Through his lyricism, Mike Beck chronicles the life of an artist in the West.


Nervousness is a condition Mike Beck abjures, yet he stands offstage gripping his Martin protectively as he waits for Live from the Divide’s host to finish introducing him. Beck straightens his shoulder-length hair and adjusts the brim of a Western hat. He’s attired in a jean jacket and faded Wranglers, yet his stature is formally solid, a remnant, perhaps, of his past as a buckaroo in the Nevada high country or his passion for training horses. Many of his songs—praised by everyone from Ian Tyson to folk godfather Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Tom Petty—explore those traditions. Tonight, on Bozeman’s hip northeast side, he will have 90 minutes to present them in a solo performance that will mix narratives of the troubadour life with the folk, country, cowboy and California-rock songs that have made him a legend. At 70, Beck has played hundreds of shows throughout the United States and Europe. But tonight’s is unique for the Bozeman, Montana venue’s intimacy. Before a stage decorated with a Big Sky backdrop of snow-dusted mountains, 50 patrons await his appearance. The house is full.

Applause welcomes him, as it will warm him throughout tonight’s performance. His guitar case, pasted with stickers from his travels, rests behind him on a riser. He adjusts his capo and begins.

A song this audience knows as Beck’s most intimate—and one that encapsulates his own journey—is titled “Livin’ in the Arts.” To a gentle acoustic strum, the lyrics lay out the challenges of the creative life, those faced by practitioners such as Hank Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Richard Brautigan, each of whom succumbed to pressures of courting the muse and died early. Beck will present more than a dozen songs this evening, each accompanied by a colorful story, but none will move his listeners more than this one. Its lyrics go:

I’m so lonesome, I could cry/ You know that’s how Hank Williams died/ in the backseat of a car/of a broken heart/ Hemingway and Brautigan/ They ended it all with a Remington/ Livin’ in the Arts/ Is a dangerous thing/ Now Van Gogh chopped off his ear/ When all his other options seemed to disappear/ But he gave us The Paris Café on a starry night/ Lane Frost rode that bucking bull/ To his death, but he was cowboy cool/ Livin’ in the arts is a dangerous thing. The song’s promise is in its final line: But not me, I’m just going to dream a way, I’m just going to find a way, for one more dance with you. “You,” of course, is the artist’s muse.

“The creation of art, to me, is a blessing,” Beck has said. “To be excited about something at my age is a gift … Music and horses. I still get excited about them.”

Beck visits with two colts in their corral near Milligan Canyon in southwest Montana.

“Nevada was my two years before the mast—my Harvard and Yale,” Beck says in the old saloon at Ted’s Montana Grill in Bozeman. “But even cowboying, I kept my guitar and fiddle with me.” Over supper, he relates his journey as a traveling troubadour and traveling minstrel, one that began as a boy— “barely licked off”—in Monterey, California, then took him hitchhiking through the Pacific Northwest, Jack Kerouac-style, then to working ranches near Salinas, California, and three-to-five-month sojourns as a buckaroo on the 2-million-acre Spanish Ranch, near Tuscarora, Nevada.

“We had 20,000 mother cows and rode 50 miles a day. Camp was 70 miles from town. My first day there, a horse broke its leg and, having no gun, they had to kill it with an axe. Those cowboys included ex-cons, draft dodgers, and guys running from the law. It was like shipping out. Everything in life was Girl Scout camp after that.”

Here at Ted’s, he forks up a portion of bison meatloaf and gravied mashed potatoes but takes neither wine nor beer. He’s a stocky fellow of moderate height, with a trim beard, the hands of a cowboy rather than a musician, and a countenance that belies his years. “I grew up in California during the 1960s, a golden time,” he says. “It was the Beach Boys, it was Ken Kesey, it was Alan Watts and Carlos Casteneda, it was Haight Ashbury, it was Monterey Pop. And near my house was Carmel, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and Big Sur.”

His lyrics, in songs like “John Steinbeck Drank in Here” or “Quite Like This” celebrate the fun he enjoyed (In a ’56 Willys pickup truck/ bale of hay in the back and a border collie pup/ It’s the tightest turn that I’ve ever been on/ Maybe that’s why they call it Highway One) but they dodge the tensions of a home life that were difficult to navigate. His father, a retired Navy chief, “drank and could be violent,” Beck says. The elder Beck “had been at every major assault in the Pacific during World War II.” He’d grown up as an orphan in Pittsburgh, suffered from PTSD, and “was a tough little Irishman, a badass.” Significantly for

Beck, his father held no brief for music, suggesting that path was “not worthy of anything” and that musicians were effeminate.

Beck adds, “He was happy with me until I started to become my own person. Which was associated with the hip movement that was happening in Big Sur and Monterey. I was dead set on that road. I’m still on it.”

Beck’s mother, who was French Canadian and had grown up on a ranch in Alberta, was her husband’s opposite. “She was a strong woman with a great deal of empathy and kindness,” who had worked as a welder in San Pedro’s shipyards during World War II, “and was more understanding of what I wanted to accomplish. She loved music, owned Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joan Baez albums. She supported me as much as she could, while my dad was alive.”

Beck’s father died when Mike was 16. “It was a massive heart attack. Stress killed him.” Beck touches the side of his plate. “There was such high tension at home. When he passed, I was horrified and sad, but there was also relief that I could be myself.”

Beck came to horses early. His mother bought him his first. “I was in third grade. We had a little place outside of Monterey, but we could ride out across what became Clint Eastwood’s property, all the way to Carmel Valley.”

Horses and guitars would mark Beck’s career path, one that’s supported him emotionally as well as financially. For horses, the awakening would happen in his association with “whisperers” like Ray Hunt and Bill and Tom Dorrance, pioneers in what would be dubbed the natural horsemanship movement. This philosophy utilizes not the traditional tools of “breaking” horses, but those of schooling them more intuitively, more gently. For music, Beck’s epiphany came at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, with performances by the Mamas and Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, and Jimi Hendrix. As Beck wrote in “Summer of Love,” I grew up in California in the summer of love/ Jimi burned his guitar like a sign from above/ I was just thirteen, I was standing in the rain/ The wind from the ocean was calling out my name.

“After my father’s death, I sought out father figures, but not consciously,” he says. “Ian Tyson was one, Jack Elliott is one, and Bill Dorrance was definitely one.”

Between the hardscrabble summers as a buckaroo in Nevada (“I earned $10 a day”), Beck lived at Dorrance’s ranch between Carmel Valley and Salinas, doing chores and learning to train horses. Beck found Dorrance to be a priest of equestrian Zen. “I was in a hurry all the time. He turned that around in me. He taught me to see what happens before what happens happens. ‘This is just life, Mike,’ he’d say. ‘Horses are just life.’”

Dorrance was kindness personified. “He spoke softly, was real steady. He didn’t say bad things about people. He didn’t raise his voice. I had the luxury of not being his son. We had a wonderful relationship.”

Nudging aside his plate, Beck adds, “But from both my parents, I learned manners. And from my dad, an appreciation of work. I feel honored to have been raised by two people who came through the Depression and World War II. I don’t think we’ll see the likes of them again.”

Beck sits in the saddle in Montana in 1979. PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE BECK

“Storytelling is so important. It’s something I learned cowboying, and it’s part of the folk tradition. A story should take you someplace. And lead you in. That’s my job, as a performer. Leading you in.” – Mike Beck

A Mike Beck show can take several forms. It might be acoustic, with Beck performing alone on a Martin D-18, or it might be electric, with him playing a custom Fender and accompanied by his band, The Bohemian Saints. That group includes a drummer, a bassist and guitarist, occasionally a pedal steel player, and Beck on his B-Bender Telecaster, signed by everyone from Rodney Crowell to Marty Stewart. The Parsons/White String-Bender is a device that raises the B string of an electric guitar one step, producing a twang or crying sound reminiscent of that made by a pedal steel. It was developed in 1968 by the Byrds’ Gene Parsons and Clarence White and played by White on several of the Byrds’ albums. “Clarence’s bluegrass picking was what I first aspired to,” Beck says, “but his electric style is what led me to the B-Bender.” In 1977 Gene Parsons fitted Beck’s Telecaster with a B-Bender, and Beck’s mastery of that instrument has contributed to his reputation as a virtuoso guitarist.

Ramblin’ Jack has said of Beck, “His strings do things that mine never could. They obey the slightest finger-touch commands, like a fine reining horse.” Western songwriter Tom Russell has said that Beck’s songs “are filled with braided rawhide and mission bells.” And, “He’s a better guitarist than I am.” Tyson, before his death, said of Beck’s cowboy oeuvre, “Mike’s plowing new ground. He’s not re-recording the old Hollywood matinee music from the ’30s and ’40s [Gene Autry’s, Tex Ritter’s, or The Sons of the Pioneers], and he’s better than all those newer Western guys.”

Beck laughs at these encomiums. “Ian told me, ‘You’re too good a guitar player for cowboy music.’ I didn’t listen.”

A Bohemian Saints set might include numbers Beck wrote with Tyson, a song like “In Old California” or “Juan Guadalupe,” a Beck composition upon which Tyson sang. Or a California love song like “Amanda Come Home,” which Beck wrote for an army language specialist in the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, who would ship out during the Iraq war and has remained Beck’s friend. Its lyrics have been played on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” and the song was featured on Neil
Young’s website:

Rolling down some desert highway/ On the other side of the world/ All dressed up in camo/ She’s her mama’s little girl … / Yesterday she was a little girl/ Bringing home a bird with a broken wing/ Amanda come home … / On the outskirts of Baqubah/ The IEDs are going down/ The ringing of a cell phone/ Could be the last sound/ So keep your eyes wide open/ And cover up your heart/ Amanda come home … / Last night I had a dream/ You couldn’t remember your name/ You couldn’t wash that smell off your skin/ You couldn’t stop hearing all the cries of pain/ But when you get home/ We’ll mend the bird with the broken wing/ Amanda come home.

Several artists have recorded the song, but as Beck says, “I always hoped Natalie Maines of The Chicks would do it. She could sing the hell out of it.”

“Juan Guadalupe,” which drew Tyson to Beck (“He called me …”) led to a collaboration that continued until that storied performer’s death. They sang together and as mentioned, cowrote “In Old California,” which celebrates the vaquero tradition of that state. “We performed at the Emerson in Bozeman and talked about horses often,” Beck says. “When I wrote ‘Patrick’ and ‘Don’t Hurt My Heart,’ he said, ‘You can’t write a song from a horse’s point of view!’ Then he wrote ‘La Primera,’ about the first Spanish horse to come to the Americas.”

Much of Beck’s work gentling horses (for 20 years he traveled to Scandinavia, offering horsemanship clinics) has reflected not just what he learned from Bill Dorrance, but how he’d preferred to have been schooled in Monterey classrooms, “where I learned nothing,” and what he was exposed to at home by his father. This history is recalled in several of his songs, “Don’t Hurt My Heart” being the most poignant. It’s a horse’s first-person plea: I met some men with kind hands/ Others were hard as steel/ Worked me hard and then they gave me the whip/ Never thinking about how I feel/ So don’t sore my back/ Don’t you jerk my mouth/ Don’t hurt my heart/ And I’ll run to you.

Another mentor, whom Beck met with Ramblin’ Jack, was Merle Haggard, “The Shakespeare of country music,” Beck calls him, as well as Buck Owens, a progenitor of the Bakersfield, California sound. That movement, less slick than Nashville’s, predated the country rock of the 1970s and, with its twangy guitar riffs and heavy backbeats, excited Beck. The metropolis of greater Bakersfield with its honkytonks, the Blackboard and the Highlife, are the subject of his song, “Oildale,” about Haggard’s neighboring hometown:

At the edge of the California cotton fields/ At the bottom of the Grapevine Hill/ There’s a town where country music was made/ There’s a few who remember still/ Where the California Oakie/ Landed in his Dust Bowl flight/ Where he labored in the fields by day/ And he honkytonked at night,” but “They tore down the Blackboard/ And there ain’t much left to see/ There ain’t no yuppies in Oildale/ It’s damn near yuppie free.

The troubadour life is one epitomized by Beck’s mentor, the 92-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a physician’s son from Brooklyn who left home in the 1940s to rodeo, sing cowboy songs, and travel with his mentor, Woody Guthrie. “I’ve opened for Jack in many concerts,” Beck says, “have accompanied him in others, such as the John Prine tribute last year at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, and have more or less cared for him on the road.” Elliott’s rambling inspired Beck’s storytelling and he’s written a ditty about Jack, titled “I Got a Friend”: Well, I got a friend / Named Ramblin’ Jack / Got a lot of stories to tell / Sat on his couch / Drinking his wine / I lost all track of time …”

“Storytelling is so important,” Beck says. “It’s something I learned cowboying, and it’s part of the folk tradition. A story should take you someplace. And lead you in. That’s my job, as a performer. Leading you in.”

The Dorrance philosophy of horsemanship has aided Beck in accepting the roller coaster ride of the art life, where doors to superstardom have nearly opened, but then not, and expectations from Nashville agents and Hollywood stars have vanished. One was from a Garth Brooks representative, who dubbed Beck “a cowboy Bob Dylan,” then suggested he co-write songs with Nashville songwriters. “I didn’t want to do that,” Beck says. “No way.” Another opportunity was to have his tribute to the small-town West, “Don’t Tell Me,” covered by Linda Ronstadt and included on the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s 1998 film, The Horse Whisperer. “I thought that was my ticket out of the ghetto,” Beck says, chuckling. “But it didn’t happen.” More recently, Beck’s friend and Tom Petty associate, Herb Pedersen, played Beck’s song, “Itty Bitty Girl,” for Tom, who loved it, and there was talk of Petty’s group, Mudcrutch, recording either it or “Oildale.” But that dream was scrubbed with Petty’s 2017 death.

“In the music world, there are a ton of things that never happen,” Beck says. I’ve learned to go inside and be Zen about it. That’s a hard, hard lesson. What I do, like the show at Live from the Divide, has to fulfill me. You do your thing and let people come to you. I’m pretty much at peace.”

The Dorrance theory, that a horse is most interested in self- preservation, meshes well with Beck’s. Tom Dorrance, in his 1987 book, True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Human, wrote that “the rider needs to recognize the horse’s need for self-preservation in Mind, Body, and the third factor, Spirit … He needs to … assure the horse that he can have his self-preservation and still respond to what the person is asking him to do. That is going to be a useful thing to both the person and the horse.”

Or as Tom’s brother, Bill, characterized horsemanship, “It’s just life.”

Mike Beck jamming in his kitchen. His apartment is cozy and decorated with art he’s collected throughout his life.

A week later, Beck is gentling his 10-year-old mare, Juanita, in a corral near Milligan Canyon in southwest Montana, at a friend’s ranch where he boards her. He’s hand- combed her forelock and stroked her neck. Most days he will spend time schooling her, but he’s moved to an adjacent corral, where two colts—one 9 months old, the other 6—rest together in the dirt. They rise at Beck’s approach, trembling slightly and gauging his demeanor, which is non-threatening yet precise.

The day is chilly, dusk is approaching, and Beck adjusts his buckaroo scarf high on his neck. Earlier, he’s posed for photographs at his Manhattan, Montana apartment, a studio above a garage sheltering his landlord’s vintage Mercury convertible and Beck’s Royal Enfield motorcycle. He owns two bikes, the second a Triumph Bonneville, about which he’s written the song, “650”: It’s got the guts, man it’s got the style/ And if you can turn a wrench, you’ll get many a mile/ It’s born in the Midlands and assembled with pride/ Those Brits made a mighty fine ride. He keeps it in Monterey for trips along the Pacific Coast, where before Christmas he will play several shows. He’ll then screen a documentary film, Closer to the Light, about his life and art, that in late January will premiere at Elko’s National Cowboy Poetry and Songwriting Gathering, where for 15 years he’s performed. Earlier in January, he’ll participate in a tribute concert to Ramblin’ Jack, in a San Francisco extravaganza featuring Joan Baez, Rickie Lee Jones, Rodney Crowell, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Maria Muldaur, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Corb Lund, and others. Beck is honored to have been included. But for the moment he’s concentrating on horsemanship.

The little colt was orphaned at three weeks, her mother killed by lightning or some unknown force, and Beck is taken with her. “She’s a blank slate,” he says, “so far as training goes.” He strokes her neck, then moves away and taps a coiled lariat against his thigh. She reacts to the sound and walks cautiously toward him.

“That’s right,” he says, moving behind her. “I’m letting her get the feel of me, and letting her idea become my idea,” he explains. “I’ll shake my coils. I’ll go rub on her.” His voice softens. “She’s shaping her body to the left. Now she needs to rearrange her hindquarters and feet. She wants confidence in me, in herself, and in her surroundings. ‘I kind of like being with you,’ she’s telling me. ‘I’m with Mike, and the last time he didn’t let me down.’” He looks aside. “She has to get into the frame of mind where she’s a partner. You can’t make a horse, or anybody be your friend. You have to earn it.”

He shakes the lariat and the colt moves forward. “That’s right,” he whispers, “you never had a momma, did you? And you want a momma, don’t you?”

The colt drops her nose against Beck’s hand. If she could sing, her choice would be “Don’t Hurt My Heart.” Before a darkening sky, Beck and the colt stand together.

Toby Thompson is the author of six books of nonfiction, including Positively Main Street, his biography of Bob Dylan, and Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West. He has written for publications as varied as Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Outside, and Men’s Journal. He is a part-time resident of Livingston, Montana, and teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State.