Monday, March 14, 2011

W. K. Stratton, Chasing the Rodeo

Rodeo Week at BITS gets underway today with an introduction to the history, the personalities, and the meaning of this sport as it's evolved over the past century. Stratton, a journalist based in Austin, Texas, with roots in Oklahoma, comes by his "kicker" credentials fairly enough. His mother was a cowgirl in her own right and his father a rodeo cowboy who went on down the road and never came back.

Stratton's book is a personal journey, a search for an understanding of the romance of rodeo. For him, it’s the appeal of risk-taking and the call of the wild in the soul. It’s the love of a past that can be recaptured for a moment in a beautifully executed ride on a bucking horse or bull.

And his book does much to reclaim the essentials of a pastoral ritual that has been compromised by commercialism, corporate sponsorships, and marketing that positions it as an extreme sport.

Stratton covers some familiar ground for anyone familiar with rodeo history, but many stories deserve retelling. For example, that of George Fletcher at the 1911 Pendleton Roundup; the first bulldogger, Bill Pickett; and the death of champion bull rider Lane Frost. 

Grand Final Review, Pendleton Roundup, 1911. Click here to see larger pic.

Then there is an account of the first rodeo "cowgirl," Lucille Mulhall, and of Indian cowboy Will Sampson, who played Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In Prescott, AZ, he has occasion to recall at length the rodeo film Junior Bonner (1972), already reviewed here.

There is a wide array of other personalities who find their way into Stratton's book: Justin McBride, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac, Ben Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, and evangelist Susie Luchsinger.

He gets closest to the sport itself in conversations with all-around champion Jesse Bail and bullriding champion Freckles Brown. The first chapter account of Brown's famous ride on Tornado at the National Finals in 1967 just takes your breath away.

Finally there is the search for the story of Stratton's absent cowboy father, which rounds out the book with more than a little poignance. I loved this book and recommend it to anyone curious about rodeo, the fascination it holds for both fans and participants, and its place in American popular culture.

Chasing the Rodeo is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Cyra McFadden, Rain or Shine


  1. Rodeo got a lot bigger in my home town in the early 80s, which is after I'd already graduated and gone. I've seen quite a few in my day though and generally enjoyed them. I never wanted to be a bull rider though.

  2. Did you know that B.M. Bower wrote a book titled Rodeo? The final book in the Happy Family series, I believe, it followed the adventures of Chip & Della's grown son at a Chicago rodeo. It was adapted into the silent film King of the Rodeo starring Hoot Gibson, who had played the title character in a silent version of Chip of the Flying U a few years earlier.

    I must admit that the rodeo is one element of the West that I'm not quite cut out to enjoy. I've never been able to watch bull-riding in particular, although the 'safer' sports like cutting and roping are interesting.

  3. Charles, I've been at the PBR finals in Vegas, and it takes a tough cowboy to get on one of those critters.

    Elisabeth, B.M. Bower is a fine writer. When I get back to her, I'll look for this novel.

    Tex, thanks for dropping by.