- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CODY, Wyo. (AP) - The colored lights were dim and the voice was deep but twangy as the dinner crowd at Cassie’s listened between salads and steaks to the craggy-faced, mustached crooner with a well-worn cowboy hat pulled low over his face.

Uncle Val gave them the usual stuff. He sang a mix of cowboy songs, recited a cowboy poem and paused between strokes of guitar strings to send shout-outs to those he recognized.

Mostly he spent nearly two hours delivering unvarnished Val Geissler, the Cody Enterprise reported (https://bit.ly/1Vxeh5G).

Val has a standing arrangement with Cassie’s Supper Club owners and operators Melody and Steve Singer. If he is in the neighborhood and feels like clearing his throat Friday nights he stops in and performs for tips before the regularly-scheduled band at 7 p.m.

His appearances are not advertised and he comes in irregularly, so don’t hang your cowboy hat on any schedule.

Val showed up one recent night and announced, “Okey-dokey, another great Friday night at Cassie’s.”

Val radiates the vibe pretty much 24/7 that it’s a great night any day of the week anywhere, that life couldn’t be better right then and there unless you were riding a horse on the back 40 - which he is likely to be doing on his South Fork ranch other days.

“The music business bought the ranch,” Val said.

At Cassie’s Val was dressed for both riding and singing with blue jeans, cowboy boots and work shirt. He is mostly bald with leftover white tufts of hair, but unless you have X-ray vision you can’t see that through the brown felt hat.

“You want to hear me yodel?” Val asked the crowd.

. . .

In recent months, Val Geissler yodeled his songs all over the Cody entertainment scene because of his voice-of-reason, old-wise-man role in the frequently honored western documentary “Unbranded.”

Val wrote and sang the “Border to Border” theme song and viewers have made the story of a 3,000-mile Mexico-to-Canada horseback ride plugging the plight of the wild mustang the darling of the film festival circuit.

Audience choice awards have piled up like freshly chopped wood. To see “Unbranded” is to stoke the urge for adventure and provoke digging into the wallet for a donation so the Bureau of Land Management can find homes for thousands of horses no longer home on the range.

The riders were young men from Texas A&M;, but somehow the guy who never expected to be seen on camera grabs those watchers by coming off as the trip’s glue.

“They all like the old guy,” said Val, to whom the phrase “a twinkle in his eye” easily applies.

Val likes to say one appeal of “Unbranded” is it was unscripted and the closer his life is examined the word may apply equally to his life.

It’s not as if Val, now 76, was born yesterday or when “Unbranded” was released in 2015. Val was born in 1939 in San Francisco into what he calls a society family. The song “Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” was not recorded until 1975 so Val’s mom had no advance warning when her tyke was swept up by cowboy culture.

There was no ready explanation for a 5-year-old falling for Cottonseed Clark’s “Hollywood Barn Dance” radio show.

“I just always wanted to be a cowboy,” Val said.

So he became one, riding bucking horses, working ranches in California and Montana, writing cowboy songs and mouthing cowboy poetry.

He aspired to rodeo with the Cal Poly San Luis-Obispo team, but didn’t compete. In 1959, after obtaining his pro card, but before joining the circuit, Val was working on the KO Ranch in Missoula, Montana, and suffered a head injury. That KO’d his rodeo career.

“I was just another jock with a lot of potential,” he said.

In the early 1970s, Val managed Grizzly Peak Stables in Orinda, California.

Val said some people compared Orinda with Mayberry R.F.D., the spinoff of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Val has written an equine training book, learned how to parachute at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended Officer Candidate School and emerged as a lieutenant, been married four times, had one son who died and has one daughter with two grandchildren.

But he has unofficially adopted many young people by helping them along the way and that’s how the Uncle Val nickname stuck.

“He’ll do anything for anybody,” Steve Singer said.

Val may strike some as a gadabout and he wouldn’t deny that, but the cover of the book is not the whole story.

“He is a beloved character,” Melody Singer said, “but Val is very professional on certain things. Over the years he’s given us business advice. He’s financially smart.”

. . .

Although Val sang in a choir in Northern California as a youngster he said, “I wasn’t born with a guitar in my hand. Sometimes I listen to myself singing and I don’t really like it. But some people say I have a very nice voice.”

By the time Val settled in Cody in 1984 he was well-established doing all of the things he still does, from singing to horse training.

He had offers to go to Nashville full-time and sing country. After a stretch befriended by an influential Los Angeles newspaperman with entertainment business contacts, Val said he was told, “You’ve got your foot in the door.”

He talked to, played for, made an impression on everyone from Walter Cronkite to Henry Mancini. On one wall at the ranch Val shares with Cindy, his wife of 18 years, there is an autographed picture of President Ronald Reagan.

But Los Angeles was a big city, not an open prairie, and something about show business, perhaps the word “business,” alienated him.

“I’ll go back to who I am,” Val said he decided.

Val being Val is the crux of it all, from the rotating broken-in cowboy hat choices, to the tunes like “Night Riders Lament” and sure enough, that one about mommas, babies and cowboys.

. . .

It might be said “Unbranded” has become a brand.

In 2010, Ben Masters was on a backcountry horseback ride that took him to remote Hawks Rest, where Val and Cindy were caretakers of a federal land retreat cabin.

They hit it off and a couple of years later Val helped Masters’ group train wild mustangs for the journey and became the riders’ hay and water supplier on part of the route.

Fast forward and the hundreds of hours of film turned into an award-winning documentary and companion book last year. From Telluride to Toronto, “Unbranded” was the people’s choice.

Val has recently sung and talked at the Park County Library and introduced a one-night charity showing of “Unbranded” at Big Horn Cinemas. He was scheduled to kick off an April 15 dinner-and-movie event at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Masters was going to come to Cody for that, but must be in Oklahoma City at the same time to pick up another award.

“Val was incredibly helpful,” Masters said long distance of Geissler’s contributions to the ride and film. “He was crucial. He helped in so many ways.”

As Val said, he was only ever going to be in the background, but some interaction with “my boys” as he calls the participants, made the final cut. He is the sage advice-giver when tension or an unexpected problem arose.

Two viewers who became fans of Val’s limited screen time are former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. The Bush’s presidential library is on the Texas A&M; campus in College Station and the ex-president had Val flown in first class for a special event.

Masters joked Val has gotten so big “he’s stopped answering our phone calls.”

Not exactly. Still, widespread approval of “Unbranded” has drawn film-world attention to Val. A few offers to make more movie appearances have come his way, but he has turned them down.

Steve Singer said Val should ride the wave.

“Uncle Val,” he told Geissler, “this is another chapter in your life. Live it to the fullest.”

Cindy, who prefers not to venture on distant trips with Val, isn’t sure.

“No, he doesn’t want to go to Hollywood,” she said. “He’s having fun. Val is an entertainer. He does like hanging out with people. It’s another way to make friends.”

The impact of “Unbranded” has expanded the circle as only otherwise Facebook can. Since the film is being translated for showings in other countries, Val says what do you know, he now speaks German, Japanese, French and Mandarin.

Just watch his lips.

. . .

When Val recently sang and recited poems for about 25 people at the library, it seemed as if the entire audience was filled with friends.

He routinely interrupted songs to welcome latecomers by name and even stood up, walked over and shook hands with some.

Shelly Waidelich, who arranged the performance, had never seen Val in folksy action like this (he really calls his reading glasses “cheaters”) but has known him at least four years from church.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said of the library show. “His show is fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. People call and thank us for having him.”

The same happens at Cassie’s when Val plays.

“He shows up when he can,” Melody Singer said. “We love having him. When he’s playing it’s like having a campfire in the middle of the dance floor.”

Steve Singer supervises weekly jam sessions at Cassie’s and one day a new face, a young woman showed up. When he asked how she heard about the group she said Val.

Singer Justine May said she was a camp cook for an outfitter and Val rode up on horseback carrying his guitar like some ghost out of the forest. He entertained the guests, ate, serenaded her on bended knee and vanished.

“He was singing in the tent,” May said.

Besides being busy with his 25 or so horses, and taking time to ride them for enjoyment, Val said another reason he doesn’t play Cassie’s too often is the only money he makes is that dropped in the glass tip container.

Steve Singer, who has known Val many years, periodically plays with him at Cassie’s and was the engineer on two Val CDs recorded in Garland some time ago.

Val was extremely professional and punctual. Appointments for 8 a.m. were made with road musicians awake till 4 a.m.

“If you weren’t on time you were in trouble,” Steve Singer said.

The Val he knows has been consistent.

“He’s authentic,” Steve Singer said. “He loves the cowboy way and he lives it.”

Val has his horses, his ranch, a collection of old bridles, one dating at least to 1895, hanging on the kitchen wall. Framed photographs representing life chapters and western art decorate other walls. One is a Val portrait painted by Cody artist Pat Kuper and presented to him one night this year as a surprise at Cassie’s.

“He said, ‘Oh, Patty,’” Kuper said. “He’s a sweet fellow.”

. . .

Val Geissler rested his guitar across his knees. Other musicians, the late show, were drifting into Cassie’s.

“Thank you, boys and girls,” he told applauding listeners at Cassie’s. “I’m Uncle Val.”


Information from: The Cody Enterprise, https://www.codyenterprise.com

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