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Ropin' the Wild Country with Mike Blakely
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
2001-03-01
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He's a best selling western writer. Just put out a great nostalgia-driven cd for the big hat set. And he keeps himself alive by touring with songs and writing historical western columns in newspapers. Is he Man or Myth? Now we find out.

[Ben Ohmart] How are you able to pursue so many careers all at once? Don't you ever run out of time?

[Mike Blakely] Few people realize this, but I am actually twins. Or is it triplets? I forget. Seriously, keeping several creative enterprises going at once does take some juggling and scrambling. I write novels, play live music, record CDs, and run my own record company. That's a lot for one simple country boy to handle. I've learned to become more efficient because of it. Also, many of these endeavors work hand-in-hand. For example, when I am playing a live gig somewhere, I am not only promoting my music, I'm also promoting my books. When I research a new novel, I often turn up song ideas at the same time. I write a lot of song while traveling. I've learned to make all my careers dovetail. I also am blessed with a lot of help from various folks, and I make sure I take time off to relax.

[Ben] If some varment put a gun to your head and forced you to brand the rest of your life as a novelist OR a singer, which would you have to rope?

[Mike] I'm glad no varmints exist with that motivation. I mean, why would somebody hold a gun to my head for that reason? But, now I'm thinking like a novelist, and avoiding your question. I'm glad I don't have to choose. The careers work so well together. Writing a novel is a lonely undertaking. You sit in a room alone and stare at a computer screen for hours at a time. Music is the antithesis -- especially when performing live. You get instant feedback from a song. You may have to wait months or even years before someone reviews your novel. So, I think I'll just keep creating both music and novels. I also keep my manure-shoveling skills current in case I ever have to fall back on that.

[Ben] Are there too many westerns on tv? Is the Old West still a mainstream marketable force, or has it slipped a rung or 2 in favor of sci-fi, romantic comedy, etc?

[Mike] I see very few new westerns on TV, unfortunately. The ones that do make it to the screen are often simplistic, stereotypical, trite, and lacking in authenticity. I think this is the reason why the western movie has lost so much ground to sci-fi, mysteries, and thrillers. If more writers, producers, and directors would engage in meaningful historical research, and avoid the hackneyed shoot-outs and other Hollywood clichés, the western would have a chance at a comeback. Integrity is the key. A western movie should be a historical film first, a great story with believable characters second, and a wild west show last.

In print, however, the western continues to hold its own. I know many writers who earn all or part of their livelihoods writing about the American West. The market for western novels goes in cycles and has been declared dead many times, but refuses to go away. The western represents a uniquely American form of literature, and readers worldwide sense that.

[Ben] Are there still enough plains to go ridin' on? In this overpopulated world of ours, what do you miss the most about the dusty days of yore?

[Mike] The open range is shrinking and the country is crowding up, there's no doubt about it. But, we are lucky in this country in that state and federal authorities, and some private groups, have set aside lands for public enjoyment. There are still places to ride and enjoy the outdoors. A few private land owners have succeeded in holding on to big spreads, too. Many of them have had to branch out from ranching into tourism, game hunting, and other public-oriented businesses to hold onto their lands.

As for me, I feel lucky to have been born into my time and place. I don't waste energy pining for bygone days. I ride a couple of times a week, work cattle occasionally, enjoy my small ranch, and sing by the light of a lot of camp fires. Life is good.

[Ben] Are there any specific historic events that have sparked your songs?

[Mike] A specific historic event is more likely to inspire a novel from me, rather than a song. However, many of my tunes like "The Whiskey Trader's Song" and "The Last Comanche Moon" definitely reflect historic themes.

[Ben] Ever thought about putting out a multimedia event to combine music and words, like Stephen King did with F13, and now Clive Barker?

[Mike] I haven't yet found the multi-media idea that I think I could do with artistic integrity. If I did something like that, I wouldn't want it to come off as gimmicky. There would have to be a reason for doing it. It would have to involve a story that could only be told through more than one medium. In general, I believe in writing novels and songs that can stand on their own.

[Ben] Your songs seem more nostalgia oriented than pure country. Do you get much feedback from fans who really don't wear cowboy hats?

[Mike] I have received many encouraging and surprisingly touching responses from folks all over the country. Some are sure-enough cowboys. Some never saw the tail end of a cow. My music seems to appeal to people from many walks of life. Urban dwellers fascinated with the novelty of open ranges seem drawn in by an escapism experience. Real cowboys, ranchers, and horse trainers have complimented me on the authenticity of tunes like "The Horses in My String." So, whether they wear boots or loafers of sandals, my fans seem to enjoy getting into the imagery of my songs.

As for writing from a nostalgic point of view, that will gradually change as I record more albums. My first two western CDs, "Ride the River" and "West of You," seemed like natural extensions of my career as a historical western novelist. However, I also write other songs that fall into other categories like country, Americana, Tex-Mex, and blues. My next album will probably be a little more eclectic. On the first two CDs, I stuck to a western theme. In the future, my only theme may be my best attempts at quality songwriting, regardless of genre.

[Ben] Subscribing to this religion for a moment, can you describe who you were in a past life?

[Mike] I've been asked this before, but I can never conjure an answer. I don't want anyone to think that I am not a spiritual person, but at the same time, I don't want to fake it. I don't necessarily reject the idea of reincarnation, but I have never experienced an inkling that I existed in a previous lifetime. However, I do feel instinctive desires to explore, seek adventure, experience divergent cultures, and enjoy my non-typical lifestyle. Maybe this comes from some inherited ancestral experience. Who knows? On the other hand, considering my hard-headedness, maybe I was a rock in a previous life.

[Ben] Any idea why the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles is now unedited when just 10 years ago it was played in silence on regular television?

[Mike] You may not believe this, but I have never seen Blazing Saddles. I know it's a comedy classic and all. Sorry, I just seemed to have missed it. I know the scene to which you refer. I've seen clips of it from time to time. It never impressed me as very funny, though it was outrageous for its time. Maybe you have to get into the mood of the whole movie to appreciate it. I'm usually more impressed by well-written verbal humor than by slapstick or sight gags, or in this case, gas gags.

[Ben] How long does it ordinarily take you to research and pump out a novel? Where would you say lies your dominant reader fan base?

[Mike] There's no simple answer. A short book, of course, takes less time to write. I wrote "Summer of Pearls" in two and half months. By contrast, "Comanche Dawn" took two and a half years because of its length and the in-depth research. The optimum situation, from a marketing point of view, is to crank out a manuscript every 12 months so that readers can look forward to a new book about the same time every year. This has become increasingly difficult for me as my books get longer and I spend more time in the music business, but I'm managing to keep my readers supplied with a pretty steady stream of fiction.

As for my fan base, it is pretty well spread out nationwide, thanks to Forge Books. You might think that most of my readers would live in the west, but not necessarily. Westerns sell well in the east, too. There are reasons for this. Population is still higher in the east, so more potential buyers live there. Also, though people like to read about their homeland, they also enjoy escaping into an adventure of another place and time. And, though it's clich, it's true that a good story with good characters will attract readers no matter what the genre. I'm also pleased to report that my CD "West of You" is enjoying airplay coast-to-coast.

[Ben] What are your short term/long term goals? Owning a ranch, being the western Agatha Christie, etc?

[Mike] As for my goals, I do own a small piece of ranch land and, yes, I would like to own more. As the famous trail driver and rancher, Shanghai Pierce, once said, "I don't want all the land. I just want all the land that borders mine." I'm not quite that greedy, but I do appreciate some space around me. I like to ride and train horses. I enjoy the outdoors and I do my best to manage my land for wildlife as well as livestock. I also like to share my ranch with friends and family.

Thanks for asking the other part of this question in reference to Agatha Christie rather than Louis L'Amour. I've heard the latter a hundred times. Let's face it. There's not going to be another Louis L'Amour. I'm not trying to copy anybody's career, and my instinct tells me it would be the professional kiss of death to do so. I want to tell original stories in print and song that leave a lasting impression. I want to create images that change people's lives for the better, if only for a few moments. I hope my career will continue to reward me financially, and I work hard at being a good businessman, but my focus is on artistic integrity and originality.

[Ben] Where is your horse going to hitch these day? (Your calendar of events..)

[Mike] I'm as busy as a stockyard tumblebug. The best way to keep up with my schedule is to go to my website -- yep, I'm a cyber-cowboy these days. Check out www.mikeblakely.com.

Related MusicDish e-Journal Articles:
» Mike Blakely - West of You - Swing Rider Records (2001-02-15)


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