veterinary degree from Colorado State in 1969, and one of his early jobs was for a company that owned feedlots around the West. He traveled from lot to lot caring for animals, and gathering with lonesome cowboys to swap stories.

He developed a flair for performing while working for a Denver-based pharmaceutical company. Black spoke and entertained livestock producers at some 250 meetings a year. When he got laid off in 1982, Black was two years into a column that today is syndicated in 140 rural newspapers and trade journals.

He also does a weekly spot that airs on 220 commercial radio stations, he makes 70 appearances a year, and is an irregular contributor to National Public Radio. The latter, along with six guest spots on the Tonight Show, has given him enough of a following among urban sophisticates that when he appeared at an autographing session in Rochester, N.Y., the organizers actually sold tickets.

As a self-described mildly famous person, Black is a tad troubled that people actually start to believe what he says. "They confuse celebrity with knowledge," he explains. "The real trap is believing it yourself. Now and then I get off the deep end and have to remind myself I don't know what I'm talking about."

An example was an NPR commentary on the current fight between the government and big tobacco. Black launched into the frenzy of politicians and lawyers lining up for a giant payday, and drew calls from people who were indignant over his indignation. "I might've been right, but getting indignant's no good," he says. "What I do best is humor."

Like the guaranteed laugh he gets when he tells of the Boston woman visiting Arizona who calls wanting to go to lunch with Black, and they decide on oysters. "When you say oysters in my world, it isn't the same thing as in hers," he says, eyebrows at appropriate elevation.

Black describes that kind of humor as rubbing cultural tectonic plates together. He's a living example of a cow-country boy who sips Rimrock bottled water while drawling the signature opening of his commercial radio show, "Call the dogs and put out the fire"...yet he knows gosh-darn well how to book and promote an engagement to guarantee maximum profit.

But he also knows that the work he does now isn't really work at all.

"Work is laying on your back underneath a cow at night in the middle of a field, a cowboy in a pickup nearby with the lights on so you can see, snowflakes sizzling against your body as you try to shove a prolapse back in."

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