Q: Why did Texans quit coming up with tall tales? I imagine that there are a lot of lying, stinking polecats out there who need a higher art form to aspire toward.

Scott McNutt, Weatherford

A: Texans have been telling untruths for the sport of it for a long time. The tradition, in fact, dates all the way back to Native American folklore and the earliest days of the frontier. As the legend goes, our pioneer forebears arrived in Texas steeped in the literary tradition of tall tales. But when the books and periodicals available to them grew scarce on the range, cattlemen began telling super specious stories as a way to pass the hours. Eventually the practice developed into a bona fide pastime, especially among loquacious cowboys in Texas’s post–Civil War cow camps. 

Perhaps the preeminent authority on the folk custom of telling tall tales was the West Texas–born folklorist Mody C. Boatright, who, in the mid-twentieth century, served as secretary-editor of the Texas Folklore Society. In his early works on the subject, such as Tall Tales From Texas Cow Camps (1934), Boatright explained that the arrival of the greenhorn to cattle country, “whether tourist or tenderfoot,” provided a boost to the development of the tall tale. “While it is true that the cowboy deserved his reputation for reticence,” Boatright wrote, “it is also true that when conditions were favorable to the exercise of his art, he was an inveterate liar who liked horseplay and took intense delight in ‘loading’ the greenhorn.” 

Favorite topics of the time included such fearsome Texas fauna as centipedes, rattlers, and scorpions; perilous weather events such as blue northers, heat waves, and tornadoes; and narrow escapes such as the one involving the lassoing of enough buzzards to carry a man out of a deep pit into which he’d fallen. The Texanist is particularly entertained by the tales of such wholly invented creatures as the gwinter, which, as Boatright wrote, “had the chassis of a giant mountain sheep or goat with some of the accessories of the grizzly bear and the mountain lion.” The beast’s most recognizable feature—which had come about as a result of grazing its way around and around a mountain horizontally—was a set of short legs on the uphill side of its body (the left side, say) and a set of long legs on the downhill side (the right, perhaps). 

If the gwinter were ever encountered, the greenhorn was instructed to face the creature head on and then take three quick steps downhill, which would cause the frightening mongrel to turn and, thanks to its asymmetrical legs, lose its footing and tumble down the mountain to its death. 

And then, of course, there was Pecos Bill, a mythical cowboy from the early nineteenth century who, among other things, was raised by coyotes, used a rattlesnake as a lariat, rode a horse named Widowmaker, dug the Rio Grande with a stick, and (warning: extreme violence dead ahead) shot to death his lady friend Slue-Foot Sue in what amounted to a mercy killing after she’d been bucked off of Widowmaker.

The lovable but homicidal Pecos Bill was brought to life by North Texan Edward S. “Tex” O’Reilly, who was himself possessed of such an interesting life story that one might suspect it was fabricated, too. His many exploits included fighting in armed conflicts under the flags of eight nations and serving as an officer on the staff of Pancho Villa, as a bodyguard for the emperor of Korea, as a bouncer at a Chinese theater, and, for a time, as the managing editor of the San Antonio Light and Gazette. He was also the subject of a full-scale biography, Born to Raise Hell, the title of which the Texanist is considering for his own life story—though Born to Raise a Frosty Mug might, in all honesty, be a touch more fitting.

But all of this, the Texanist suspects, is not news to you, Mr. McNutt, given that your query implies that you are already something of a fan of tall tales. Plus, you came to the Texanist not to learn about the history of our far-fetched fables but to find out why, as you assert, the gwinter has gone the way of the dodo.

Alas, the Texanist must disagree with the assumption that informs your question—well, sort of. Looking into the matter, he reached out to the good folk at the Texas Folklore Society, the same august organization that Mody Boatright and his friend and mentor J. Frank Dobie worked for roughly a century ago. There the Texanist found Mary Ann Blue, a current board member and former artistic director of the Texas Storytelling Festival. Blue told the Texanist that the tradition of tall tale telling is alive and well, not only at that annual get-together, which takes place every March in Denton, but at a variety of events around the state. “The liars’ contest at any storytelling gathering is always popular,” she said, and apparently has been for many years. 

The Texanist, himself an occasional spinner of yarn whose personal library is said to include such dusty old dog-eared collections as Ima Jo Kerr’s It Takes One to Know One, Jess Kidding’s 50 Mostly True Texas Legends, and even an actual work by an actual author, Boatright’s The Art of Tall Lying, was glad to hear that the tradition has not died out. 

That said, to give your question’s underlying postulate its due, Mr. McNutt, the Texanist will note that he can’t recall the last time anybody attempted to pull his leg. He’s pretty sure it wasn’t as far back as the time the young Texanist’s dad convinced him that the whipped-cream topping perched on Luby’s chocolate icebox pie was really calf slobber, but it has been too long. Way too long, in fact.

So again, while it’s a fine thing that the tradition of telling tall tales hasn’t completely faded away, it is less commendable that the practice seems to have diminished out in the wild, where the gwinter once so freely roamed. A folk custom that thrives only in the captivity of an afternoon storytelling jamboree just doesn’t have quite the same charge. Is it even a proper leg pulling if the leg’s owner has been tipped off that his or her appendage is about to be yanked? Let the Texanist field that one: it is not.

Thus it is incumbent on all Texans to, forthwith and posthaste, commence with the canards, come forth with the cock and bull, let loose with the lies, yuck it up with the yarns, and, simply, tell the tallest of tall tales. And not just on social media, where fabrication, prevarication, and more loony conspiracy theories than Pecos Bill could have shot down with the world’s biggest Jewish space laser are already the order of the day.

Bullshitting, after all, is our birthright. And that’s no lie!

Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.