Cowboys & Indians: Since you performed so many times back in the day on The Tonight Show — and, indeed, you’ve released a DVD featuring your appearances there — we have to ask: What was Johnny Carson really like?
Baxter Black: [Laughs.] Well, first I’d have to tell you how I got invited on the show in the first place. You see, there’s so many things I have done — writing books and poetry, working as a public speaker, being on radio and TV — because I’d just shoot these arrows. And I don’t know where they’re going to land. And I wind up in so many places — well, I kind of feel like Forrest Gump. Like, Oh, here I am on with Johnny Carson. Gee, how did that happen?
C&I: OK, let’s start at the start. You were trained as a veterinarian, and worked for three large companies. But you drifted into entertaining during your last gig, when you started moonlighting as a public speaker — and a poet?
Baxter: Oh, yes, the poetry gatherings started. For a while, I think I was probably the only cowboy poet on the face of this earth who was making enough to buy a used car.
C&I: And that led to your appearances on National Public Radio?
Baxter: Indirectly. Back in 1988, you had the Yellowstone National Park fires. We were living in Denver at the time, and I wrote some poems about it. And we liked listening to NPR a lot. But, I don’t know, it seemed like they only covered Washington and New York because that’s all they had the money for. And out here, our world’s burning up, and they’re not even mentioning it.
C&I: So you shot an arrow?
Baxter: I recorded one of these poems on tape. And then, yeah, I pulled my arrow back and shot it off to NPR. Of course, I knew how it usually goes with unsolicited material. Most places have a special place for it — the garbage can. But for some reason, I just lucked out because somebody opened the envelope that had the little reel that I put in there. The odds are hundreds to one, but somebody listened to it, and they said to somebody else, “Hey. Come listen to this.” [Laughs] And so after a few days, this guy calls me up, and he says, “Are you Baxter Black?” And I said, “Yes. I am.” “Well, you sent us this poem, and you wrote it?” I said, “Yeah, I did.” “Well, do you mind if we run it on the air?” And I said, “What?”
Baxter: Yeah. They ran it, and it got good acceptance. So that guy called back in the next day or two, and he said, “We used it. That was pretty good. Do you have anything else?” I said, “Sure.” I didn’t want to tell him that I had so many other tapes piled up in my home, I couldn’t crawl over them.
C&I: So you’re a semi-regular on NPR, you’re getting booked for dozens of speaking engagements a year, you’re getting offers from the William Morris Agency to represent you, you’re even making enough money as a cowboy poet to buy a used car — and then you get a call from The Tonight Show.
Baxter: It took me two years to do that. And once I got on, the first I had to tell them was, “We can do this, but do it so it’s not so tacky. You see, in my world, the rural world, there’s two rules you can’t break if you want to do agricultural banquets, which is what I do. One of them is, you can’t cuss. And the other was, you can’t be drunk on stage.”
C&I: And I bet they had no problem with that.
Baxter: Yeah, I got along really well with Johnny — he was a real gentleman. And I was on his show until he went off the air. In fact, at one point, they told me, “Johnny would like to have you on more often.” But I had to decline. I said, “Thanks, but even now, when I’m on your show once a year in January, and they replay it in June — every time I turn around, people say, ‘I heard you say that on Johnny Carson.’ ” And that gets to be a problem, especially for comedians. You run the risk of running out of new things to say.
C&I: Well, that hasn’t happened to you. You’re still writing novels — with three of them newly released on CDs — and you’re still on radio and TV. Still writing cowboy poetry and newspaper columns. Still on the speaking circuit.
Baxter: [Laughs.] That’s right. Still shooting arrows.
Find out more at baxter-black.merchmadeeasy.com
Photography: Header courtesy Coyote Cowboy Company, illustration by Jonathan Fehr
From our January 2021 issue.