RUN LIKE A BULL
I’ve lived in Nashville for ten years, but this winter I’m moving back to the Texas Panhandle, back home. I'd do it sooner, but my daughters are dancing in The Nutcracker and I don’t want to disappoint them. I’m eager to go get lost with my dad for a while. The last time I saw him, we went fishing at a lake that most people would scoff at. That’s why we go, because no one else does.
We chased the late afternoon sun off the flatlands and down into the canyon reservoir that day. Dad smoked a menthol and rambled above the wind about Ray Wylie Hubbard's guitar tone and fishing poles and tried to convince me that Neil Young is overrated. No sale. We blared on, eighty miles-an-hour on a caliche road, fishtailing and dragging a cloud of white dust through that empty blue sky. His driving made me uneasy enough to grab the oh-shit handles for a second, but then I returned to a level of trust I have with my dad. He's always driven this way. It was enough to let me sink down and relax. It was good to not have to feel like I was in control.
In late 2014, I was making the four-hour drive from Nashville to Atlanta to open a show for Billy Joe Shaver. Twenty minutes from the Red Clay Music Foundry, I received a call that my cousin Bryce had passed away at the age of 23. Nobody’s supposed to die at 23, but especially not him. He was the younger, better version of myself, and the loss sunk me. I made it to the venue, wiped my tears, and went inside.
I probably shouldn’t have stepped on stage that night, but when grief comes on, you just do the task in front of you. A few songs into my set, I stopped. I confessed to the audience that I couldn’t stand on stage and paint on a fake smile, and I dedicated the rest of my set to my cousin. Honestly, I think the show went well and people were moved and I was moved. I finished the set and walked off stage to collapse in the arms of the venue owner, Eddie Owen.
Billy Joe was standing nearby and gathered me up. He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke for a moment about losing his own son. Then he asked me my cousin’s name and took his hat off. With his arm around me, he kindly said, “He’s on the other side now.” Then he reached his hat to the sky and looked into the rafters backstage and said, “Salud, Bryce. We love you.” That night, I slept in the basement under the stage with a pillow and a bottle of Basil Hayden that Eddie gave me.
It took the better part of the next year for me to say my goodbye to Bryce the way that Billy Joe did.
Growing up, my family spent our summer vacations at my grandma’s on Lake Texoma. We’d drive down from the top of the Texas Panhandle to bottom of Oklahoma where most of my extended family lived. I spent much of my youth beneath a pecan tree just outside my grandma’s backdoor in southern Oklahoma. My cousins and I would put on mock rodeos, spinning jumping and scoring each other’s “bull rides” from a rope swing we’d rename Bodacious or Red Rock on each turn we took. We’d holler, “Lets go boys!” and we’d fly off, performing a never before seen dismount and landing in the red dirt where the grass was worn and the tree’s shade thinned.
When we’d wear out, we’d rest inside under the heavy breeze of a swamp cooler in the living room. I remember fighting with my brother over a spot on my grandma’s floral, velvet-like couch, exhausted from the Oklahoma heat. My cousin Bryce was oddly athletic, even at four or five years old, and he never ran out of energy. When the rest of us tuckered out that day, he lowered his head and started stamping his feet and we all knew what was coming. Someone yelled, “Run like a bull!” and he put both his pointer fingers up on the sides of his head and came at me like a stampede, burying his brow into my belly and socking me back deep into the couch. He had an infectious grin that pulled everyone in. Laughter and giggles filled the room and Bryce pummeled us all, one by one, back into a wild joy. Grandma ran him and the rest of us kids back outside for being too loud and rowdy while she was cooking dinner.
Bryce stayed on the throttle most of his young life, drifting over the line from time to time, and eventually he lost control. I’ve been out of control plenty, but I’ve also hidden the keys from myself for years at a time and given up on motion all together. Too fast, too slow. Lately I spend my time in my own mind, back home, floating down the road, trying to keep it between the ditches. Run like a bull.
- Ryan Culwell