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You can have anything you want
This is the land of the free
I got everything I asked for
On the day I turned sixteen
I believe in the ability of stories to teach, move, and instruct. That is why I appreciate not just the stories themselves but those who create them, nurse them, and pass them on to us. The greatest teacher this world has seen revealed his most vital lessons to us through symbolic stories that reflected everyday life, emotions, and conflicts. Such stories, if spun by the greatest teacher or any of us much lesser ones, are made to be digested, turned into nutrients to fuel deeper feelings, appreciations, and even convictions.
I believe Ryan Culwell to be one of those gifted bearers of stories, a young man (by my standards) who lives out both the dreams he has for his talents and the heritage he carries from a land branded with struggle, quiet beauty, loud winds, and a sense of heaven that only limitless space can give.
I was introduced to Culwell in the heat of this past summer. I recently returned to the same “hole in the wall” to see him again. But this time, the temperature hovered about 25 and would settle into the low teens before dawn.
It probably is not fair to call the setting a hole in the wall since it has become one of my favorite stops. Half of it (the “smaller half,” if there is such a thing) was formerly a bank robbed by Bonnie and Clyde. Well, not that Bonnie and Clyde. It was robbed by Ned Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” But it certainly was available for robbing when the real pair were active. They did stop in what was then a small north Texas farming community and steal a car from a local but drove right by the bank.
The “bigger half” is an old store with a large outside seating area and is connected to the old bank by a doorway smashed through the double wall. This evening, we were all huddled in the smaller half trying to keep the old bank just warm enough that our breath didn’t look like smoke.
Actually, it was plenty comfortable with a little liquid warmth applied. Both halves together form a bar that serves great grill items, some BBQ and ribs that more than pass the test, and is owned by a combination of former coaches and their friends who naturally believe owning a hole-in-the-wall bar is the height of retirement ambition. The house band is a talented bunch consisting of what was at one time a pretty good line coach, a world champion water skier, a former vocational agriculture teacher, and a former basketball coach. Like me, they are well past the prime of their earlier adventures, and unlike me, they are really talented musically.
But this night the sole person on the small corner stage was Ryan Culwell. The songs he writes and performs combine to tell parts his own story as well as reach into elements of a common story we all share, or should.
Culwell’s story begins at the top end of the Texas Panhandle. He was raised among the oil field culture of that region. His dad quit the fields to start a trucking company to serve that industry, and Culwell grew up surrounded by the children of the oil workers and of the ranchers who squeezed a living out of a land made for the strong. In that summer meeting, Culwell and I talked about the country surrounding Perryton, Texas, high school football playoff games, dusty back-road rodeo pens, and the features of that ground north of the Canadian River. I have been through there often. It is one of the routes I take to northeastern New Mexico, a little less direct but worth the trip.
The Oklahoma line lies 7 miles north of Perryton, and there one can turn left (west) to run the length of the Oklahoma Panhandle into the 50-mile network of mesas and canyons that would bring you to Folsom, New Mexico. Or one can go straight (north) and soon be in Liberal, Kansas.
One hot afternoon, I stopped several miles south of there on the high hills that overlook the drop into Canadian, Texas, and the banks of the river from which it gets its name. The sky was a rolling, twisting mass of almost solid black clouds with occasional bursts of lighting that seemed to be explosions. Two different rain walls could be seen below as the front side of a tornadic storm made its way to the northeast. To the unfamiliar eye, this land can appear sterile. But the flat prairies, rolling hills, and dry washes contain both power and beauty. It is not made for the meek, or the lazy or the uninspired.
Ryan Culwell is a crafter of words who eventually took his trade to Tennessee like so many others. And he had some success there. Like everyone else who takes that route, he worked several types of jobs while peddling his songs and talents.
He has a wife (who he assured me was “pretty damn hot”) and four daughters. The daughters had never lived anywhere but Tennessee. With a couple of opportunities beginning to break for him, he decided (with his wife) that it was more important for his daughters to be raised in the same atmosphere he’d been, around the same values, the same sense of belonging, and the same feelings of family and community.
If you have spent your entire life in Tennessee and are suddenly dropped at the top of the Texas Panhandle, your first reaction might be “What happened to the trees?” I like shade as much as anybody, but Culwell may well have captured what some of us feel when looking across a limitless horizon in his song “Flatlands.”
In it, he speaks of walking in those Tennessee woods blocked from being able to measure the full expanse of the land with the eye and seeing birds playing still on the ground because they have “no wind to lift their wings.” He longs to see “miles and miles of dirt in front of me” in a place where “summers are hot and winters mean; there ain’t no in between.” It might well be a place where “wind can break a man,” but it is also home to a culture of survival and freedom where people are measured by their contributions and their worth.
So his girls will be raised a few doors down from where he was. They will know what it means to walk down a street where everyone knows they are “Ryan Culwell’s girl,” not because of anything he has written or performed but because they know him to be one of them and someone worth knowing. And they will know that a standard comes with that.
Culture is perhaps a state of mind as much as anything else. It is about what you value. To share a culture, you have to value some of the same things.
The singular beauty of the American culture, or as I sometimes prefer, the American character, is that the values upon which its foundation stones lie can bind all regions, races, and social classes. It can prosper on the isolate prairies or in the mill towns or among the skyscrapers. There was a time when it flourished in all of these and more.
It is a culture that begins with the individual and the values that make life productive and meaningful. The accomplishments, be they small, large, intermittent, or constant, result from those values.
Those values, and that culture, flow upward through the families and then through the community surrounding those families. When those values and those families and communities that share and nurture them is lost, so is the culture. That is the way a culture such as ours is destroyed so that now the values flow downward toward the people.
A culture such as ours requires strong individuals with a sense of their own value and the value of those around them. Those with that sense can take the risks that breed accomplishment and show the true compassion that grows brotherhood. They also realize that this culture (if they can define it or not) is a trusted heritage that has to be taught and grown. It is a responsibility to the generations after them who depend on their wisdom and our combined experiences to make them ready to meet an ever-changing world with unchangeable values. Responsibility is just a vital thread in the fabric of independence and liberty. Without responsibility, they both are lost.
Confidence in those values gives confidence in your own ability to make it on your own. In “The Last American,” Culwell tells us “I got everything I asked for on the day I turned sixteen. I got my old man’s heart and a broke-down Chevrolet.”
It speaks of a person who believes in himself not in arrogance but because he had an example that he trusted. He knew this old man’s greatest asset was not physical. It was his heart — his try, his determination, his refusal to quit, and the steady commitment to his family. Those are not qualities or values distributed by your overseers. They are born in the spirit and nursed in the genuine bonds of family and community.
Threats to those values, that culture are meant to destroy the most meaningful moments of the human life. Those threats should be treated as the deadly attacks they are.
And be warned, later in the same song we hear “they tell ’em you can be anything you want and I believe that’s a fact. But what you give away, you ain’t never getting back.” Destroyers don’t intend to give back.
We all have a responsibility to that culture — if we value it. We are called to fight for it and not betray it for the easy, comfortable, or elite.
But Ryan Culwell’s example may remind us that perhaps the most important thing we can do is to raise good human beings who grasp the things in their old man’s heart. And understand that in that heart lies the strength to build not just a family but also a community, a culture, and a nation that reflect it.
That night, Culwell was passing through on his way to Florida driving an old, battered SUV with about 250,000 miles already on it, heading toward a festival of some sort where he was playing the Sunshine State. Building a music career from Perryton, Texas, is not meant for weaklings or the easily turned.
I hope Ryan Culwell’s music becomes well known not just because I feel it deserves to be but so more can digest those stories and find something that will help to complete a picture for them of what we have been and can be in an uncertain future.
But regardless of any fame or financial rewards, I believe Culwell will be a success. I believe that he will raise four daughters to become women of strength who will not settle for any half-hearted men in their lives. I can see them being strong mothers who pass on values that point lives toward accomplishment, fulfillment, and ethical courage. If we all had such success, our nation might operate a little differently at present. The key is not if that old Chevy runs or not, it is what lies in the heart.
But Culwell’s words deserve to be heard, regardless. Which reminds me of a couple lines from another word crafter from a few decades earlier.
and if I never have a nickel, I won’t ever die ashamed
Cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know