ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — No one told stories the way Max Evans did – in novels of 20th-century cowboy life such as “The Rounders” and “The Hi Lo Country,” both made into movies, or over whisky at lounges, restaurants and hotels in Albuquerque, Taos, Lubbock, Los Angeles, Rapid City, S.D.; or anywhere else his long and colorful life took him.
He was funny, outrageous, honest and mesmerizing in print and in person.
Evans, 95, the author of more than two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including “The King of Taos,” a novel published this year by the University of New Mexico Press, died Wednesday in hospice care at Albuquerque’s Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center. Survivors include Pat, his wife of 71 years, and their twin daughters, Sheryl and Charlotte.
Reporters would go interview Evans at a bar in a restaurant or at his Southeast Albuquerque home and not show up again for many hours – or maybe a couple of days. But when they surfaced, they had one of their best-ever stories because it came out of Evans.
Author Johnny D. Boggs of Eldorado, near Santa Fe, recalls lunches he shared with Evans at Loyola’s Family Restaurant on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. There was no alcohol at those Loyola’s sessions, but Evans did not require that kind of fuel to tell stories that shined and thundered, stories about his cowboy escapades, barroom fights, good horses and loco horses, contrary cattle, strange characters he had known and his adventures in Hollywood.
“Often I’d glance at nearby tables and see the other diners smiling – or cringing – at his stories,” Boggs said. “It was like sitting at a table with Johnny Cash, Samuel Clemens or, Max’s favorite (author), Honore de Balzac.”
An Albuquerque resident since 1967, Evans would have been 96 on Saturday. He had been hospitalized since falling at home and breaking a hip on June 19.
Although not a household name outside his considerable circle of fans, which included the late movie director Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”), Evans was one of the most distinctive voices in American writing.
“Max was branded a Western writer just after he wrote ‘The Rounders’ (1960) because it was a book about cowboys,” said Albuquerque writer Slim Randles, author of the 2004 Evans biography “Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years.” “But Max wasn’t a writer of Westerns. He was a writer who brought new challenges and horizons to the English language, and he mostly wrote about people who live in the West because that’s what he knew. He was a cowboy and proud of it.”
In 1990, Evans was presented the Western Writers of America Saddleman Award for outstanding contributions to the American West, and in 2015 he was inducted into the WWA Hall of Fame.
He received two WWA Spur Awards for excellence in Western writing and three literary (Wrangler) awards presented by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Kirk Ellis, Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of the HBO series “John Adams” and a past president of WWA, said Evans was a Western writer who avoided writing the formula six-gun hero and outlaw Westerns.
“He drew his inspiration and his characters not from the storied or the famous – the Billy the Kids, Wyatt Earps and Jesse Jameses – but from ordinary folks whose tales are seldom told and from the landscape that defines them,” Ellis said. “Max could write with simple elegance about war, romance, the natural world, even the day-to-day business of prostitution in 1930s-era New Mexico.”
More than a cowboy
Evans’ novel “The Rounders,” a riotous tale about two beat-up cowboys and a maniac-wild roan horse named Old Fooler, was made into a 1965 movie starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda; and his 1961 novel “The Hi Lo Country,” the story of two hard-living, hell-raising cowboy pals who fall in love with the same woman, who also happens to be married, became a 1998 film with Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup and Patricia Arquette in the leading roles.
Both those novels and the movies they spawned came out of Evans’ own experiences.
He was born in Ropes, Texas, and was working as a cowboy on New Mexico ranches by the time he was 11. He cowboyed, ranched and rodeoed into his young adult years, mostly in northeastern New Mexico, an area he referred to as the high-low, or hi-lo, country because of the mountains there and the rangeland between them.
But although cowboy at the core, Evans had more parts to him than that. He was also a World War II combat veteran, a miner, a painter in Taos, a Hollywood screenwriter and movie script doctor and even a bit-role actor, playing a stagecoach guard in the 1970 Western movie “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” directed by his buddy Peckinpah.
Randles, his biographer, tried to sum up Evans’ picturesque life this way.
“The writer, of course. Dozens of books and a few movies. The cowboy – talented roper but not so hot at bucking horses. The artist – his paintings hang in places that love his work. The soldier – landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day Plus One. Bar brawler – legendary. Drinker – (see brawler). Mystic. Oh yes. Few people outside his family knew, but he occasionally communed with dead people. And as a friend – incomparable.”
Most people will remember the writer.
During a 1985 interview Evans told an Albuquerque newspaper reporter that writing came harder to him than the painting of Western scenes and cowboy life for which he had once been known.
“Painting is a hell of a lot easier on you personally,” he said. “Painting relaxes me whereas writing – if you mean it – tears you up.”
He said in the ’85 interview that he burned the first two novels he wrote without showing them to anyone.
“They made a pretty good fire, but it didn’t last long. I probably have about three published (novels) that I should have burned. Too late now.”
“Max never fell into stereotypes,” said Lorene Mills, host of the long-running TV interview program “Report from Santa Fe.” “His turn of phrase is more Balzac than cowpoke.”
Mills worked for two years to make a film documentary about Evans. The film, which borrows its title, “Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years,” from Randles’ biography, was released in 2017 and has been shown at special screenings, film festivals and on PBS.
“He was one of the kindest people I ever met, but his nose and fists showed evidence of a more combative past,” Mills said. “He was a cowboy but was very close with his part-Choctaw grandmother, a medicine woman and healer, who taught him a deep spirituality. His keen observation of the world around him revealed the metaphysical in the physical.”
The documentary touches on many aspects of Evans’ life, including the key role he played in getting the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces built and his work in the 1960s, along with then New Mexico Gov. Dave Cargo and others, to promote New Mexico as a location for movies, an effort that led to the founding of the New Mexico Film Office.
“His love for his chosen land and its peoples were reflected not only by his novels but in his tireless advocacy for New Mexico’s film industry,” Ellis said.
In 1990, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture created the Rounders Award, named for Evans’ novel, to recognize people “who live, promote and articulate the Western way of life.”
Evans himself was the first recipient. Since then the award has been presented to more than two dozen persons, including writers, musicians, artists, editors, publishers, a team roper, a saddle maker and a weaver.
Randles and Boggs are Rounders.
Boggs, the recipient of a record eight WWA Spur Awards for his Western fiction, credits Evans with giving him the advice that changed the course of his career.
“Max said, ‘Writers only have so many words in them, so make sure what you’re writing is what you want to write. Because there is no guarantee you’ll get to write another word.’ At the time I was writing potboiler Westerns and magazine articles. What Max said gave me the courage to step out and push myself.”
Randles said Evans never “sold out” his own writing, that Evans always wrote the story until it was finished, whether that meant the end product was a short story, a novella or a novel so big it had to be published as two books.
“Max Evans always made friends and rode horses and wrote books his way,” Randles said. “He was true to his own values. So now the end has come? I wouldn’t bet any money on it. Some ideas, and some people, are just too tough to die.”