Mike Beck, a free-spirited West Coast singer-songwriter, composes songs inspired by his days as a working cowboy.
“FEEL.” It’s an ambiguous, misunderstood, and sometimes overused word to describe a touch, physical sense, awareness or emotion. It means something different to each person. To an artist, feel is the rendering of his or her perceptions in a painting or sculpture, or the emotion those works evoke in a viewer. Through the teachings of Bill and Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, feel has become an important word to horsemen, describing intuitive unity, harmony and communication between horse and human. For Mike Beck, feel is the driving force and common denominator behind his musical artistry and horse-training philosophies.
“I think being a horseman and musician are similar in many ways; they’re both about feel,” he says, softly strumming a few chords on his guitar. “Feel is not black and white; you can’t put it in a box. It’s so mystical that you fear getting close to it or you might taint it.”
“All good hands have feel, whether writing songs, playing instruments or riding horses.”
The founder and front man of the West Coast guitar band Mike Beck and the Bohemian Saints, Beck is best known as an-acoustic solo artist in the cowboy-folk genre, and his music is played on Americana radio stations. He has recorded five albums, four of which are collections of cowboy songs he wrote based on his experiences as a working cowboy and learning horsemanship while living with the Dorrances. The fifth album was recorded with his band and has a West Coast rock vibe.
With or without the band, Beck’s music is instantly recognizable. His haunting, gravelly voice and poetic, storyline lyrics give his music rawness admired by traditional cowboy, country and folk-rock fans. Yet his energetic guitar licks and riffs keep young buckaroos turning up the stereo volume in their pickups.
Beck could be considered a seasoned professional on stage or in the arena. However, he believes he’s a “late bloomer and that he’s just beginning another phase of his lifelong journey.”
RAISED IN MONTERREY, CALIFORNIA, Beck developed a fondness for horses and for California’s rich ranching and horsemanship heritage. His father was a naval officer who died when Beck was young, leaving his mother to raise him and his two older siblings. Her interest in horses and music planted the seeds for Mike’s future.
“My mom was raised on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, and she grew up taking care of teams,” Beck explains. “She loved horses and music. We listened to a lot of Canadian artists, such as Gordon Lightfoot, and Ian and Sylvia, but also American folk artists like Joan Baez.”
Beck got his first horse when he was in third grade and spent his free time riding through canyons, cattle and ponds on the Work Ranch, then rode over the hills to the September Ranch in Carmel Valley. When he was a teenager, Beck got a job cleaning stalls for Roy Forzoni, who had a training stable in Carmel Valley. It was there that Beck first saw a colt started and is where he met Tom Dorrance, who became a major influence in his horsemanship.
Beck got his first guitar at age 13. Every day, on the way home from school, he haunted a music store in Monterrey-to the point of being a nuisance.
“One day, the salesman gave me a broken Stella guitar and told me to never come in the store again,” he recalls.
Beck began teaching himself to play, using an old Bob Dylan songbook his older brother had. He did return to the music store and ordered a music book by Arlo Guthrie.
“I couldn’t make head or tails about the chords, but I wore the book out looking at the pictures,” he says. “In the middle of the book there was a picture of Arlo at the Newport Folk Festival with a guy in a cowboy hat, neckerchief and polka-dot shirt. It was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and I thought he looked so cool.”
Inspired by the refined rawness of Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, Arlo and Woody Guthrie, the Stanley Brothers and other talent from the l960s, Beck was drawn to bluegrass music and pushed the creative boundaries of what he thought it should be. After graduating from Monterrey High School in 1972, he hitchhiked to Nashville to experience the bluegrass scene. He got a job busing tables and doing dishes at a motor inn on Music Row.
“I lived there only four months, but each night I’d go to the Station Inn, a club where everyone played,” he recalls. “One night, I got to play with Marty Stuart.”
Though he had dabbled in garage bands during high school, Beck started his first band just out of high school with a schoolmate and other musicians they found around Monterrey. They called themselves the Coast Ridge Boys, and played Beck’s style of bluegrass at the River Inn in Big Sur.
THOUGH BECK ENJOYED MAKING music, playing in clubs and bars got old. He longed for open spaces and to be horseback. In his early 20s, he headed to Nevada and landed a job on the wagon at the Spanish Ranch, working for Bill Kane, the legendary cowboss on the ranch for 28 years. Beck had never cowboyed, but his friend Bryan Neubert, a cowboy on the ranch who Beck had known since he was a teenager, convinced Kane to give him a chance.
“I arrived with my snaffle bit and bedroll, just as Bill had asked,” Beck recalls. “I went right out with the wagon and had no idea what I was doing.” A little older and more experienced, Neubert became Beck’s mentor. He couldn’t help Beck in front of the other buckaroos, but when they were sent off into the sagebrush to do a job, he would offer advice.
“Mike was very green, and just getting started in his cowboy direction,” Neubert recalls. “I do remember that whatever he might have lacked in experience, he more than made up for in try. He never tried to be anything that he wasn’t or tried to make anyone believe he had more experience than he did. Everyone would have surely agreed that Mike was a fun guy to have on the crew.”
One of Beck’s first orders on the Spanish Ranch was to get a brockle-faced calf out of a pasture.
“He confessed later that he didn’t know that term and thought the instruction was to get the ‘bronco-faced calf, so he got the wildest one he could find,” Neubert recalls. “We got a good laugh from that one.”
The ranch’s leggy Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse crosses were “pretty honky,” Beck says, and it was common to see two or three guys get bucked off each morning, and even sometimes on the way back to camp, after trotting all day.
“A lot of the horses didn’t get started until they were older,” Beck says. “They needed to be physically mature to carry a cowboy that far. Each cowboy typically had seven horses in his string, which means each horse got rode four times a month, sent out with the wagon for two or three months, and then turned out.” Beck learned a lot about horsemanship and cattle from Neubert, and says he “would’ve gotten killed if it wasn’t for Bryan.”
Survival involved doing what you were told, observing, learning, and not saying much. Beck says it took Kane three months to learn his name, but nevertheless Beck had a lot of respect for the cowboss.
“He was a real leader; he had to be,” Beck recalls. “He could and would do whatever he asked one of the cowboys to do. He never complained, no matter how cold or hot it was, or how far we rode. It’s the funniest thing, as I’ve gotten older I have learned the difference between fear and respect. I feared Kane; but I respected him so much I wanted to please him.”
“He would take guys like me and make a circle with us. He’d spread out the circle, and I’d have 30 to 50 pairs to move and wouldn’t see anyone else for hours. Just when I’d start wondering if I was going in the right direction, I’d see Kane in the distance and know that I was going the right way.”
At night, many of the buckaroos–including Neubert–braided rawhide, but Beck chose to play his guitar, instead.
“Kane loved it when I played,” Beck says. “I sang a song by Country Joe about being in the Army that he liked because he had served. One of the lines goes, ‘Get over here. Stand over there … We’re sending you to Southeast Asia: So, Kane started calling me ‘Over here, over there.”
Cowboys warned Beck that once he left the Spanish Ranch he would never want to go back, but he considers his two years there as his college education.
WHILE ON THE WAGON at the Spanish Ranch, Neubert would share with Beck horsemanship techniques taught to him by Tom and Bill Dorrance. Beck was eager to learn more, so Neubert advised him to write a letter to Bill. The men exchanged several letters about cowboying and horses until Bill invited Beck to come stay with him on his ranch on Mount Toro.
“He told me he’d help me [learn to better work with horses], give me a place to live and feed me, but he couldn’t pay me,” Beck says. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune.”
A scattered cowboy in his 20s, starved for knowledge, Beck stayed at the ranch with Bill for a year, savoring every moment he spent with the man. Bill never had an agenda for the day, but he and Beck would do a variety of work on the ranch, eat their main meal of the day at noon, and then rope and ride until dark. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Beck says that everything Bill had him do was preventative maintenance to stay ahead of a problem, just as when he worked with horses.
“We’d stack nine three-strand California bales of hay on his old Scout and go feed,” Beck recalls. “One day, on the way back, he stopped because there was a limb in the road, and said, ‘Mike, you know, a feller might want to move that limb to the side of the road. And, since we’re here, we might want to take the shovel in the back and clean out that culvert.’ All the time he was inventing little things like this for me to do, and I wasn’t sure why. But now I realize he stayed ahead of problems, just like he did with horses.”
“Tom was the same way. When most people wash a saddle pad, they hang it square on a fence rail to dry. Tom figured out that if you turn the pad so two points hang down, the water runs to those points and the pad dries faster.”
Bill became not only a mentor but also a father figure to Beck. For years, Beck would return to the ranch and stay with Bill between cowboying and music gigs. Bill talked often about “feel” and how it created unity between a horse and rider. Beck remembers the first time he experienced the feeling Bill had told him so much about.
“We were out riding, just me and him, and we were stopped at the gate,” Beck recalls. “He said, ‘Mike, it’s time to step ol’ Snip around,’ which meant back him in circles. He asked me to do this a lot, so I figured it had some value or he wouldn’t waste his time or mine. So much takes place when backing a horse on a circle; you’re shaping his head, neck, ribs and hindquarters, and getting in time with his feet [In past attempts] I was late or early, but this time the horse and I finally were absolutely together; there was no drag. From the smile on Bill’s face, I knew he understood what I’d just felt for the first time. It was a huge moment in my life, and something so simple that I continue to strive for.”
THESE DAYS, BECK STILL does a few clinics, mostly abroad, but is primarily a traveling musician. Sometimes he travels with his four-man band, featuring the amazing guitarist Tom Ayers, but he mostly travels solo in the 1988 Dodge van he named “Uncle Rico.” He was invited to play at the 2011 Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair in Heber City, Utah, and the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada He spent the winter in Austin, Texas, studying songwriting and the music scene, playing backup for a young artist and performing acoustic at different venues.
It appears as though Beck has roamed most of his life, but he says that’s part of his quest.
“I think the time I spent cowboying and with the Dorrances had a huge influence on my music,” he says. “Sometimes you have to go to different places and do different things to find the questions and get the answers.”
Mike Beck performs a song from his album “Feel.”
Story originally ran in the April of 2012 issue.