I had the privilege to meet Sally Harper Bates last spring when she moderated a panel on “The Lives of Cowboy Wives” at the Phippen Museum in Prescott AZ. Sally is a [past] ranch wife, a singer/songwriter, a cowboy poet, and a budding novelist. Born in Prescott, Arizona and raised on ranches in Yavapai County, she readily admits her roots have buried themselves so deep in the manzanita and malapai of Northern Arizona she would probably not survive a transplant. Her family stands on 5 generations of ranching roots in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and several members of her immediate family are still involved in ranching, even though she is no longer a ranch resident. She and her husband, Pat, live in Chino Valley on a 4-acre fenced plot that provides at least rural existence. Sally is the author of a children’s series—Cable Carson Cricket, A Cowboy’s Christmas—a story compilation, and Life Between Dust & Clouds—a memoir told in essay and poetry.
Welcome, Sally. How did you get started writing cowboy poetry?
I was raised so far from town that we didn’t have television until I was about 12 or 13 years old, so the family found other ways to entertain ourselves. One of those was a lot of reading, and since we were home-schooled many of our assignments included reading. My grandmother had a solid collection of poetry by Sharlot Hall (early area pioneer), and my dad’s favorite poet was Robert Service, so both of those writers became models for my research and reading. I loved poetry and music from the time I was old enough to pound out a rhythm on a toy piano I got for Christmas. And since poetry and music run together so nicely that just found its way into my life quite readily. I started writing poetry as assignments for my school projects, but found I wrote a lot of it when I was looking for something to do when riding wasn’t in the mix for the day.
Not necessarily, but it’s a very effective way to express the heart of ranching. Stanley Kunitz, American Poet Laureate, wrote something like “If we are to understand what it was like to live in any given time-frame of history it is to the poets we must turn.” I think poetry gives us a unique opportunity to share the heart of the matter in a way that not a lot of people relate to ranching and the cowboy way of life.
Tell us about your first poem, and the first one you had published or received recognition for.
I really don’t remember when I wrote my first poem, but it had to be in grade school. The first one I had published was in Western Horseman a long, long time ago titled “Howdy Rose, Remember Me?” But I was shortly after that included in a few anthologies such as Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass published by Northland Press and Graining the Mare collected by Theresa Jordan.
You are a native of Yavapai County in Arizona. Tell us a little about your background.
Dad was a cowboy all his life—worked at the ORO Ranch off and on from the time he was 15 years old, and before that he did day-work for local ranchers. He worked his entire life in the shadow of Hyde Peak near Camp Wood on one side of the mountain or the other. On both sides of my family tree the roots are planted in ranching and farming somewhere in the west. I was raised around cowboys and their families all my life, and being a full time all time resident of Yavapai County most of my friends are ranch folks.
How were you introduced to music?
My Dad played the guitar and the fiddle a little bit, and Mom pecked around on the mandolin, but my real solid introduction came from a couple who worked on a neighboring ranch and came over for potluck and singing several times a year. They bought me my first guitar and taught me a lot. But my dad let me learn chords on his Monterey, and it was he and friends singing cowboy songs and reciting cowboy poetry that got me hooked on the genre. I had a few instructional pointers from folks, but never took any lessons, which is why I still run with the same 14 chords I learned back then.
Tell us how your CD, “Tramontane (From Over the Hill)”, came into being.
Tramontane was a fluke. I have four other albums that all had purpose and planning, and took some time to pull together. I just wanted to do one with some of my favorite songs on it, so that one came together pretty quickly. All my other albums were original songs or once in a while one that a close friend wrote. The title “Tramontane” has the traditional translation of “From over the hill.” If you look it up in the dictionary it means “foreigner”. Either way, some of the songs came from someplace other than my brain and guitar.
Lots of folks have asked that question through the years, and I tried for a long time to come up with some “ethereal” explanation. But my brother in law says all the girls in my family have a disease that causes us to have this intense need to cover any blank piece of paper with words or pictures. It’s called “Whiteitis.” I think that probably explains it as good as anything! But there is a piece of work by Terry Tempest Williams that is a pretty good list of all the why’s of a writer that I keep a copy of around.
Tell us a bit about your writing process.
No process . . . just when an idea and one-liner starts running around in my head I grab a piece of paper and write it down. From there if it keeps “niggling” around in there I’ll sit down and work on it and if it comes to fruition it’s usually a poem or the start of some kind of book or short story. If it stays interesting, I stick with it, time allowing.
Is there a theme or message you want to convey to your readers?
Not really . . . I just write what I love and what I have lived as it comes to mind. I guess part of that writing is a hopeful place that wants others to understand what a special kind of life ranching is, and to give people a different perspective and insight to what happens on ranches.
What authors or books have influenced you?
Without a doubt, Sharlot Hall. But about 28 years ago I had the privilege of meeting and becoming accepted in a group of cowboy poets who began to mentor me and encourage me to write poetry. Not to just write it but craft it and work it into something I could be proud of. I can’t say I’ve got that mastered, but I owe a lot to Vess Quinlan, Joel Nelson, Carole Jarvis and Audrey Hankins, and those who are writing real quality poetry that made me want to write like they did.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve lost control of my life and time . . . I’m helping produce a huge project called Home on the Ranch which will be an event that will celebrate and honor ranch women and their talents. It is going to be held in Wickenburg October 3-5 this year. That has completely absorbed my life for several months outside my clinging firmly to my church and ministry as it presents itself. I’ve been trying to write a short novel that is loosely based on an event that happened in our family at the turn of the century, but can’t really find time to get it accomplished. I get up at about 4:30 and most nights lights out end up being around 11 pm . . . and the computer is my “helpmate” these days. I get cabin fever and have to get outside sometimes, but the work calls me back pretty quickly.