December 17, 2012
Horseback riding on a ranch in Montana? Singer-songwriter Ken Overcast wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It’s a beautiful evening in North Central Montana. A rancher and his 4-year-old grandson are horseback, searching for a stray cow. Off in the distance, the Bear Paw Mountains are bathed in shades of purple as the sun sinks into the western sky.
“Kale, just look at that picture that the Lord painted us,” says the cowboy to the youngster. “Isn’t that just a perfect picture?”
The boy scans the picturesque scene as he replies, “Yeah it is, Granddad, especially with me and you in it!”
Cowboy singer-songwriter Ken Overcast is the grandpa in that true story. It’s those moments that make the hardships of the Montana ranching lifestyle all worth it.
“I actually live what I sing about,” Ken replies, when asked what sets his music apart. “My passion is the western lifestyle and trying to make people understand what that’s all about.”
Ken spreads his message in a variety of ways. He has recorded eight albums, published three books, writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, hosts a weekly radio show carried by 65 stations and performs dozens of concerts every year. He’s also a real working rancher and runs a cow-calf operation with his wife, Dawn, outside Chinook, Montana, with the help of a few American Quarter Horses.
“We’ve had them for years,” Ken says. “This is a cow outfit, and nothing else works.”
Ken’s current favorite mount, MAP Flameing Wood, a red roan gelding by Snippy Wood and out of a MAP Flameing Doc by Drop Of Frost, also graces the cover of his latest book, “Fables From the Far Far West.”
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Benny Frost, a 1985 sorrel gelding by Pasa Frost and out of Shez Thinking Big by Go Benny Go, was on the cover of Ken’s “Montana Cowboy” CD, while Pasa Little Gold, a 1998 palomino mare by Badlands Frost and out of Dyna Tee by Salty Tee, was on the cover of his “Montana in My Soul” CD.
Ken and Dawn work together on all of their ventures.
“We do everything right here,” says Ken in the kitchen of their nearly century-old home. “Right off the dining room table.”
If it sounds like they’re rich, the Overcasts would say yes, as long as you’re not talking about money. Their home was built in 1913 and is not the kind of western-style spread some actor might own in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s a working ranch, with the emphasis on “working.” As Dawn comes into the house on a drizzly May day with her rubber boots slopped in mud, it’s clear it’s not a real glamorous lifestyle, but it’s one the Overcasts would never trade.
“I had the most idyllic childhood that could ever happen,” Ken says. “I grew up on a horse … went to a country school with three classmates … and people just don’t understand how that changes your outlook on life compared to the way the world is going nowadays. Those old hometown country values that have been instilled in me by my parents and grandparents – it has just been a tradition that has been handed down. And we’re trying to pass it down to our grandkids.”
Ken and Dawn’s roots in this area go back to pioneer days. Dawn’s family arrived around 1900. Ken is related to the third white man to settle in this part of Montana, a great-uncle of his father, Dow.
“He had horses,” says Dow Overcast, as he tells a family story that dates from about 1880. “And an old Indian came down the trail with a couple of young daughters, and he offered to trade him one of his young daughters for one of his horses. ‘Boy’ he said, ‘That was tempting.’ ”
The uncle passed on the trade. But the family tree he planted has flourished. Ken and Dawn have two children and 10 grandchildren who live in the area, along with both sets of grandparents.
“We could’ve left here, gone someplace and gotten an education and made tons more money,” Ken admits. “But we probably would have moved 18 times, and the kids would never know where home is. It’s important for us to maintain these roots.”
Unlike a lot of ranch children who couldn’t wait to leave home, Ken knew what he wanted was right where he was.
“I wanted to wind up on a ranch, and I wanted to have a good country girl for a wife who knew how to set a table fit for a king, be able to take care of the cows and rock my babies, and I found one! And that has been our goal together for all these years.”
The childhood sweethearts recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, but they have had some tough times through the years. Perhaps nothing was worse than when they lost the ranch in 1987.
“We had quite a few cattle and a lot of debt,” the singer grimly recalls. “We’d haul a semi-load of cattle to town, and it wouldn’t pay the interest. We lost absolutely everything.”
They were foreclosed and forced to move out.
“And then, by the grace of God and a series of miracles, we got absolutely everything back just about six months later,” Ken says. “A guy drove in the yard and said, ‘I heard you had a chance to get your place back.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it won’t do me much good, cause I don’t have any money.’ He asked me how much I needed and I told him. He said, ‘That’s not so much.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not so much for you! But when you don’t know how you’re gonna buy your next bag of groceries, it’s way too much!’ So he finally said, ‘Well I’ve got that much money. If you want it, you can have it.’ ”
Ken’s credit was trashed, and there was no way he could pay back a new loan, but that’s not what the man was offering.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I didn’t say you had to pay it back … I got this money. If you want it, you can have it.”
“I just about fell over dead!” Ken exclaims. “People just don’t do that.”
But this person did, with two conditions. First, Ken could never reveal his name. No problem.
“I don’t think you could get that out of me with a branding iron,” the rancher laughs.
The other requirement?
“Some day, when you have a few bucks,” the benefactor instructed, “And someday you will, then I want you to help somebody else.”
“And that’s what we’ve always tried to do,” adds Dawn. “That’s why those 100 head of cows down there are going to our son-in-law. We own the cows, but he’ll get all of the calves off of ’em.”
These devout Christians can tell you some other amazing stories. There’s the time they had no money for food, and someone showed up at the door unexpectedly with a check to buy some hay from them.
“But life is full of amazing stories if you just look at it through the perspective of God’s trying to do something,” Ken says.
That even applies to the accident that cost him his right eye. Ken and Dawn had been married a few years, and were waiting for their finances to improve before they had kids. Ken rode the rodeo circuit and always seemed to be nursing some kind of injury. On Christmas Eve 1970, he was working on an old saddle with a pair of needle-nose pliers when the pliers slipped, and he lost his eye.
“Dawn said, ‘The way you’re goin’, you’re gonna kill yourself! And before you die, I want some children to remember you by,’ ” the cowboy remembers. “A year later, we had our son. Two years later, Charlene was born, and then when Dawn was 27, she had a hysterectomy.”
While their faith is central to their lives, Ken is careful not to give any hint of trying to cash in on it. He will play church concerts and gospel events if asked but doesn’t solicit that business.
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While Ken plays a couple dozen cowboy music concerts a year, he spends most of his time working at the ranch on his next column, book or record, or tending the cattle. He self-publishes his books and markets his music through his own company, recording in Nashville with the help of producer Russ Ragsdale and some top session players.
The CDs are a blend of his own compositions and classic cowboy tunes. He has recorded duets with Joni Harms and Juni Fisher and won awards from both the Academy of Western Artists and the Western Music Association. But there’s one recognition no one else will ever get. It came when his recording of “Montana Lullaby” was named the official state lullaby by an act of the Montana Legislature and signed by the governor.
The song was written by Wylie Gustafson, who, by the way, is another American Quarter Horse owner. With Wylie’s permission, Ken changed the lyrics to make the tune his own. Ken’s version was such a hit in Montana, a Billings disc jockey started a campaign to officially recognize the song. Ken wound up singing it for a state Senate committee, a cappella.
“I didn’t want to be so presumptuous to walk into this Senate committee meeting with my guitar in my hand,” he says. “One of the senators said, ‘Well, how we gonna vote on something we’ve never heard? So I stood up there and sang it as best I could.”
That was a highlight for sure. But the spotlight can’t really compete with the ranch life. Like the time his 5-year-old granddaughter helped him feed the cows, with mud up to her knees.
“She got it done and then said, ‘Oh, Granddad! This is the best day of my life!’ ” Ken says.
Sounds like there’s a song in there somewhere.
“It’s great,” says this contented cowboy of his life on the Montana plains. “Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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