Bathed in the harvest-gold floodlights of Spring Grove, Minnesota’s century-old opera house, Pop Wagner looks more like an American cowboy of the 19th century than the subject of the Remington painting that adorns his set.  A few minutes before showtime, he makes one last inspection.  Gazing out across the sparsely appointed, tin-ceilinged auditorium, he tests the footing on an ancient, wooden stage.  It is a scene reminiscent of a thousand V.F.W. halls, Masonic temples, and Elks lodges.

He wears weathered leather boots, canvas britches, a Western shirt, and an unfurled kerchief that conceals everything between his Adam’s apple and his sternum.  A prodigious drooping mustache so completely obscures Wagner’s mouth that you can’t help but think he could easily fall back on a career in ventriloquism.

When he speaks, a slightly spasmodic cadence in an otherwise  melodic cowboy drawl falls considerably short of a stutter.  When he cocks his head to sing, the brim of his Silver Belly Rancher Stetson frames a face so smoothly complected that it belies the half-century of life already passed before it.  You would think the voices of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams had been tossed into a blender and whipped into one.  The result: cool, sweet, rich, and expensive as an after-dinner ice-cream cocktail.

It is impossible to determine if his looks and sound are theatrical affectations or the genuine article.  He is surrounded by a handful of the instruments you would expect to find in any singing cowboy’s toolbox—guitars, fiddles, Jew’s harp, harmonicas—and an assortment of a working cowboy’s truck and ware that includes a sawhorse sporting a Western saddle.  A stiffly coiled catch rope hangs from its horn.  For the audience, suspension of disbelief is immediate and complete.

Wagner picks up an old Epiphone guitar.  He slips the strap over his shoulder, stands straight, and steps to the microphone.  “Here’s an old song called ‘The Roving Gambler.’”  The room falls still as he picks out the introduction.  There is a sense of mild tension, as if everyone were on the midway of the Houston County Fair, waiting for a carnival ride to begin.  He sings: “Wouldn’t marry with a farmer, he’s always in the rain; / The man I want to marry wears a great big gold watch chain.”  And everyone knows they’re in for a pleasant ride.  Those who have never seen Wagner’s show before are instant fans.  The rest are smiling, smugly acknowledging they are a new batch of disciples.

Gordon Robert Wagner is the oldest of three siblings.  Raised by middle-class parents in the politically liberal environs of Yellow Springs, Ohio, Wagner was dubbed “Pop” by his fellow Boy Scouts.  “A lot of Scouting organizations focus on achievements, earning merit badges and that kind of stuff.  Not us.  We were into outings.  The adults were always putting me in charge.  Somehow, I had a reputation for being the responsible one.”  Wagner’s eyes light up, and a smile escapes the confines of that magnificent mustache.  “They never knew all the stuff I was responsible for.”  This remark is followed by a deliberately vague account regarding the content of certain beverages he procured for some of these outings.  “But it was all on the up and up,” he adds.  “We were all 16.”

I caught up with Wagner in the high desert country of northeastern Nevada in late July 2000.  Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of Elko’s Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where he is something of a fixture, promoters of a festival with a hobo and railroad-history theme hired Wagner to serve as the artistic director of their ambitious four-day event.  While the festival was heavily armed with talented veteran performers—U. “Utah” Phil-
lips, Rosalie Sorrels, “Spider” John Koerner—Wagner’s stage-management
expertise proved critical.

“If you’re not careful how you schedule, it’s easy to get repetitive performances,” Wagner told me over coffee at the Stockmen’s Hotel and Casino Coffee Shop, base camp for the festival’s performers.  “Everybody loves ‘The Wabash Cannonball’—once.”

In typically modest fashion, he understated the importance of his role.  Music workshops, poetry readings, film screenings, and main-stage performances proceeded smoothly through four days of triple-digit temperatures.  You need not be at these affairs for very long to witness the unpleasant results of natural pre-performance jitters mixing with occasionally enlarged egos.

“That kind of crap just doesn’t seem to happen where Pop’s in charge,” one of the performers told me, while tuning up backstage.  “He’s such a good guy that his character rubs off on folks around him.  I don’t think he even knows it.”

Wagner’s stage-management skills went unnoticed by the audience; his performance did not.  The Elko gig occasioned a reunion with his younger brother, Bodie, a fine musician and performer in his own right who makes his home in tiny North San Juan, California.  Any idea of distance between the two dissolves on stage.  They create a harmony that is not only musical but visual and spiritual.

Wagner was singing for a long time before he became a singing cowboy.  He claims no recollection of a boyhood fascination with the cowboy myth that was so prevalent in 1950’s America.  “I don’t suppose I cared any more about becoming a cowboy than I did about being a fireman,” he says.  But he credits Hollywood characters of the era, portrayed by the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, for making cowboy music popular.  Declaring a preference for what he calls the more traditional, “rough-edged” music, he says, “You wouldn’t hear many actual cowboys singing in multi-voice harmony like the Sons of the Pioneers.”  He adds, “It’s not part of my repertoire, but it’s great music.  I love listening to it.”

Wagner started playing music in high school.  A couple of lessons on guitar and piano got him started.  Beyond that, he is self-taught.  Pleased with his progress and perseverance, in 1964 his parents rewarded him with the round-shouldered guitar he still plays.  “They could’ve got it cheaper, but they didn’t know how easy it was to get a discount on a new guitar.  They paid full retail price, a hundred and sixty dollars,” he remarks with tongue in cheek.  The guitar is worth many times its original cost.

In November, Wagner picked me up at my home in his extended-cab Dodge pickup.  I crowded my stuff behind the front seat, and we headed out on the 450-mile trip to his next gig.  He reminisced about his days at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he was instrumental in organizing the Northland Folk Festival.  “We booked some great acts.  We got Utah Phillips, Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, and Guy Carawan, and the whole thing just took off.  I was invited back as a performer for the twenty-fifth or thirtieth anniversary of the festival.  I don’t remember which it was now, but it was cool.”

Conversation about college and the 60’s led to a discussion of the Vietnam War.  A Quaker upbringing, a knee injury, and the fact that he was a college student helped Wagner maintain his status as a civilian.  Inevitably, we shared stories of friends and loved ones who were less fortunate.  Equally inevitable were the silent miles that followed that conversation.

War or no war, by the end of the 1960’s, Wagner was caught up in the renewed popularity of traditional music styles, which were increasingly appealing to young American artists in a sort of backlash to the invasion of British pop.  As quickly as festivals, coffeehouses, nightclubs, and beer joints were becoming venues for exploiting that popularity, Wagner was expanding his repertoire and his circle of friends and connections in a growing folk-music community.

From tiny Ashland, Wagner began to make pilgrimages to St. Paul and Minneapolis, where he found a flourishing music scene.  He first came seeking to book talent for his fledgling folk festival, then to play gigs of his own.  “One of the places I played was the Triangle Bar.  The stage was eight feet above the floor.  You had to climb a ladder to get up to it.”  He chuckles, “Some nights I was glad to be that far up from the crowd in that place.  They paid ten dollars a set.  Since I came from so far away, they used to give me a set two nights in a row.  They were pretty good, that way.”

Soon, he was a resident.  He stayed with friends or bunked at the West Bank School of Music—an old house with a sign on it—where local musicians combined marketing efforts and gave lessons.

It was during these early West Bank days that he was invited to a chili supper rustled up by Mary DuShane.  On the guest list was Bob Bovee, another musical cowpoke who had recently drifted into town from Nebraska.  I asked Bovee to chronicle the events that led to his meeting with Pop Wagner.  “I had just broken up with my first wife.  I sold about everything I owned and hit the road.  Stevie Beck was an old friend.  She was living in the Cities, and, somehow, I ended up on her steps.  The New Riverside Cafe had just opened up, and Stevie and I went in there and started playing one day.”  When the impromptu performance led to an offer from the owners for a return engagement, Bovee recalls, “We said ‘Yeah!’”  Then he laughs out loud, “We didn’t have any material to speak of, but we
had us a job.  We went out and worked up a set—some pretty basic stuff.  It was around this time when Stevie invited me to a supper.  She wanted me to meet this guy, Pop Wagner.  Well, we hit it off pretty good.”

Pretty good, indeed.  Friendship led to a musical partnership that has lasted nearly 30 years.  Both will quickly correct the misconception that they are no longer partners just because they don’t regularly perform together anymore.  Bovee now lives and works with his musician wife, Gail Heil, in Spring Grove, Minnesota.  The three of them occasionally team up to play for dances.  A year ago, they went into the studio and laid down five tracks of old traditionals to fill out a compact-disc reissue of Pop Wagner &?Bob Bovee (1977).

For Wagner, the meeting with Bovee was a turning point.  While Wagner had fallen in love with aspects of the American West, Bovee was actually a product of it.  His uncle Ted Mason was a working cowboy in Wyoming, and his grandfather “Bud” Mason was a horseman—“The best one I ever knew,” asserts Bovee—and “head skinner” on major “dirt work” operations in the 20’s and 30’s, managing several other teamsters and hundreds of animals in the construction of roads and railroads.  “He was not a cowboy, though he could do all the things cowboys do,” says Bovee.  Bud married and settled in the Missouri River bottoms near Bellevue, Nebraska.  His wife’s mother, who grew up on a neighboring farm, recalled seeing Jesse James when she was a girl.

This was the environment of Bovee’s childhood.  “I had my own horse from the time I was six years old, rode in horse shows as a teenager, and rodeoed a little bit in college.  You could call me a cowboy, but I never worked cows.  Go figure!”

Bovee brought a wealth of songs, stories, and personal experience to the partnership.  He also brought his guitar, harmonica, autoharp, singing, and writing talents.

Had there been any doubt about Wagner’s musical direction, it was now Westward, ho.  Wagner and Bovee played dance halls, saloons, coffeehouses, festivals, and street corners in Denver, Salt Lake City, Pocatello, Spokane, Portland, San Francisco, and points between.  They hopped freight trains and hitchhiked, writing songs along the way.  From this period came Wagner’s “Whiskey In My Glass,” an astounding lyrical articulation of the emotional flip side of wanderlust.  They both gave the same reply when asked about their choice of transportation: “Neither one of us owned a car.” 

Few occupations are so compatible with wanderlust, and, from here on out, ordering the events in Wagner’s life would daunt the best of biographers.  His work has taken him to places that can’t be reached by rail or thumb.  “We went to Paris and never saw the Eiffel Tower.  We were so busy runnin’ around and playing music and meeting new people, it never even crossed my mind to look for it.”

Pop Wagner has performed in almost every state in the union.  During a stint in Alaska, he was delivered from gig to gig by bush pilots.  “There were times we’d be flying into some little village, and the visibility would be so bad that the pilot couldn’t see to make a landing.”  Wagner tightens his grip on the steering wheel and leans back to illustrate.  “He’d just pull up out of the weather and say, ‘We’ll just go find someplace else for you to play.’”

For years, Wagner has aptly been referred to by entertainment writers as “Minnesota’s Renaissance Cowboy.”  He has immersed himself in the musical culture of the places he goes and the people he meets.  His fascination with Cajun music, spawned by his encounter with D.L. Menard and the Balfa Brothers at the 1974 Smithsonian Institute Folk Festival, culminated in the release of his 1986 recording, Disco on the Bayou.  He can tell you about folk traditions in Japanese music.  He played in Japan with Stoney Lonesome, a popular Twin Cities bluegrass combo.  If any doubt remains about the diversity of Wagner’s musical experience, consider the reviews he received from the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle for his portrayal of the Folksinger in Benjamin Britten’s opera Paul Bunyan, staged and recorded by the Plymouth Music Series.  A clever reviewer tagged Wagner “The Eclectic Horseman.”

We can be sure that the Twin Cities are likely to remain Wagner’s “trail’s end.”  For more than 20 years, he has been married to Thea Johansen, a chiropractor, seemingly the ideal occupation for a cowboy’s gal.  They live in St. Paul, and, in nearby Grant Township, Wagner boards his palominos.  Not content merely to play the part of a cowboy on stage, Wagner has learned to rope and ride.  When he’s not making appearances on the road, he leads trail rides in the country and sometimes performs on horseback.     

Wagner’s early performances brought him to the attention of a morning disc jockey at Minnesota Public Radio affiliate KSJN.  The d.j. was a shy person who told stories about the provincial inhabitants of a make-believe town near Anoka.  He played records from a collection so eclectic that his listeners grew to expect a selection by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to segue into the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari.”  Wagner recalls, “Back then, the KSJN studio was at ground level and had big picture windows so you could look right in and see the broadcast taking place.  You didn’t get booked on that show.  You’d stand outside with your guitar case in the middle of the winter and hop up and down and wave your arms.  He’d be sipping coffee through that big beard he wore then.  When he saw you out there he’d just gesture for you to come in out of the cold, and that was all there was to it.  You were on the radio.”

The overwhelming popularity of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Morning Show led to the live Saturday-night broadcasts of  A Prairie Home Companion.  Everyone within earshot of the MPR signal tuned in.  Wagner was a regularly featured performer.  When the show went national, Wagner went with it.  Without hesitation, he testifies, “There’s no question that the exposure I got on that show played a very big part in my ability to get work.  It played a huge part.  It still does.”  No shortage of ink was spilled by writers and critics over how national broadcast changed the original show.  A good portion of it was negative, and some of it was fair.  Wagner’s straightforward response: “Garrison is a smart, funny guy.  He had a great idea at the right time and place, and he worked hard to make that show succeed.  Just look at all the spin-offs that came from that show.”  Wagner rattles off a list of program titles, extending a finger from a clenched fist for each one that comes to mind.  Soon, the fist is gone, and his hand is spread open.  He stops listing when he realizes that he can’t continue without completely releasing the steering wheel.  “Well, you get the point,” he says.  And we drive on.

The predicted travel time turns out to be about three hours short.  A side trip to pick up the writer, the normal crawling pace of traffic through Chicago, and the hour lost to the time-zone change accounted for our late arrival in Kalamazoo.  Exhausted, I stagger into the bathroom of an all-night convenience store, while Wagner digs out a local map and the address of our hosts.

For many good reasons, veteran performers of Wagner’s ilk politely fend off offers of housing from the promoters of their shows.  Being a guest in the home of a total stranger, very likely a fan, carries the potential of unexpected demands.  In this case, economics dictated an exception.  An anticipated school performance in the same locale had prompted an agreement for a lower-than-usual fee for the evening concert.  When the school gig did not materialize, Wagner took a bit of a blow to his bottom line.  He shrugs off such occupational hazards philosophically.  “A lot of times people ask me how many days out of the year I do shows.  I don’t even know how to answer.  I might go for a month and work almost every day.  Sometimes I might do two, three, or four shows in a single day.  County fairs and festival performances are like that.  Sometimes I might only do two or three shows in a month.  How do you count them?  I don’t mess with it till the end of a year.  Heck, if it weren’t for the income tax, I probably wouldn’t even count them at all.”

In the next 36 hours, we are guests in three different homes, each a household of volunteers of the nonprofit organization promoting Wagner’s appearance.  I am housed with the working class; Pop, with the middle class; and both of us are fed by the upper-middle.  Despite different values and lifestyles, they share a love of folk music.  I am afforded nearly the same celebrity status that he is, and Wagner does not mind sharing the spotlight; in fact, he seems grateful.

He is expected to be at the venue fully two hours before curtain time.  He does not brood over the loose application of the term “venue.”  Neither does he waste time searching for a dressing room.  In a bustle of activity, a half-dozen volunteers are setting up chairs, a sound-and-light system, and a too-springy-for-lasso-tricks portable stage.  An equal number are in the kitchen, brewing coffee and heating cider in industrial-size coffee urns.  Duncan Hines brownie mix is stirred in large, stainless-steel bowls and placed in the oven.  A noisy popcorn machine creates an olfactory cacophony.  Someone observes that we are about to see a cowboy act in the “Colt” Center, a kind of student union for the Comstock High School.  Wagner uses a well-rehearsed response when kids ask why he doesn’t carry a gun: “I don’t need a gun.  I’ve got a guitar.”

Despite blustery winds and a driving snowfall, a crowd begins to trickle in.  The extremely friendly locals are delighted to impart their knowledge of local lore.  “Kalamazoo,” I am told, “is the ‘Celery City,’ though hardly anyone grows celery anymore.”  One man consults a telephone book in an effort to answer my question about the population.  “What are you looking in there for?  Are you going to call someone who knows?” comes the friendly ribbing from a neighbor.  I am introduced to the fellow who will introduce Wagner, and, when somebody tells me that our master of ceremonies sells lingerie, I am compelled to ask for his business card.  He obliges.  I dare Wagner to tell the audience that the emcee is in women’s underwear.  He guffaws at the suggestion but prudently declines.

For the next hour, Wagner is a kind of Festus Hagen with a bath.  He opens with a slightly irreverent rendering of Woody Guthrie’s “Grand Coulee Dam,” excessively enunciating the stanza in which the word hum is rhymed with aluminum.  The audience is at once struck with the absurdity of the song’s grandiose sentiment and bizarre rhyming scheme.  Guthrie must have been joking when he first penned the lyric; 65 years later, Wagner gets the laugh.

When he follows with a hilarious cowboy lilt called “The High-Toned Dance,” in which the ode’s protagonist declares, “I could feel my neck a-burnin’ from her nose’s breathin’ heat,” several of my ribs started to ache.  Wagner shows no mercy.  He follows with a short literary lecture regarding the genre of cowboy poetry and a little background about the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.  “Now that you know a little bit about cowboy poetry, is there anybody who thinks they might like to go out there and see it?”  He peers through the stage lights at the somewhat nonplussed audience members, who are unsure if they are supposed to respond.  “The reason I’m askin’ is, I was wonderin’ if I could git a ride with ya if yer headin’ atta way.”

His impeccably timed, corny humor delights the audience.  It cannot be characterized as wit; no person is ever targeted.  It is not self-deprecating.  His character’s folksy wisdom counters any pretension of challenged intellect.  The lyrical genius of “The Impressionist 2-Step,” Wagner’s hilarious Cajun-style paean to the celebrated school of art, further betrays any effort to perpetuate such notions.

Characteristically, Wagner is quick to share credit for the song’s inspiration.  “Does anybody here like art?  No, not the guy.  The stuff. . . . My friend Jack Hansen said to me one day, ‘Pop, don’t you think it’s time somebody wrote a song about French impressionist painters?’  Well, I thought about it for a minute, and I knew he was right.  We wrote it together.  We got the first line of the chorus right off of a sign in one them fancy museums over there in Paris.  That’s in France.”

Monet concerned himself with atmosphere and light.

He worked on lots of canvasses at the same time and as it got darker

he just painted on down the line.

Manet did some stuff that’s really out of sight.

Some other guys in that league were Rodin, Cezanne, Lautrec

and don’t forget Paul Gauguin.

Later, Wagner bristles when I suggest he is dealing in comedy.  “I don’t do comedy.  It’s humor,” he corrects me, with noticeable restraint.  Pressed for a distinction, his tone quickly softens.  “Comedians use their material like a weapon.  They hit you right over the head with it.  Humor is something that’s just laid out in front of people.  They can think it over and choose what they want to do with it.”

He recalls the time an agent convinced him to do his rope-trick act in a comedy club.  The agent was also a comedian and booked an appearance at which he opened for Wagner.  “The guy was a total professional.  He opened the show and used his whole stage time to set up my act.  The audience was totally prepared for what I was going to do.  It went perfectly.  They loved me.  It was great.  But when I had to open a show myself, without the set-up, people didn’t know what to think, and I fell flat on my face.”  Wagner shakes his head and lets out a “Whooeee!” as if he’s just been saved from a raging bull by the rodeo clowns.  “I’ll never do that again.”  Strong testimony from a man who has proved equal to practically every conceivable type of performance.

Wagner moves the microphone stand aside and loudly declares, “These are acoustic lariats.”  He spends the next 30 minutes weaving impressive lasso tricks with a constant delivery of corny jokes and puns that has the crowd both mesmerized and rollicking.

Several years ago, Wagner and a handful of other entertainers rented a large room and taught themselves this classic slice of show-business Americana by
repeatedly watching Will Rogers’ 20-minute silent film, Ropin’ Fool.  “I also got hold of a book on rope spinning.  If there was ever something almost impossible to learn from a book, this is it,” he told me.  “But I read it over about a hundred times and kept watching Rogers do the tricks on screen.  It was Sean Blackburn who gave me the idea of mixing in the humor.  He got me into ropes.”

At intermission, Wagner comes off stage and out of character, mingling with audience members, shaking hands, and graciously accepting compliments and the typically restrained adoration of his Midwestern audience.  They seem a little relieved for a break from the laughter and for the assurance that his stage persona is, in fact, more than skin-deep.  It doesn’t take long to see that the real Pop Wagner is just as friendly, funny, and as much of a square shooter as that “feller” in the show.

Everybody gets a brownie and coffee and settles back into his seat.  The second half of the show has a different pace and feel.  There are plenty of laughs but also more traditional cowboy music and storytelling.  Wagner respectfully pays homage to the traditions and mythology of cowboying.  He parcels out little gems of Western history and speaks with deep respect of elders and mentors in this unique odyssey that has been his life.  He talks about his friend, Glen Ohrlin, who rodeoed in the 40’s and 50’s.  Ohrlin was a bronc rider who, unlike many in the trade, did not squander his well-earned prize money.  He saved it up and bought a ranch in Arkansas, where he free-ranges cattle and is a practicing folklorist.  He occasionally brings his cowboy songs, stories, and poems to audiences within a reasonable distance of his busy spread.  Wagner cherishes his opportunities to share a billing or just to spend time with Ohrlin.  “This guy is the real thing,” he says.  The beautiful cowboy lament “Red River Valley” is Wagner’s appropriate closing.

Another bustle of activity returns the room to its original state.  Wagner packs up his instruments and takes care of business with the moneychangers and the volunteer vendors of his CDs, tapes, and T-shirts.  Wagner, members of the three households that accommodated us, and I meet at the home of my hosts.  Well into the night, we share coffee, tea, beer, and stories to celebrate the event’s success.  It is evident that these people do not regularly socialize in one another’s homes.  In the course of the backslapping and laughter, I think about how social and class differences have disappeared and about the backstage remarks I had heard in Elko.  “He’s such a good guy that his character rubs off on folks around him.  I don’t think he even knows it.”

On the ten-hour trip back to my house (which is three hours from Wagner’s home), we deal with the fatigue and grubbiness that accompanies such marathon driving.  We negotiate traffic snarls in Chicago and an icestorm in Wisconsin that slows us to a crawl for two hours, but Wagner is cheerful in all weather.  I try to get him to complain about the lifestyle.  The best I can get out of him is, “I guess the hardest part of doing what I do is the amount of time you have to be away from home.  That’s not easy for me.  And even though she is always supportive, I know it can’t be too easy for Thea, either.  But I do it because I love doing it.  I love the feeling I get when I perform, and I love to hear people laughing and clapping.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”  There is a thoughtful pause before he adds, “This is the only thing I know how to do.  I couldn’t do anything else.”