Rancher and poet uses life on the range as inspiration

Deanna Dickinson McCall, seen here on horseback at her ranch near Timberon, New Mexico, draws inspiration for her poems, songs and stories from personal experience living on off-the-grid ranches and working cattle in harsh terrain and severe weather. (Courtesy Deanna Dickinson McCall)

Deanna Dickinson McCall is a rancher and an award-winning writer of Western poetry and song. Considering the start she got in life and the way she has continued to live it, it’d be difficult to imagine things turning out any other way.

Deanna Dickinson McCall

She is descended from Texas ranchers, but she herself spent her early years in a northern California foothills ranch frequented by rattlesnakes, layered with lava rock and tangled up with brush.

“I’m the first generation, on my dad’s side, not to be born in Texas since 1838,” McCall, 63, said in a phone interview from the ranch she and her husband, Dave, own near Timberon, New Mexico. “My mother was a native Californian. My mom’s family were all city people.”

She said her parents moved from a ranch in California’s Central Valley to the rough range of the northern California spread when her mother was pregnant with her.

“The house sat in the bottom of a canyon and was very old,” McCall said of her first home. “The old windows, which had been brought in by mules, were slightly blue with bubbles in the glass. The house and barn were made of oak trees milled on the place sometime in the 1880s. There was a generator Dad would start in the evenings.”

It was there that not only was she introduced to ranching, but also to the power and beauty of words.

“I spent a lot of time with my granny, the one from Texas, when I was too young to go horseback,” she said. “To entertain me, we would make everything rhyme. I loved the old nursery rhymes.”

Evenings at the ranch house were spent on the front porch, or close to it.

“Because that is a hot country, with highs often above 110 in the summer,” McCall said. “My granddaddy would tell the old cowboy stories (on the porch), and he’d sing the old cowboy songs, playing the harmonica and the Jew’s harp and trading off with the hired hand.

“Old stories, old poems, old songs – when you grow up with that stuff, it comes pretty natural.”

Wranglers and workshops

McCall’s poetry has been honored by the International Western Music Association, which awarded her collection “Mustang Spring” as Cowboy Poetry Book of the Year in 2014, and by Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, which presented her with its prestigious Wrangler Award in 2019 for “I’ll Ride Thru It,” a CD on which she recites her poetry backed by musical accompaniment.

Last month, McCall, her husband, and Rio Rancho Western musician and singer-songwriter Jim Jones were presented the 2022 Wrangler for Original Western Composition for their song “Old Horses and Old Men.”

Dave McCall, from left, Jim Jones and Deanna Dickinson McCall with the 2022 Wrangler Award they received for their song “Old Horses and Old Men.” (Courtesy Deanna Dickinson McCall)

“It came to me one day as we were working cattle,” McCall said of the song. “It came to me with a melody. I thought, ‘That’s a song, not a poem.’ I felt it to Jim. We would tweak a word or two and send it back and forth. But it still needed something. Dave said, ‘It needs this,’ and he added a couple of lines.” Jones recorded the song on his “Good Days Are Comin’ ” CD.

Old horses, old men

Set in their ways

Remembering the thrill

Of those bygone days

Old horses, old men

ride out again

Raring to start, but nearing the end

The McCalls and Jones accepted the Wrangler at a ceremony in Oklahoma City on April 9.

On Saturday, June 4, McCall teams up with Jones and Western singer-songwriters Randy Huston, a New Mexico rancher, and Jim Wilson, former sheriff of Crockett County, Texas, for New Mexico Western Experience, a day of workshops, stories and Western music at the Best Western Plus Rio Grande Inn, 1015 Rio Grande NW.

It is an award-studded lineup. Wilson’s album “Border Bravo,” received IWMA’s Traditional Album of the Year Award in 2003, and Huston got a Wrangler for the “Cowboys & Girls” album he did with his daughter, Hannah, and he won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for a song he wrote with Jones. You’d need a ledger to keep up with the Wranglers, Spurs and IWMA accolades Jones has accumulated.

“Jim Wilson is going to do the Billy the Kid workshop,” McCall said. “I’ll do the ‘Writing the West’ workshop with Jim (Jones) and Randy. It touches on just about every style of writing. We will all perform in the concert. It’s always fun to get together.”

lots of inspiration

When it comes to writing about working cattle, both the pleasures and the harsh realities of that life, McCall is never short on inspiration.

For 22 years she and her husband lived and raised two daughters and a son on an isolated northeast Nevada ranch without electricity or phones.

“For the first 10 years, the windmill was our water source,” McCall said. The cold in Nevada’s Great Basin region, she said, is beyond bitter.

“It has snowed there on the Fourth of July. The only month it has not snowed in Nevada is August.”

But it was a bad drought that drove the McCalls from Nevada to Idaho.

“After 22 years, we thought we had done this enough,” she said. “The kids were out of the house, going to college or married. We thought it was time to look at something different.”

Two years in Idaho proved to them it was not the kind of different they had in mind.

“It was 117 in the summer and 30 below in the winter,” she said. “Everything there just freezes.”

They moved to New Mexico in 2006.

Deanna Dickinson McCall, seen here on horseback at her ranch near Timberon, New Mexico, draws inspiration for her poems, songs and stories from personal experience living on off-the-grid ranches and working cattle in harsh terrain and severe weather. (Courtesy Deanna Dickinson McCall)

McCall has written a novella, a cookbook and short stories, as well as poems and songs. She writes a column for New Mexico Stockman Magazine and articles for Range magazine. But it is perhaps poetry, the rhyming art infused in her young bones of her in that Californian foothills ranch house, that comes to her easiest of her.

She said she started writing her own poetry about 1987 while she was living in Nevada, and she and her whole family were reciting traditional Western poetry at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.

“I was helping three kids with traditional poems, and I was afraid when I got up there (to recite) I’d have a ‘Strawberry Roan’ bucking down the ‘Streets of Laredo,’ ” she said. “I thought, ‘I need to write my own poems.’ ”

And that’s worked out pretty well.

When cold makes my bones ache

But there’s work to be done

For those cows and calves sake

I’ll finish what I’ve begun

I’ll ride through it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.