2023 Western Heritage Awards
I always question if I can pull off a cowboy hat.
I'm not a Westerner. I'm a Southern boy, born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I traveled west with my family many times growing up, spending time drenched in the history of the American West and exploring both the towns and the wilderness of a large swath of "The West" from Montana to New Mexico. I've camped in the La Sals and the Bighorns as often as I have in the Great Smokies, and I'm as familiar with the sights of Thermopolis and Moab as I am with Nashville or Memphis.
But I'm no cowboy, and I worry about being seen as a poser, an outsider, a pretender. I'm thinking about this as I walk into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, just as it opens at 10:00 AM on Friday, April 14th. The docents at the door are in pressed blue button-up shirts, Stetson hats, bolo ties, and tight, traditional jeans over tall cowboy boots. I'm in shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an untucked Hawaiian shirt. I'm here for a soundcheck, but the girl at the front desk doesn't know that. I imagine that to her, I look like the slew of tourists who pour into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum from all over the country and all around the world. They come to learn about the cowboy, to learn about the West. They come to see Western art by some of the greatest painters that ever captured the spirit of the American West with pencil, pen, or brush. They come to see walls covered in paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, N. C. Wyeth, Frederick Sackrider Remington, and Charles Marion Russell. They also come to see the men who captured the spirit of the West, not on paper or canvas, but on the silver screen. In the same room as Will Rogers' movie posters and a life-sized depiction of John Wayne is a display case with the literary, musical, film, and television winners of this year's Western Heritage Awards. Right there, on a panel in the old Cowboy Hall of Fame, is my name.
"Texas Jack Takes an Encore."
Matthew Kerns, Author
Wild West Magazine/HISTORYNET, Publisher
Next to the display of that year's award winners is a computer, where visitors can look at every person ever awarded a Western Heritage Award, also known as a Bronze Wrangler. I look up Texas Jack Omohundro, who was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers back in 1994. When I look up Texas Jack, a second entry is displayed. My article.
This all feels unreal, and as I walk down the long hall towards the Special Events Center, where the Awards ceremony will be held on Saturday night, I keep expecting someone to tell me that this has all been some kind of horrible mistake, like when Warren Beaty and Faye Dunnaway mistakenly announced that La La Land had won Best Picture and had to then tell all of the beaming La La Landers to sit back down while the Moonlight people came onstage to accept what was rightfully theirs. I feel like I'm going to be La La Landed any moment, like an outsider wandering in a place he knows he doesn't belong, and someone from PriceWaterhouseCoopers is going to correct the error any moment.
I'm ushered onto the stage, where I'm given a very simple set of instructions. When Daphne is on stage accepting the award, you'll make your wage to stage right. When they announce you as the winner, you walk up to the podium, adjust both microphones so they are under your chin, read the remarks you submitted off the teleprompter, and follow the Rodeo Queen offstage.
I run through the speech I intend to give and walk off the stage. The winner who would be announced after me is waiting his turn to soundcheck, and I congratulate him on his award, trying not to show how intimidated I am. He is WK, or Kip, Stratton. Stratton is an Oklahoma native, and he's being awarded for the best book of Western poetry for his latest, Last Red Dirt Embrace. Kip is also a hell of a historian and wrote the incredible book The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film. He also wrote an article in Texas Highways about the Comanche Medicine Mounds, just south of Quannah, Texas. The article is an incredible one, and I assume it was in contention for Best Magazine Article along with mine. Kip's article was announced at the Tucson Festival of Books as a finalist for the Western Writers of America's Spur Award. Which I also won. I don't feel guilty about winning. I feel mortified. I read Kip's article before the Spur Awards were announced, and my immediate thought upon finding out I had won was, "But W.K. Stratton is a real writer!"
Kip is unassumingly friendly and congratulates me on my award as he's ushered onto the stage to run through the same set of instructions I was. I walk over to my wife, and we head into the museum so she can see the Remingtons, Russells, etc. I visited the museum last summer after speaking at the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, but I'm excited to see the new exhibit on "Playing Cowboy," an exploration of the ways children have been playing cowboy for around 150 years. The museum doesn't explicitly spell it out, but as I look at full-size replicas of Woody and Jesse's costumes from Toy Story and a collection of cap guns throughout the years, I can't help think back on the first generation of kids playing cowboy, those boys and girls lucky enough to catch Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack in a local theater between 1872 and 1876.
Our visit to the museum done, we head into Oklahoma City proper, exploring the western wear shops in Stockyards City and enjoying lunch at what we have been assured is the best Vietnamese food in the American West. We check in at the Ellison Hotel, where we are staying for the weekend, and get ready for the kickoff party happening that night. My parents, who have made the drive from Chattanooga to OKC for the weekend, meet us at the hotel, and we drive over to the museum together.
I'm ushered towards a table, where I and my guests are registered as VIPs, with special wristbands to verify that status. I am also given a magnetic lapel pin to show that I am an award winner for this event, one of the honorees this party is being thrown for. We walk back towards the Special Events Center, which has been turned into a lavish ballroom, and head towards the curtained-off VIP section. The SEC is dominated by five enormous triptychs painted by Wilson Hurley. They depict four stunning scenes of the American West. Hurley started in 1992 with "The New Mexico Suite," showing New Mexico's Sandia Mountains as viewed from the Rio Grande near Albuquerque. Completed the next year, the "Arizona Suite" is a view of the Grand Canyon from an unusual lower level looking upward. 1994's "The California Suite", depicts the sun setting over the ocean over Point Lobos on the Pacific Coast near Carmel. "The Utah Suite," completed in 1995, is a magnificent view of Monument Valley under a cloudless sky. The last of the triptychs is the "Wyoming Suite," a spectacular view of the lower falls of the Yellowstone River. I feel like I can hear the deafening roar of the falls as I stand beneath the 16' by 46' trio of paintings. I feel small—as insignificant under these monumental depictions of the West as I do in the real thing. And that's the point, really, of Hurley's paintings and all great western art—to show us just how much more the West writ large matters than any of us.
I belly up to the bar, or at least to the small table where they are giving away samples of Pendleton whisky. I'm usually more of a bourbon man, myself, but the slightly less refined character of the Pendleton seems incredibly appropriate in the context. My next stop is at the actual bar, where I grab a bottle of Coors banquet beer, which is likewise appropriate in that this year's winner of Western Visionary Award is beer scion Pete Coors. I look around the room, but I don't recognize anyone. Except that guy looks vaguely familiar. I walk over and listen for a moment before I recognize the man as Patrick Morrison, who, like his famous father, John, is better known under the pseudonymous surname of Wayne.
I also see Kip again, and in our brief conversation, find him to be as intelligent and thoughtful as his writing suggests. No one has commented on my hat or called me out as a phony, a fake, or a fraud. A dude. This hat is a Stetson Hutchins, a 3X wool-blend hat with a pinched-front crown. It is at the lower end of the scale of fine western hats. Eagle-eyed observers might recognize this as the same Stetson worn by Matt Smith as the 11th incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who. "I wear a Stetson now," Matt's Doctor says as he dons his cowboy hat, "Stetsons are cool." If a Time Lord from Gallifrey can pull off a Stetson, I think maybe a Southern boy can too.
I keep walking back to the table with my wife and my parents. I'm nervous, and despite the impression I seem to give to just about everyone I talk to, I am painfully shy, at least when it comes to introducing myself to strangers. I don't introduce myself to Patrick or any of John Wayne's other children who are mingling in the crowd. I don't congratulate Pete Coors or Red Steagall. I don't even thank Wyatt McCrea, member of the museum's board of directors and grandson of actor Joel McCrea, who played Buffalo Bill Cody in a 1944 movie about the world's most famous Westerner and greatest showman.
I'm standing at the corner of the bar when I see the most famous man at this weekend's festivities. Lou Diamond Phillips has been a mainstay of Westerns since the late 1980s, when he played Lincoln County Regulator José Coby Frey Chávez y Chávez in Young Guns, a movie that ranks behind only Tombstone in the Western canon of young men like me who grew up in the 80s and 90s. Phillips' big breakthrough role was as Richie Valens in La Bamba. When I was young, my brothers and I watched and rewatched a VHS copy of La Bamba at my grandparent's house, and Phillips' depiction of Valens combined with Michael J. Fox's guitar-slinging as Marty McFly covering Chuck Barry's Johnny B. Goode pushed all three of us into serious study of music and musicianship.
A steady stream of VIPs pour over to take a selfie with LDP and tell him how much La Bamba or Stand and Deliver or Young Guns or Longmire means to them. He graciously talks to each person, smiles for their selfies, and is pleasant and approachable with everyone. I ask the bartender for another Banquet beer and scan the room. When my gaze returns to where Lou Diamond Phillips is standing, I notice that the long line has momentarily abated, so I shake off my awkwardness and walk over.
"Mr. Phillips," I say, "I hate to bother you, but I just wanted to introduce myself." I tap my award winner lapel pin. "I'm Matt Kerns and I won for Magazine Article. I just wanted to congratulate you on your induction into the Hall and say how much I enjoyed Tinderbox."
When I said the final word, there was a slight change in his stance. He turned to face me fully and stepped in to be heard over the sound of Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue playing on the stage.
"Holy shit," he says, "you read my book!"
The next few minutes are a blur. People are once again lining up to thank, congratulate, or take a selfie with Lou Diamond Phillips, but we are, for what feels like a long time, engrossed in conversation. We talk about his book, his collaboration with his wife, who illustrated it, the nature of their partnership, the challenges of pitching a science fiction adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story, the Hero's Journey, and my own writing. He doesn't seem perfunctory at all. He seems engaged and happy to talk about his book and the work he's doing on a sequel. He seems completely content to converse, nonplussed by the people waiting for a piece of his time and a measure of his attention. He thanks me for the compliment about his book, saying that coming from one author to another it means a lot to him.
I wander back to the table, where I must look obviously starstruck. I tell my wife and parents about our conversation. "Did you give him a book?" my wife asks.
I bring a couple of copies of my books with me when I travel, mainly so I can give them away to people I meet. Selling books is all well and good, but knowing people read them is the real dopamine hit for me. "I think I have one in the car," I say. "Well then, go get it."
I head to the car and come back with a copy of my book. I feel awkward, like a guy trying to hand a cassette with his band's demos to Mick Jagger, but my appreciation for Lou's graciousness outweighs my reticence to put myself and my book out there. I'm not handing this to him in hopes of him making a Hollywood blockbuster out of it, but because he was kind, and I wanted to thank him for the kindness. When I walked back into the VIP section, he was once again surrounded by selfie-takers, well-wishers, and fans. I waited for a break and handed him the book.
"Sorry to bother you again, but I just wanted to say thanks and congratulations again and give you a copy of my book."
Once again, as if by magic, I had his full attention. He was grateful and gracious and once again kind. I went to shake his hand, and he pulled me in for a hug, congratulating me on my award and my success. "You're a very nice man," I remember saying. "I liked you as an actor, but I admire the hell out of you as a nice man."
Lou reached out and put a hand on my chest. "I've admired people before, and they weren't always kind. It doesn't take anything and it means so much. I've really enjoyed talking to you, and I'm so glad you introduced yourself."
I walked back to the table. "It turns out," I told my family, "that Lou Diamond Phillips is a hell of a nice guy."
We headed out, my parents back to their hotel and my wife and I to eat at Milo, the restaurant attached to our hotel. We're waiting for our order, and I'm enjoying a negroni when my wife nods towards the hotel door. "Lou Diamond Phillips just walked in."
I'm determined not to bother him again, so I say nothing as he walks in with his father and a pair of guests and sits at the table next to us. One of the guests heads up to their room, and the other steps out with Lou's father for a cigarette. Lou Diamond Phillips is sitting at the table next to me, and he is reading the back blurb on my book. He could have left it at the event, or in the car, or on the seat next to him, but he was earnestly checking it out. My resolve to leave the guy alone faded, and I stepped across the aisle next to his table.
"Matt!" he said, "Good to see you again." He held up his copy of my book.
I told him I had my copy of his book in my room, and asked if he would sign it for me.
"I would love to," he said. "I'm here, you're here, we should sign each other's books!"
I sat back down with my wife, pleased and determined that I wouldn't bother Lou Diamond Phillips for the rest of the weekend.
The next day we poked around Oklahoma City, braving the wind to explore the city.
The Western Heritage Awards is a black-tie event, and I was duded up in a black tuxedo with a paisley-print black vest, cufflinks, and a Stetson that was the opposite end of the spectrum from the cheap Hutchins I was wearing the night before. This was a black Stetson Last Drop, a limited edition version of the 100X Presidente. It is part of a limited run of 100 hats, designed to honor the 100th anniversary of the legendary "Last Drop From His Stetson" painting and advertisement by legendary cowboy artist Lon Megargee, which depicts a kindly cowboy kneeling to give his horse a drink of water from his upturned hat. Other than a very nice watch that was a Christmas gift from my father, this is probably the nicest piece of clothing I own.
I see Kip in the cocktail area and we talk about how surreal this whole thing is. I meet Filipe Masetti Leite, who has won for Best Western Documentary and Casey Rislov and Zachary Pullen, the author/illustrator team behind The Rowdy Randy Wild West Show, winner of Best Juvenile Book. We talk until we notice that the crowd is now heading into the SEC. We go in and meet my parents at our table, where I also get to meet Blaine Smith, who manages Graphics and Presentation for the Museum, and was one of the judges that decided my award. Blaine and his wife fall into easy conversation with my wife and I, which makes it a complete surprise when the event suddenly begins.
Intros fly by, Mo Brings Plenty speaks and emcees. Micki Fuhrman is awarded for her wonderful album Westbound and Michael Martin Murphey and his son Ryan perform their own award-winner, Blues for 66, a track about America's most important road that winds through OKC. Bobby Ingersol was presented with the Chester A Reynolds Award, and Andrew Giangola won for Outstanding Non-Fiction book for his Love & Try, a look at professional bull riding. Mary Clearman Blew won for Outstanding Western Novel, and our new friends Casey and Zach took home their award for Outstanding Juvenile Book. A video introduction of Red Steagall by Reba McEntire played and he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Anouk Krantz won for her book of photography, Ranchland: Wagonhound, and then Daniel Webster "80 John" Wallace was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners. 80 John was born into slavery and died a millionaire, and is one of the many great black cowboys who isn't remembered as well as he should be.
As the video for 80 John is playing, I'm standing on stage right, having figured out from a quick trip to what I believed to be the right of the stage that this was in fact stage left, I walked through the maintenance hall behind the stage and saw Mo Brings Plenty talking with country duo Brooks & Dunn in the small backstage room that functioned as a green room. I emerged at stage right while 80 John's family accepted his award, and before I knew it, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry, granddaughter of Oklahoma's Favorite Son Will Rogers, are on stage.
They talk for a moment about Texas Jack, and then they announce me as the winner of Outstanding Magazine Article for my piece in Wild West Magazine. I walk on stage, thank the presenters, and make my way to the podium. I talk for just a few moments about Texas Jack, the man who brought the cowboy into the spotlight and kept it there, reflecting on the fact that without Jack, we wouldn't be standing at a cowboy museum at all. I add a little anecdote about Texas Jack rescuing a child as a cowboy and that child growing up to be the Wild West showman that gave Will Rogers his first job in show business. I thank the museum for the honor and hightail it out of there.