Joe West, Cowboy

Joe West, Cowboy

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Who is Joe West really?

“Cowboy” Joe West has been roaming these United States for decades, stopping in city after city to umpire Major League Baseball games since 1976. The American bicentennial birthed his umpiring career, and that moment may well define him. He’s a living reminder of the country in its root patriotic form—the top layer of a layered Jell-O in the shape of the lower 48, a highway exit sign, the last five minutes of the local news. West skims the surface of our assumptions about a 67-year-old American man and says “Yes.” And yet I find myself drawn to him for his courageous musical output. There’s a reason he’s called “Cowboy”: his love of country music. Unsatisfied with mere fan status, he used his celebrity as an umpire to write and release Blue Cowboy on Colonial Records in 1987. 21 years later he self-released Diamond Dreams, a spoken word album produced by George Jones’s pianist Kent Goodson. No, West did not risk much, but he went beyond the bare minimum and diversified his ego in a delightful way. It’s this that makes him all the more traditionally respected. With his music, he is just adventurous enough, venturing out twice from his ultra-specialized position into his alter ego: Joe West.

Joe West in 2015, photo by Eric Enfermero

You may be now reminding me that umps are like cops. And while that’s the most spot-on comparison, they’re also a little like doctors. On the spectrum of authority figures, the umpire’s worldview falls somewhere between God-ordained power (cop) and unshakeable, predetermined arrogance stemming from overripe self-confidence (smug doctor). West is no exception. He’s a real crank. He revels in his power because he has to, because it’s Major League Baseball and the only one (usually) not laughing is the umpire. But what West really wants to do is sit back in a porch chair, pop open a beer can with a church key, and relax with Hank Williams (probably). To establish difference, his inner psyche stays locked under layers of padding and the executioner-like anonymity of his mask. By design, umpires and cowboys run parallel paths, only overlapping in rare, embarrassing instances. Yes, I reject the fact that West governs like a cowboy. He calls balls and strikes like a league representative, and we should hope this doesn’t change.

Joe West 2.0 was introduced on the cover of Blue Cowboy. That man is humble, joking, and easy. He doesn’t even lean into the umpire/sadness double meaning of blue on the album art. Instead, he leans against a wooden railing, mimicking, whether unintentionally or not, the sloping neck of the feeding horse below him. He says that he, too, can graze on grass and drink from a bucket. Though he won’t, he has given himself the freedom of choice. The look in his eyes says “I only wanted to be that horse.” And so we begin to understand his blueness. Of his music career, he said, “I was lucky. You know, the dues you have to pay to get here as an umpire are long and tedious, but the music business, because I was already in the major leagues, kind of opened a lot of doors I normally wouldn’t have been able to open.” The fact that he’s almost ashamed of his work due to his easy success only speaks more to the trueness of his blueness. It’s through the act of expressing it that it becomes a problem. And by neatly separating both halves of himself, he can effectively speak of Joe-West-in-jeans as another being altogether.

Photo by Tony Triolo

But somewhere down the line, between throwing Phillies pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground and calling the Clay Buchholz no-hitter, he switched modes from “country” to country rambling. The Blue Cowboy started to talk a lot more, and at the suggestion of Goodson and Diamond Dreams (my copy is in the mail), amply answered the question “what’re you thinking about, Joe?” Really, the plain country truths on the record are the plainest you’ve ever heard. Though probably staged as a purposely understated humdinger of a statement, these lines come off as pure, true description. “My life revolves around a little white ball that everyone tries to hit. Some hit it a long way. Some not too far. Some miss it completely as it goes into the mitt.” Not false. Like any of songwriter Wesley Willis’s classic lines (“Elvis Presly was a rock star. He was the greatest”), The musical backdrops behind West give his lines soaring significance. Though years and decades behind the times, these MIDI jams cannot be accused of being insincere.

Goodson’s take on Diamond Dreams speaks to the heart of the album: “As I look back on how this CD came together, I realize that I am a musician and Joe is an umpire.” If you choose to see it not as a subtle burn but as an assessment, you’ll notice that Goodson has pegged West as 100 percent umpire. And he isn’t totally wrong. West’s fond memories of life and baseball flow together in his monologues, and we start to see him shift toward a double self. However, he stops just short of openness. His visions of the game are romantic, and they’re totally unallowable on the field. The sleeping boy on the cover must remain there and nowhere near the field of play. If ever there is another addition to Cowboy Joe’s musical catalogue, I hope he goes wilder still. How about a Carla Bozulich collab? Until then, we’ve got a nice little stack of songs through which to really see Joe West.

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