Baxter Black, cowboy poet and ‘Morning Edition’ commentator, dies at 77

Updated June 13, 2022 at 1:55 PM ET

Baxter Black — the cowboy poet, philosopher, large-animal veterinarian and longtime Morning Edition commentator — died at age 77 on Friday.

He is being remembered for his witty and insightful analysis on a wide range of issues — from Thanksgiving turkeys to childrens’ names to the Supreme Court — always from the perspective of a Western farmer and rancher.

“He was sort of a Will Rogers kind of a character and that he saw things clearly and he knew how to say them in a humorous and nonthreatening way,” recalls folklorist and musician Hal Cannon, who was friends with Black for more than 30 years.

Black was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1945 and grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He was a senior class president and National FFA Organization president, and also rode bulls throughout high school and college. (“You either are [a cowboy], or you aren’t. You never have to decide,” he wrote in an FAQ on his website.)

After graduating from veterinary school at Colorado State University in 1969 Black went on to practice as a large-animal veterinarian, where he remembered his most thrilling call was “looking at a cow that might have been rabid or one that might have had anthrax.”

He was simultaneously honing his skills as a poet and public speaker, which would go on to become his full-time career.

“The last company where I was working as a tech veterinarian changed hands and let me go,” he said, describing the transition. “I was doing ‘speaking’ on the side and people just kept calling, so here I am.”

Black’s first column was published in Colorado’s Record Stockman in 1980. Several years later, he made his way to public radio.

During the Yellowstone park fires of the 1980s, Black wrote a poem called “The Range Fire,” in one memorable line comparing lightning in the sky to veins on the back of a hand.

“I looked up ‘public radio’ and the address, and I just recorded it,” he recalled in an interview on the Cowboy Crossroads podcast. “In those days it was reels, and so I got it done on tape and I sent it to whom it may concern.”

To his surprise, several days later he got a call from someone at NPR verifying his identity and asking for permission to run his words — and his voice — on the national airwaves. Black gave the go-ahead, sparking a partnership that would run for two decades.

“The next week after it ran we got 70 some-odd letters … It was a nice response for somebody like me. He called back and said, ‘Do you have any other of those?'” Black remembered. “Public radio was good to me.”

Here are years’ worth of Black’s Morning Edition commentaries, on topics ranging from the superiority of horses and media coverage of the avian flu to a potential screenplay for a Western about a wrestling llama and a guest commentary from his dogs.

Black even weighed in on how to pick a president.

“Given the opportunity to poll candidates, there are several questions that I would proffer, i.e.: Do you consider Miracle Whip and jalapenos essential nutrients in the food pyramid?” he asked in 2008. “Number two: do you prefer Copenhagen or Skoal? Number three: do you have any nieces, nephews, cousins, or children named after [coonhounds] — Blue, Jake, Badger or Whoop?”

Black was keenly aware that he didn’t sound like anyone else on public radio, with former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards recalling that “he knew our audience and he knew how he fit in.”

“He would gear some of his commentary in that way, like the people who were against …. fur coats, use of fur, and Bax thought you should recycle roadkill and use the fur as clothing for dolls,” Edwards said. “So Barbie would have a fur coat from a dead possum or something. That was one of his tweaks at public radio right there.”

When he wasn’t on the air, Black spoke at conventions and events across the country, appeared on television programs including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, wrote a weekly column and published and recorded audiobooks — of which AG Daily says he sold more than a million.

His column, “On the Edge of Common Sense,” was published by more than 100 newspapers across the U.S. and Canada over the years.

Black and his wife Cindi Lou announced at the end of 2021 that he would be retiring due to unspecified health problems, prompting an outpouring of tributes and support from the agriculture world and others.

In his undated website FAQ, Black dodged a question about his top three accomplishments, saying, “I haven’t accomplished them yet.” But he did reflect on how he’d like to be remembered: “As someone who didn’t embarrass his friends.”

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Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

MORNING EDITION has lost one of its great voices and most beloved characters. Cowboy poet, philosopher and former large-animal veterinarian Baxter Black has died.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Baxter was a commentator on this show for more than 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAXTER BLACK: A Vegetarian’s Guide to Cowboys. Myth No. 1 – cowboys are mean to cows.

MARTINEZ: Baxter looked at and talked about the world from the perspective of a Western farmer and rancher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACK: Cows have an IQ somewhere between a cedar post and a sandhill crane. However, fate has made the cow and cowboy dependent on each other – this same unnatural relationship that exists between politicians and reporters or lawyers and criminals.

MARTIN: On any given day, he might talk about runaway cows, a longtime marriage, a warm sunrise or how to pick a president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACK: Given the opportunity to poll candidates, there are several questions that I would proffer – i.e., do you have any nieces, nephews, cousins or children named after coon dogs – Blue, Jake, Badger or Whoop?

MARTINEZ: Baxter Black was born far from the American West – in Brooklyn in 1945. But he grew up in New Mexico and lived mostly in places where he was surrounded by horses, cattle and open spaces. Here’s former MORNING EDITION host Bob Edwards.

BOB EDWARDS: There was a country rock band that I really loved called Pure Prairie League, and all their albums had this cartoon cowboy – looked exactly like Bax, exactly like him. But he was the genuine article.

HAL CANNON: He was sort of a Will Rogers kind of a character in that he saw things clearly. He knew how to say them in a humorous and non-threatening way.

MARTIN: That last voice there was folklorist Hal Cannon. He used to run a cowboy poetry festival, and he was friends with Baxter for more than 30 years.

CANNON: Baxter Black always identified most with people who worked on the land, the people who brought us our food.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACK: He stares at the field and remembers the year these same 80 acres paid the loan, free and clear. But these last 30 days have scared him to death. The dirt’s as dry as a horny toad’s breath. He called up his banker after supper tonight, and they talked for an hour. He’s sure getting tight.

MARTINEZ: Baxter was keenly aware that he didn’t sound like anyone else on public radio. Here again is Bob Edwards.

EDWARDS: He knew our audience, and he knew how he fit in. He would gear some of his commentary in that way, like the people who were against fur – fur coats, use of fur. And Bax thought you should recycle roadkill and use the fur as clothing for dolls. So Barbie would have a fur coat from a dead possum or something (laughter). That was one of his little tweaks at public radio right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLACK: It’s much easier for us livestock people to communicate with urban consumers if we both accept, right off the bat, that the way a feeder pig becomes a spare rib is not necessarily a pretty procedure, but it’s not murder.

MARTIN: Again, here’s folklorist Hal Cannon.

CANNON: He had a column for many, many years called “On the Edge Of Common Sense,” and his last column was called “Why A Horse Matters.” Can I read you a little bit of it?

(Reading) I like living someplace where a horse matters. There’s just some country where horseback is the only way to get the job done. I count myself very lucky that I get to be part of the wonderful world of horse sweat, soft noses, close calls and twilight on the trail. I like living someplace where a horse matters.

MARTIN: Cowboy poet, humorist and unforgettable voice of MORNING EDITION – Baxter Black. He was 77 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMIINA’S “PERTH”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.