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How the west was won: A bevy of NM authors, artists and songwriters bring home Wrangler and Spur awards

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque author Max Evans was always more of a roll-in-with-the-thunder than a ride-into-the-sunset sort.

So it’s no surprise that Evans, who died in August just short of his 96th birthday, would go out with a bang.

Evans’ novel, “The King of Taos” – published just before his death – won the Wrangler Award, presented by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and took finalist honors in the Western Writers of America Spur Awards competition.

Published by the University of New Mexico Press, it is based on the winos, artists and other characters Evans knew when he lived in Taos in the 1950s. The book won the Wrangler for Best Western Novel and was a Spur Award finalist for Contemporary Novel.

Evans’ widow, Pat, said he would have been delighted by the recognition.

Iconic New Mexico writer Max Evans

“Max won a lot of awards – maybe 30 or 40 – and loved everyone of them and appreciated all of them. They were never small to him,” Pat Evans said. “But the main thing about ‘The King of Taos,’ is that he just wanted to hold it in his hands, to know that it was printed before he died. And he did get to hold it.”

More winners

Evans was not the only New Mexican to earn Wrangler and Spur awards recognition this year.

Johnny D. Boggs, of Santa Fe, increased his record Spur Award total to nine by winning in the Original Mass Market Paperback category for his cattle-drive novel “A Thousand Texas Longhorns.”

New Mexico musicians Doug Figgs, of Lemitar, and Mariam Funke, of Santa Fe, teamed up with Colorado poet Floyd Beard to compose “El Caballo del Fuego,” which won a Wrangler for Original Western Composition and was a Spur finalist in the Song category.

Singer-songwriters Randy Huston, who ranches near Santa Rosa, and Jim Jones, of Rio Rancho, wrote the Spur Award-winning song “Don’t Say Goodbye to the Cowboy Way.”

 Members of the New Mexico trio The Cowboy Way, from left, Jim Jones, Doug Figgs and Mariam Funke, were recognized recently with prestigious awards for song writing presented by the Western Writers of America and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. ()

Members of the New Mexico trio The Cowboy Way, from left, Jim Jones, Doug Figgs and Mariam Funke, were recognized recently with prestigious awards for song writing presented by the Western Writers of America and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. (Courtesy of Cowboywaymusic.com)

Jones and northern New Mexico artist Kamee Young were Spur finalists in the Storyteller/Illustrated Children’s Book category for “Bolo the Brave.”

The Wrangler Awards will be presented Sept. 17 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and Spur Award winners and finalists will be honored during the WWA convention scheduled for June 16-19 in Loveland, Colorado. WWA is a national organization of men and women who write fiction and nonfiction about the West.

Write what you know

Evans, who wrote more than two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is the recipient of three previous Wrangler Awards, and also collected a couple of Spur Awards in the past. He started writing “The King of Taos” decades ago, but put it aside before returning to it in his 90s. Pat Evans said the book was so personal Max Evans needed the distance of years to finish it.

“He knew these winos he was writing about,” she said. “They were really sweet guys, all friendly and they didn’t bother anybody. Max went in the (Taos) wino bar a few times to talk to them. It did get around that Max was going there, and he never explained to anybody why. It didn’t bother me. I knew what he was doing. It was research. He would come home and write about it. Write what you know, and Max was good at drinking.”

Going the distance

Boggs, the author of more than 60 books of fiction and nonfiction, has also been recognized in the past with a Wrangler Award. But his nine Spur Awards are the most collected by anyone since WWA launched the competition in 1953. The late Texas author Elmer Kelton comes in second with seven.

Santa Fe’s Johnny D. Boggs

“A Thousand Texas Longhorns” presented Boggs with a new challenge because his publisher wanted an epic of 120,000 words.

“My longest previous novel was 90,000 words and most of my novels are 60,000 words,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to move a story for that many words.”

The book is based on an actual cattle drive made by Nelson Story from Texas to Montana in 1866. Boggs drove 3,800 miles doing research and managed to keep the novel moving by alternating the narrative between the cattle drive and the experiences of Story’s wife, Ellen, as she awaited him in Virginia City, Montana.

“A Thousand Texas Longhorns.”

It helped that Boggs himself had experienced a couple of days-long cattle drives.

“The first drive I did I had to replace my glasses because they got scratched up by the dust,” he said. “It was a tough way to make a living, not a whole lot of romance.”

Tradition sings

Both the Wrangler and Spur-winning songs were recorded on “Doin’ What We Do,” the third album by The Cowboy Way, a trio made up of Figgs, Jones and Funke. The group’s first CD won a Wrangler in 2017 for best Traditional Western Album.

“El Caballo del Fuego,” this year’s Wrangler winner by Figgs, Funke and Beard, is about a horse that is “red like the color of fire.”

“I wanted to do another song with Spanish in it, and I wanted to do a horse song,” said Figgs, a rancher and farrier. “Floyd (Beard) said, ‘Let’s get away from the black stallion. Let’s do a red horse.’ To me the song’s about the history of Spanish horsemanship. That’s where all our cowboy stuff came from.”

Huston came up with the idea for the Spur-winning song “Don’t Say Goodbye to the Cowboy Way,” although he admits he was not sure what the cowboy way is.

 Singer-songwriter Randy Huston shared a WWA Spur Award for Best Song with Rio Rancho's Jim Jones. ()

Singer-songwriter Randy Huston shared a WWA Spur Award for Best Song with Rio Rancho’s Jim Jones. (Courtesy of Randy Huston)

“I ranch, and cowboying is part of ranching, but what the heck is the cowboy way? What does it mean?” Huston said. “I have never been real high on the term.”

But that didn’t stop him for working on the song, which ends up defining the term as a way of life and work forged by tradition.

“It was really flowing for me,” Huston said. “I felt like it was a tight song.” He took what he had to Jones, who helped with the finishing touches.

Huston received a Wrangler for his album “Cowboys and Girls” a few years ago, but this is his first Spur Award.

Jones now has three Spurs for song writing, but the Spur-finalist “Bolo the Brave,” about a boy and a dog on the Texas plains in 1878, is his first attempt at writing a book for kids.

New Mexicans Jim Jones, author, and Kamee Young, illustrator, took WWA Spur finalist honors in the Illustrated Children’s Book category for “Bolo the Brave.”

“For me the challenge in writing for children was not to make it too complicated but also not to write down to them because kids can be pretty sharp,” Jones said. “Bolo is loosely based on my dog Colter, who had a crooked nose, was goofy but really sweet and also could be fiercely protective if the situation called for it.”

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