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The song arm of the law

Jim Wilson, a Texas lawman for nearly 30 years, now sings songs about outlaws instead of tracking them down. (Courtesy of Jim Wilson)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There’s a new sheriff in town who knows more than a few things about outlaws – both the kind who haunt our streets and those, such as Pancho and Lefty, who ride forever in the lyrics and melodies of Western songs.

Jim Wilson, a Texas law enforcement officer for about 30 years and sheriff of Texas’ Crockett County for eight of those years, is a performer of Western music these days. He has a fondness for bad-hombre songs, maybe because he brings more insight to them than other Western musicians.

“I think those of us who have been in law enforcement understand a lot about outlaws,” Wilson, 74, said during a phone interview from his home in Alpine, Texas.

Jim Wilson’s debut CD, “Border Bravo,” was the International Western Music Association’s traditional Western album of the year in 2003.

Wilson will be singing songs and swapping stories with Western musician Jim Jones of Albuquerque from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Cork & Tap Restaurant at the Rio Grande Best Western, 1015 Rio Grande NW. There’s no admission charge for the program, which is presented by the New Mexico chapter of the International Western Music Association.

Hardcore to ‘honorable’

Jones was the IWMA’s male performer of the year in 2014 and Wilson’s album “Border Bravo” was the organization’s traditional Western album of the year in 2003.

“He’s a great interpreter of songs,” Jones said of Wilson. “I think my all-time favorite song he does – and the song I like best doing with him – is (Pat and Victoria Garvey’s) ‘The Loving of the Game.’ It’s about a gambler living a life of adventure. And like that gambler, he (Wilson) and I have been up and down the road a few times.”

bright spotWhere I’m going has no end, what I’m seeking has no name

No, the treasure’s not the takin’, it’s the lovin’ of the game

On Monday night, you can count on Wilson to kick in some outlaw songs – maybe Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” in which bandit boy Pancho meets his match on the deserts down in Mexico; or Gil Prather’s more light-hearted “Seven Days From Musquiz,” in which cowboys suffering through lean times smuggle horses up from Mexico to get some jingle in their jeans; or “Agua Verde Crossing,” written by Wilson and Ed Stabler, about rustlers who run out of luck when they run into Texas Rangers.

Wilson broke into law enforcement as a police officer with the Denton (Texas) Police Department. From there he became chief deputy of the Denton (Texas) County Sheriff’s Office and then chief deputy at the Crockett County Sheriff’s Office before being elected Crockett County sheriff.

Before retiring in 1996, after his second term as sheriff, he’d worked some hazardous duty assignments with narcotics and fugitive-apprehension units. He’s known all kinds of outlaws, from hardcore, shoot-you-down-if-they-can criminals to those who operated outside the law but within something resembling a code of standards.

“A lot of the oldtime outlaws, in a twisted kind of way, were sort of honorable men,” Wilson said. “Some of those old safe busters were real characters. They wouldn’t lie to you. We’d catch them and get them in the office, and they’d just give you a statement. Thought there was no point in hollering and yelling.”

Cowboy revival

Wilson was born in Austin and grew up in San Antonio. His mother was a homemaker who sang on the radio as a young girl in Arkansas and later in her church choir. Wilson’s father worked for the state government in Texas.

“Daddy liked singing those old cowboy songs – “Leaving Cheyenne,” “Streets of Laredo” – but he wasn’t much good at it,” Wilson said. “His strongest suit in singing was enthusiasm.”

Wilson, whose singing voice rolls off his tongue as smooth and natural as conversation, apparently got his vocal ability from his mom. During the 1960s, when he was a student at Texas Christian University, he performed country music (Johnny Cash, Bob Wills) and folk songs by the likes of Ian (Tyson) & Sylvia (Fricker Tyson). Ian Tyson wrote “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.”

Wilson didn’t turn to Western music until the cowboy music revival of the 1980s – spurred, Wilson believes, by the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., in 1985, and by Ian Tyson, who had left folk music for the cowboy life in Alberta, Canada, and for writing and performing Western music.

Western songs by Tyson appear on all three of Wilson’s CDs, which, besides “Border Bravo,” include “West of Somewhere” and “White Rose.”

“I’ve been working on another (CD), just very loosely, been looking at different songs, nothing concrete yet,” he said.

Asked if he has a theme in mind for the evolving album, Wilson said, “I don’t know. Maybe lawmen and outlaws.”

Well, there you go.

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