The Lively Arts: Gene Booth
Of all the country greats — among whom Booth himself has the talent to be counted — Marty Robbins was the one who seemed to take the greatest liking to Booth and his music. The two of them enjoyed a friendship that lasted 18 years, from 1964 until Robbins' passing in 1982. While Robbins politely explained that he already had "hundreds of songs just like Gene's" and therefore couldn't risk recording any of Booth's songs himself, he still acted frequently as an enthusiastic supporter. Robbins often called up radio stations specifically to request that they play a Gene Booth song or two.
One of Booth's originals from the Yucca label, "Time I Better Write," was about a man composing a letter to his family back home. "One of my fans, Brewster, had this relative in Vietnam who was a military disc jockey," Booth recalls. "He played the song ‘Time I Better Write' and the whole base wanted to hear more of it. He told me it was a number-one hit, and stayed number-one through the duration of the Vietnam War, which ended two or three months after sending that record."
Gene Booth’s 1964 publicity photo for Yucca Records,
at the age of 21.
On closer examination, however, it seems that Robbins was wrong about having "hundreds of songs like Gene's." Perusing the extraordinarily prolific discography of Gene Booth — most of which exists as low-fidelity home recordings — one is awestruck by the raw sincerity of his work. While a fair share of his songs were written about love interests and heartbreak (as any songwriter might do), conspicuously absent are the cinematic yarns about riding the range, gunfighting the bad guys, the Mexican señorita, and all the other marketable fodder that was the bread and butter of Hollywood cowboy repertoires.
Instead, Booth penned his own distinctively New Mexican songs such as "The Legend of the Kneeling Nun," "Mimbres Archaeologist," "Girl from the Moon" (a tall tale about falling in love with a female survivor of the Roswell crash) and "The Ballad of Sarah Rooke." The latter was probably the only song ever written that lauds a real-life historic heroine of our state, a switchboard operator from Folsom, NM, who lost her life in a 1908 flash flood while frantically telephoning everyone in the town that a wall of water was on its way (18 people died in that flood including Rooke, while hundreds were saved by her warnings).
Still other Booth songs show an uncommon respect for women in general, even very small girls — such as the heartbreaking song "Orphans' Home" on his Yucca debut, about two very young sisters in an orphanage who get separated by thoughtless adoptive parents. His local hit "Plastic Woman" mocks the "cold as ice" esthetic of cosmetic surgery. "Keeping Your Memory Sweet" is a father's song of love to his only child, a daughter, whom Booth lost custody of when his first marriage fell apart.
Why so many tender songs about real-life heroines, small girls and everyday women? "It just happened that way," Booth explains. "I had to write stories and favored girls over boys. [‘Orphan's Home'] was a true story about boys, but I changed it to girls ‘cause I thought it would be sadder." These are all very personal stories, but like Booth himself, they are real — more real than almost any tale that Rogers or Autry might croon on the silver screen, from a script and sheet music that someone else wrote.
And yes, there's that: Since 1993, Booth has been making movies, too (what Singing Cowboy worth his salt wouldn't star in his own movies?). But these aren't Singing Cowboy movies as you've ever seen them before. If you ever catch Booth performing at Diane's Parlor or the Buckhorn in Pinos Altos (the two venues you are most likely to spot him), for a mere $10 you can purchase one of his 15 self-produced movies burned to a recordable DVD with a sticky label created on a mechanical typewriter.
Pop it into a DVD player, and marvel at Booth's many original musical interludes woven between creative, if sometimes hard-to-follow, original storylines. These include not only good guys, bad guys and gunfights, but also monsters and witch doctors and the men of the entire Booth clan dressed in drag for lack of female actresses to cast. These movies are weird, no doubt, but they are also wonderful, while being one of the best ways to get your hands on a diverse selection of Booth's original songs, many of which have been recorded live only in these movies, with no standalone audio counterparts.
"I done it cause I wanted an outlet for my songs," Booth explains. "Songs and movie scripts are the same, only songs are shorter."
Today, Gene Booth lives modestly in Arenas Valley with his brother Jimmie, his nephew James, and a handful of other relatives. As always, they continue to keep horses, goats and some small animals — including two white ferrets, one of which is named Calamity Jane Booth (of course). On Sundays and Mondays, he puts on one of his custom tailored Western shirts, plus suspenders and tie both spangled with rhinestone butterflies and hummingbirds, and his trademark white hat, which sports an extremely heavy halo of antique silver dollars that Booth welded together himself. He packs up a large Gibson jumbo guitar, and he and his ever-supportive brother Jimmie head down to Diane's or the Buckhorn for a couple of Bud Lights, and an opportunity to perform to a Grant County audience that is finally beginning to appreciate how much of a gem Booth is.
When Booth performs, he is both a humble gentleman and an effective showman, frequently telling corny jokes in a thick rancher's drawl that simply cannot be faked, and singing with a nostalgic tenor tremolo and genuine yodeling that are both vanishing arts, often imitated but rarely delivered as convincingly as Booth does it. Late last year, a small group of recently converted fans printed up some Gene Booth T-shirts that show his 1964 Yucca publicity photo with the pun, "True Gene-ius."
If Booth is indeed the living legend that many locals now believe him to be, perhaps it can be attributed to the fact that he began playing guitar at the tender age of six — a genuine Gene Autry-branded child's guitar gifted to his sister by their mother. In a lifelong effort to pay tribute to the Hollywood cookie-cutter cowboys of yesteryear, Gene Booth somehow grew up to be the real thing.
Manda Clair Jost is a professor of natural sciences at Western New Mexico University
in Silver City, and a former US Fulbright Scholar.
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