The Strains of a Cowboy

Times Arts Editor

A decade ago at a small social gathering in Denver, I heard Slim Pickens recite a long, hilarious, dirty poem about cowboys. A few years ago, reviewing a collection of cowboy poetry, I complained that I’d never found a copy of the poem Slim recited, and by then Pickens himself had left us for distant ranges.

The column found its way to a cowboy performer named Val Geissler, then living near Missoula, Mont. He called me and said he knew the poem and would write down a copy for me. So he did and for good measure enclosed a tape of his rendition of it.

It’s called “The Open Ledger” and it was written by a long-gone cowboy poet named Curley Fletcher, who used to recite it in saloons for the price of a drink, or so Pickens had told us that night in Denver. From its first line it is ineligible for a family paper but it’s ideal for the bunkhouse on a winter night.


Val Geissler and I spoke and corresponded a few times over the years and not long ago he called to say he would be swinging through Los Angeles after a performance upstate and wanted to stop by and say hello.

Well, he did, arriving at the house in a station wagon that appears to have survived a stampede of longhorns. Thiefproof, he explained; no self-respecting heister would bother with it. Val stands well over 6 feet and looks every inch the cowboy, from a black hat that has seen plenty of weather to boots that have too.

He’s 48, with big hands and a cheerful, outdoor face. I was curious to know how he came to be a balladeer. He was born in San Francisco, went to officers’ candidate school at Ft. Benning, Ga., and did a hitch as a lieutenant in the Army. He studied ranch management and animal husbandry at Cal State San Luis Obispo. He managed ranches near Ukiah in Northern California and worked some rodeos until injuries slowed him down.

He got into horse-trading and became one of the busiest traders in the West, he says; bought a ranch in Montana, overextended himself and lost it. Friends urged him to try his hand selling farms and ranches and he earned his license. “But I met more crooks in six weeks than I’d met in 25 years of horse-trading,” Geissler says, “and I quit it.”

At that point, burdened with debts and a busted marriage, he didn’t know quite what to do. “I did a lot of singing and my friends said I should try it professionally, but I never had a thought I could make a living at it. But I had to do something and I figured it was OK for friends to applaud me. I needed to find out what people thought who didn’t know me.

“I tanked up Old Paint--that was a junker of a car I’d paid $50 for--and I put a $5 bill in my pocket and headed west from Missoula. I stopped in farm towns and logging towns and wandered into saloons with my guitar and asked if I could sing a song or two and try for a night’s work. Oh, but it’s tough to go into places cold. You’re putting your back to the wall. It’s the last of the ninth in the seventh game of the Series every time.”

The car expired after a thousand miles, but by then Val had earned enough to buy a slightly better one, for $150. He had also figured out how to take command of an audience and he decided he had a product people were willing to pay for.

He was all but broke again when he came off the road, but four years ago he went to the first of the Cowboy Poetry Gatherings in Elko, Nev. From contacts he made there, he performed at the annual banquet of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Assn. and the next year at the Nevada State Fair. He is not about to give Elton John a run, but he works rodeos, fairs and banquets all over the Midwest and West and has a sheaf of testimonials and bookings into 1989.

He also still does his own horseshoeing and spends most of July breaking the new horses on a ranch owned by some friends. “I can still cowboy for a living,” Geissler says.

He has also begun to sell by mail-order tapes of his singing of the cowboy classics. He does “Strawberry Roan,” “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Night Rider’s Lament” and the others that tell of hard work, hard weather, sudden death, broncs that wouldn’t be tamed and those that finally were. In another vein are the galloping ballads of taverns and rascals, tall tales and practical jokes. But first and last, so it seems, the songs celebrate the big skies, the open land and an open society.

Most of Geissler’s audiences have been the groups who live the life, or something like it, but more and more he says he is invited by groups who aren’t in farming or livestock but who want to experience a Western culture that is changing but has not yet entirely disappeared--and probably never will.

“I get offers from Europe to come over there,” he says, “but I haven’t been able to put ‘em together yet so they make dollar sense.”

Life has made Geissler something of a philosopher. “I don’t have a credit card,” he says. “Wouldn’t have one. And I try not to confuse wants, needs and necessities, though I think everybody does these days. You have to take responsibility for your life, good or bad, and get on with it. I figure I’ve had 35 years worth of knocks, learning what I sing about.”

He has also learned to take time to smell the sagebrush. He and his lady will take most of August backpacking out of Cody, Wyo., where he now lives, and in October they will float down a river, admiring scenery that man has not been able to scar.