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Poem on the Range : * Baxter Black and other literary cowboys will gather in Santa Clarita for a festival celebrating their art.


NEWHALL — Baxter Black rushed to the phone and caught his breath as he answered the call.

"We found the dog," he said. "He'd slipped into the barn. Spent the better part of two days in there. We'd been pouring a little cement, you see, patching some holes outside the barn where the colt had kicked in. Then the dog disappeared. . . . Thought he'd been either shot at or run over."

At his home in Brighton, Colo., northeast of Denver, where his thriving Coyote Cowboy Co. is headquartered, Black set time aside from his chores to discuss his appearance tonight at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry, Music and Film Festival. But the style of his chat was much like his pieces for public radio.

Black, who has been called the poet laureate of the lariat, is a modern-day Will Rogers and the dean of the cowboy bards. At his 20-acre site, which Black calls his "place," he keeps livestock (cows, horses), fattens them up and sells them later. When he buys them, they are called "killers" because if he didn't buy them, they'd go to slaughter. (He has agriculture interests in Texas and New Mexico, but the Colorado ranch is not his main for-profit operation.)

He writes weekly columns, now in 109 U.S. and Canadian newspapers; shoots hourlong video specials for 140 public television stations; writes and self-publishes books (more than 150,000 sold at last count), and records 3-minute weekly shows, laden with humorous commentary, for use by about 140 stations, including National Public Radio. He also averages 100 appearances a year, and tonight, who knows what Black will draw from when he opens the first Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry, Music and Film Festival to be held at Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio.

"I don't have a plan, but I have a lot of material," Black said, "and we won't know until we get there if we've drawn a bunch of farmers or people who are suburbanites who just like cowboys.

"Santa Clarita will be hard to judge. When I speak in Chino or Santa Maria or Brawley, it's different. There you have your vegetable growers and cattle-feeders. But now, Santa Clarita might be a little more like Evansville, Ind. You don't tell the same stories that would be inside jokes in Fresno among the cow business."

Originally budgeted at $83,000, the event had been set at Hart High School until the Jan. 17 earthquake damaged the school auditorium. But when the city, the festival's sponsor, requested a $13,000 federal grant, many citizens opposed having the event at all, since they felt their tax dollars could be better used for the homeless and other matters more pressing than a cowboy festival.

Nevertheless, the festival is on for three days. Planners hope to draw buckaroos from throughout California and the West, the way the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., does every January. In fact, city officials modeled this weekend's program on Elko's gathering, after attending it last year.

"We tried to draw from the best-known, best-loved performers," event coordinator Cecilia Burda said, "the major artists from all over the country on the cowboy poetry circuit."

Black, 49, has attended every Elko gathering since 1983.

There's a distinct difference, he says, between a cowboy poetry show and a cowboy poetry gathering.

"A gathering is three guys telling each other stories. It's sort of based on reality. It doesn't require a ticket and it's held at a local high school. Someone might pick out a theme and the audience wanders from room to room. I have always thought of Elko as a gathering," Black said.

"A show is when someone wants a good crowd and I'm supposed to draw a good crowd. I'm not Orson Welles reading to a bunch of blue-haired people in the garden, though. My background is medical, and as a former veterinarian, well, my subjects are sort of cow-y."

Black often gets asked to draw from his books of poetry, "The Vegetarian's Guide to the Cowboy" and "The Cowboy's Guide to Vegetarians." An excerpt:

I had planted a garden last April

And lovingly sang it a ballad .

But later in June beneath a full moon

I, forgive me, I wanted a salad!

When he appears in readings, Black is more widely identified with his opinion columns in newspapers such as the Florida Cattleman in Kissimmee, Fla., or the Midwest Marketer in Bloomfield, Iowa, than he is with his appearances on public TV or radio.

"There's virtually no crossover between people who hear me on NPR and people who know me as an agricultural columnist," he said, referring to "On the Edge of Common Sense," the agribusiness column he describes as "mostly humorous, occasionally political, accidentally informative." (Black writes about the values and issues affecting cowboys, farmers and ranchers. Recent subjects include the Bureau of Land Management, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the wearing of furs.)

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