Where I live, we have a version of Wallace and Junior. We have a version of Rip and Snort. We have a version of Hank the Cowdog, and we have been known as a family to say when we don’t want to do something, when we’re being asked to do something that we don’t want to do, “Oh, my leg. Oh, my leg.” I have been accused of being a lot like Sally Mae in certain circumstances, and we have thieving raccoons.
What am I talking about? These are all characters from the beloved series Hank the Cowdog, and at the LaBerge household, we are big fans.
John R. Erickson is the author of the Hank the Cowdog series, the creator of the characters, the author of the songs, the voice on all the audio. John also went to seminary, and he is a person formed in the faith and informed by the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
But his penchant for storytelling is such a gift here. He believes in the oral tradition of storytelling. The way that John is able to write stories that speak generation to generation and stories that we want to read aloud to our kids and grandkids, and then tell one another in moments like, “Oh, well, India landed on the far side of the moon, and did you know that it’s a cookie moon?” Well, of course it’s not actually a cookie moon, but don’t you think a kid would be captivated by the idea of a cookie moon? Yeah, exactly!
I am thrilled to introduce you, or to share with you if you already know him, my conversation with John Erickson.
This is an excerpt of Carmen’s interview with John R. Erickson on Mornings with Carmen. To hear the full interview, listen online here at MyFaithRadio.com.
Carmen: John, when I hear your voice, I of course hear the voice of Hank the Cowdog because we have, in addition to reading the books, we love the audiobooks. Talk with us about maybe how Hank came to be. For people who are not familiar with the Hank the Cowdog series, well, first of all, I’m just sorry, because you should be. It is the most beloved audiobook out there. It’s designed really for adults, but actually children are its biggest fans. And so I want to talk with you a little bit about that, John, as well. Just introduce people to Hank the Cowdog and how it got started.
John: Well, all right, let’s take a quick run through my little life. I was raised in a little farm and ranch community in the northern Texas panhandle named Perryton, and it was a nice place to grow up, but when I was a kid, all of our entertainment came from New York and Los Angeles. And a kid like me dreamed about going to the bright lights and Perryton had never produced an author before, and I didn’t know that writing was something that I could dream of doing. I thought about being a minister and a lawyer and a politician and a cowboy and a rancher, but never gave much thought to writing until I was at the University of Texas and I made my best grades in classes where I could write essays and I started doing some writing on my own and took some independent study courses that allowed me to write plays instead of essays.
One thing led to another and in 1967 I married a lady from Dallas who recognized that I had some gifts and that I was supposed to be a writer and she always supported me in that, or else I wouldn’t have done it. And we lived our first year of marriage in Boston. I was a student at Harvard Divinity School for two years, and then we moved back to Austin for two years and traveled to Perryton to visit my folks and never quite got away. I had never considered the possibility that I would ever want to go back home and much less be a writer from a little town that had never produced a writer and didn’t even have a bookstore, but it was a nice place. It was quiet and it was peaceful, and we put down roots there. I got a job as a ranch cowboy and I worked on ranches for seven or eight years, and that’s where the story material that goes into the Hank stories came from.
While I was cowboying, I had a neighbor, a rancher who had a dog named Hank. He was an Australian shepherd, and the Cowboys all hated this dog because he was always trying to help us when we had cattle in the pens and he was always causing a mess, but he never knew why people were screaming at him. “Get out of the gate, go to the house, get in the pickup,” and he gave us this wounded look. He just didn’t understand. He was trying so hard to help and he thought he was head of rank security and I thought that was a funny character. I never recognized that Hank would become a star and that I would eventually be working for him. But in 1981, I was writing for Livestock Papers. That’s where I ended up doing my literary apprenticeship. I thought that I might do it in the New York Times or the New Yorker magazine or the Paris Review, but they all turned me down.
So I learned my craft by writing humor articles for Livestock Weekly and The Cattleman and Western Horseman. And I wrote a funny story for the Cattleman Magazine about this dog, Hank, and at the time I was working on a ranch in Texas that had a dog, a little dog named Drover, short-haired, sawed off chicken-hearted little mutt, and a cat named Pete. In that first story I had these characters named Slim and High Loper and Sally May, and all of those characters were fully formed in that first story. And I never knew that it was magic in those characters until I read that story aloud at the Rotary Club in Perryton, Texas. It was a free program and I was kind of curious how the Rotarians might react to this Hank story. I’d never read it aloud to an audience, and I was shocked how they responded to it.
They almost fell out of their chairs laughing, and after the program, the local optometrist came loping up and said, “John, that was great. You need to do more with those characters and with that dog.” And I shiver sometimes thinking about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t done that free program, if Dr. Billy Nolan hadn’t been there that day, if he hadn’t come up and told me what he thought about it, or if he’d told me and I hadn’t. Because that was my first indication that there was magic in those stories and that’s why I decided, well, maybe I ought to try to give him a whole book.
Carmen: Well, I’m here to tell you that Hank the Cowdog is magic. There is magic in it. You guys can check it out at hankthecowdog.com. We’re going to continue our conversation here with John Erickson, the author, the cowboy, the man behind the dog or beneath the dog or run by the dog, whatever. And I’m going to see if I can engage him in just a minute, if he can be baited into a game of Deadly Ha-Ha.
We love that one. We totally, totally 100% love that one. We love the way that Hank the Cowdog has all kinds of creative ways of getting himself out of dangerous situations with Rip and Snort, the cannibals in the region, also known as coyotes. If you are not a reader of or listener to Hank the Cowdog, I am here to say you are missing out. Somebody has done the math, you could listen for some 291 hours and seven minutes, and that’s how long it would take you to listen or read the current Hank the Cowdog series. So John, how many books are there now in the series?
John: We brought out number 79 about two months ago, and we’re getting number 80. I’ve done the recording for number 80 and my son Mark and I recorded two songs for it in the studio in Amarillo and it’ll be out probably in October, and I’ve got six more written on top of that.
Carmen: Oh, fantastic. So there are songs. This is one of the reasons why you should listen to Hank the Cowdog in addition to reading it. This is why you should listen, because there’s songs in here. And John, I have to admit that we as a family find those some of the funniest parts of the books, of the stories, because you sing. And you don’t just sing in Hank’s voice, you sing in the voice of our friendly buzzards or you sing in the voice, well, on and on and on. You do all the voices. This is one of our favorite things.
John: Yes. And those stories were never meant for children, but they were always meant to be read aloud. And my audience, insofar as I had one in mind, was a farm and ranch family sitting around the dinner table after supper on a cold winter night and reading stories aloud to each other and the songs come out of the same oral tradition. I’m not a trained musician, but I’ve sung in choirs all of my life and Chris and I have sung in our church choir for probably 40 years and we’re pretty well-trained musicians. I love music and I think that it adds depth and feeling and humor that you can’t get with just words.
Carmen: Yeah, amen. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, cantaloupe, black eyed pea, watermelon. I mean, I know. Yeah, it’s so great. It’s all so great. John, you mentioned that they’re not necessarily written with children in mind, but our kids love them. Your stories make us laugh, but you deal with real personalities, real difficulties, getting lost, being rejected, being ganged up on, threatened, storms, drought, fire, a lot of which you obviously deal with on the ranch in your real life. So maybe draw that connection for us between real life and the stories you’re telling.
John: If I didn’t work on my ranch, I would have very little in the way of story material. I get story material, we live on a ranch 40 miles from the nearest town. I spend most of my time alone or with my wife Chris, and I spend a lot of time with my two dogs, with horses, cattle, coyotes, buzzards, roadrunners, rattlesnakes. I was bitten by a rattlesnake two years ago, so my life on the ranch lifts me out of my own mind and introduces me to animals and to weather, and that is the source of my story material.
Carmen: It’s so great, it’s so real. For those of you listening, John also has a number of other things he has written, including several nonfiction books, in addition to the wildly popular Hank the Cowdog series. Maverick Books is the publishing company and you had to start your own publishing company because nobody would publish your books. And now, some 11 million volumes in, I bet they regret that.
John: Yeah, I expect that they do, but they didn’t want me, and it’s turned out to be a real blessing. As I said, somewhere in one of my books, sometimes blessings come disguised as dumb luck. I was turned away by the publishing and the entertainment business and I’m so glad now because my wife and I and another family in Perryton control every word that goes into those books. And we are churchgoers, we are believers, we are parents of children, and we understand our responsibility for providing your family with entertainment that nourishes their spirit.
Carmen: Well, we love it and I don’t mind saying out loud, we love you. One of the things that I have read that you have said, I’d like to just read to everybody, John says of himself, “A writer writes. That’s who I am and what I do. I write four hours every morning, seven days a week. I wasn’t smart enough to be a plumber and I’m too old to get an honest job. It’s not what I set out to do in my years as an apprentice writer. It’s much better. I work for a dog, and he paid off my ranch. I’ve tried to give my readers the gift of innocent laughter, and we’ve sold over 10 million Hank books. I’ve never published anything that would shame my mother, and I sleep well at night when I’m not worrying about the drought. I’m still living with the same gal who brung me to the dance 55 years ago. My dogs like me and sometimes I think my kids do too.”
John, I love that. And I wanted to say thank you. I wanted to say thank you for being a writer we can trust, a voice we absolutely love in our home, and I want to thank you for the gift now of the third generation of LaBerge kids who are being raised with Hank the Cowdog. And so thank you.
John: Well, that’s a great compliment, Carmen. Thank you.
Listener’s Guide: What’s Next?
Before you quickly move on to the next thing on our to-do list, let’s take a moment to pause, reflect on what we have heard and consider what God may be asking us to do in response.
- When thinking about your diet of entertainment, what proportion would “nourish the spirit” as John describes?
- How does storytelling help us see or understand things we might not otherwise catch? Can you think of an example in your own life?
- Why does it matter who or what we listen to— even if the stories are fictional and humorous?
- Pray for authors and creators as they make books, movies, shows, etc that will influence generations of people.
- Praise God for people like John Erickson who are using their creative gifts to tell excellent, captivating stories that reflect the good, true and beautiful.
- Pray for a discerning heart when it comes to your own entertainment diet.
- If you have not already, check out Hank the Cowdog and share them with your friends and family! Then, consider intentionally thinking through how these stories— and others like them— might have a lasting, positive effect on you and those around you.
- Influence the entertainment industry with your choices, putting your money and eyeballs/ears into the kind of stories you want.