Mike Blakey has been playing the guitar since age 8, and he's never looked back. Since then, he's released 16 western novels and 10 musical albums and averages about three performances a week. Then there’s the work on the ranch that has to get done. In 2005, Blakely’s band won Vocal Group of the Yearread the rest
A brief bio by Jack Wolfe, C.M.U.
Mike Blakely sits on the tailgate of his pickup truck on his ranch in Llano County, Texas, and removes his leather work gloves. He’s been tearing down an old corral so a newer, more functional set of working pens can take its place. He’s considering the question this interviewer has just asked: “How on Earth do you find time to do everything you do? You write books, record your own songs, play a hundred and fifty live shows a year, and still have time to tend to your ranch and your horses.”Blakely has a ready answer: “People ask me that all the time. I tell them that I’m actually quadruplets. One of me writes the novels, one writes and plays the songs, one runs the ranch, and one of me sleeps.” Indeed, having released 16 novels and 10 musical albums in the past twenty years, one wonders where Blakely could fit everything in, especially when one factors in an average of three live performances a week, many of which are events he also plans or produces. Then there’s the ranch work. “Seriously, I do most of my songwriting while driving to the next gig,” Blakely admits. “I can work out the plot for a novel while I’m tearing down a fence, or exercising a horse. It all works together… Traveling makes me appreciate my home on the ranch. The peace and quiet at home makes me yearn for an audience and a stage.” Efficiency would seem key for this multi-tasker. “Oh, yeah, I come from a family of efficiency experts,” Blakely boasts. As he was coming of age, his parents ran their family ranch, while juggling several other ventures, and still do. Blakely’s mother taught school, owned successful retail businesses, and invested in real estate. His father taught college courses, wrote books, and became a nationally-acclaimed after-dinner speaker and humorist, all while continuing to dabble in musical ventures. “I learned from them,” Blakely says, “and from grandparents. We take great pride in figuring out ways to get as much accomplished in as short amount of time as possible, so we can go have some fun… Once, while remodeling a house, my grandfather saw me mark a two-by-four with a pencil and a square, so I could cut the board. I made two marks with the pencil, so the line would be dark enough to see. He told me that was a waste of time, and that I should just hit it once with the pencil and get on with it. That’s the kind of detailed attention to productivity I grew up with. But it was more of a game than a burden. It taught me to make good use of my time.” Blakely began his efficiency lessons on the home ranch in Wharton County, Texas, located on the Texas Coastal Plains. After graduating from high school there, he spent four years as a helicopter mechanic with the U.S. Air Force, serving in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in South Korea. “While I was away in the Air Force,” he recalls, “my former English teacher saw my mom one day in the grocery store, and told her that I should pursue a career as a writer. When I heard that, it was the inspiration I needed. I used the G.I. bill to get a journalism degree, graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984.” Blakely remembers that he had dreams of writing novels and songs while growing up. After graduating from college, he began the long process of making those dreams come true. His prose came first. Putting his newly-earned journalism degree to work, Blakely began writing for numerous magazines and newspapers as a feature writer. He created a syndicated newspaper column on Texas history and folklore. “That led to a lot of research that would soon give rise to numerous ideas for historical novels.” At the age of 29, Blakely finished his first novel, a western entitled The Glory Trail. After a laborious search, he found an agent in New York City who sold the novel to a major publisher. Several more western novels followed, all of them published by big New York houses with national distribution. With his career as a novelist on track, Blakely gravitated again toward music. “My dad taught me to play guitar at the age of eight, and I had played in country and rock bands while I was in high school. But, those were cover bands, and I wanted to perform my original songs… My time spent in Austin during my college years was inspirational. Austin is a live music Mecca, and many of the acts I saw while living there were great songwriters. They showed me that it was okay for a guy to get on a stage and play his own tunes.” Even, so, Blakely turned away from Austin. After graduating from UT, he had had his fill of city life, and yearned for his country roots, so he moved to a ranch near Marble Falls, sometimes trading ranch work for rent money as he struggled to make a living as a fledgling novelist and an aspiring songwriter.“Luckily, I met some characters from the very-active music scene in Marble Falls, and the surrounding Hill Country. I began writing songs with john Arthur martinez, and formed a trio with Larry Nye and Donnie Price called Mike Blakely Y Los Yahoos. I recorded my first album of western songs at Larry Nye’s studio on the banks of Lake LBJ.”The choice to record as a western singer seemed to make sense at the time. Blakely was writing western novels, so why not record some western songs he had written? “The down side was that I got categorized by some folks strictly as a cowboy singer. It took a long time convince people that I don’t do cowboy poetry, and I don’t yodel. Yeah, I grew up on The Sons Of The Pioneers and Marty Robbins, but I also cut my teeth on everything from BTO and ZZ Top to Willie and Merle.To this day, Blakely writes and performs in a number of musical styles: country, Tejano, Cajun, western swing, rock, and blues, to name a few. His later CDs showcase his many influences, and his live shows feature the gamut of his musical tastes. “That’s the beauty of performing in Texas,” he says. “You can play a country song, followed by the blues, followed by some rock, or conjunto, or Cajun, or cowboy music. The audiences here accept all kinds of music.”Blakely’s association with john Arthur martinez and other songwriters led to a few trips to the country music capital of the world. “Nashville always inspired me in terms of the talent I saw there. I always had a great time there, and met some truly gifted people, most notably Alex Harvey, the great songwriter. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the town didn’t have much to offer me. It was too much business and not enough music. The most important thing that Nashville taught me was that I needed to form my own independent record label so that I could write and record whatever I wanted. I’ve never regretted that decision.”As Blakely worked on his dual creative careers, he also carried on a family tradition of real estate investment. He began with houses, which he would purchase, renovate, and sell. He took advantage of a real estate crash in the early 90’s, purchasing some ranch land at rock bottom prices. “It was pure luck. I happened to have the money to invest at the right time. It had always been a dream of mine to have a piece of land where I could hunt and fish, and ride my horses.” That dream came true with 78 acres of Burnet County land that Blakely called El Rancho Quien Sabe (The Who Knows Ranch). In 1998 Mike Blakely Y Los Yahoos made it’s first trip over the Atlantic to perform in Europe. Blakely’s bass player, Donnie Price, had toured Europe with another band, and had made enough contacts to put together the first tour. The band has toured the continent at least once a year ever since, performing in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Holland, and France.The rest of the year will find Blakely and his band tearing down the Texas blacktop to the next show “somewhere between Cow Town and Corpus” performing as Mike Blakely Y Los Yahoos, or with the full five-piece band, called Mike Blakely and the Whiskey Traders, a configuration that includes drummer Jeff Brosch and steel guitarist Scott Martin. Blakely also works as a solo artist, and in duos with other Texas songwriters such as john Arthur martinez, John Greenberg, Thomas Michael Riley, Walt Wilkins, Tommy Alverson, Davin James, Steven Fromholz, Brian Burns, and Jeff “Wild Horse” Posey.Blakely has continued to crank out books and albums into the new millennium, garnering stellar reviews, and national awards. His novel, Summer of Pearls, won a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America in 2001 for best western novel of the year. “It’s ironic, because it’s not a western,” Blakely says. “It’s a southern novel with more river boats than horses. In fact, that novel took ten years to find a publisher because it was not western enough, and at the time my writing had been categorized as western. Finally, Forge Books had the guts to publish the novel, and it won the award. Marketing execs love categories, but I’ve aggravated them for years. I refuse to fit into their pigeon holes.”In 2005, Blakely’s band won Vocal Group of the Year at the Texas Music Awards. As a songwriter, he won the first-ever Spur Award for songwriting with his epic western song “The Last, Wild, White Buffalo” from his 2008 CD The Rarest of the Breed, which at this writing is nominated for album of the year in the Texas Music Awards. “Awards are very gratifying,” Blakely says, “but I’ve never found any laurels comfortable enough to rest on for very long. I’m always on to the next project.”And the new century has provided many opportunities for projects. Luckenbach Texas recruited Blakely in 2003 to host an annual music and book festival featuring Texas songwriters and authors. The resulting “Fandango” occurs every September, the weekend after Labor Day weekend, at Luckenbach, one of the most celebrated music venues in the world.In 2006, Blakely won a contract to co-write a western novel with one of the most recognizable entertainment icons in history, Willie Nelson. The resulting novel, A Tale Out Of Luck, is designed for Willie himself to play the lead role in the movie version of the story. “Willie’s character is a retired Texas Ranger after the Civil War. He’s also a rancher and town founder. The story is set partially in Luck, Texas, the western movie set town that Willie built on his ranch west of Austin. We breathed life into that fake town of movie-set facades, and used it as a setting for much of the action in the novel.”On Working with Nelson, Blakely says: “It was a career highlight. He treated me as an equal, and never put on any big-star airs. Willie’s obviously a creative genius, and had definite ideas about the book, from the tone of the storytelling, down to the creation of the characters and the scenes. The book was just a lot of fun to write.”The successful venture with Willie Nelson led almost immediately to another co-authored project with another international country superstar, Kenny Rogers. “We’re still working on the story, so I can’t give you a whole lot of details yet, except to say that it will not be a western. It will be a contemporary music-business story. It should hit the shelves in 2011.”Meanwhile, back at the ranch… In 2008, Blakely began to feel Austin’s urban sprawl moving his way, and sold his Rancho Quien Sabe, purchasing about 100 acres farther west in Llano County, on the banks of Lake Buchanan – The Seven Stars Ranch. “I looked up at the northern sky one night while closing the gate behind me, and saw the big dipper looming above me. That’s where the name comes from… It ain’t the King Ranch,” Blakely admits, “but it’s a little piece of heaven, and a great place to hide out between tours and gigs. Every author dreams of having a quiet place to write. This is mine. I’m lucky to have it, and I try never to take a blessing like this for granted.”One of the projects on the new ranch involves turning part of the existing barn into a rustic music venue. “I’ve already had one concert here, with the whole band. It was well received by a select crowd of our fans. I plan to make it a recurring event. The big oak trees and barn create a laid-back atmosphere, and it’s nice to be able to play a gig within walking distance of the house. I call it the Tin Roof Tavern.”Blakely is putting his work gloves back on now, indicating this interview is just about over. There are ranch chores to finish, and a gig to play an hour down the road later tonight. He gazes several miles across Lake Buchanan as he slides off the tail gate with a smile on his face. “It’s all a lot of hard work, but I wouldn’t do any of it if I didn’t love it. I used to dream of a life like this. Now, I’m living the dream.”read less