Most early evenings, you can catch Sam Olivo, “the Sixth Street Cowboy,” making his way down Riverside Drive– conveniently beating rush hour traffic while riding atop of one of his horses. Despite living in Texas, spying a cowboy riding a horse along I-35 is a rare feat. However, Olivo, country singer / songwriter, philanthropist, and businessman, lives a unique and simple lifestyle that is conducive to maintaining a traditional outlook on the world.
In June 2010, Olivo says he died not just once, but twice.
Olivo used to teach horses how to jump the track at a race track in South East Travis County. A rider was missing for a race at the track and Olivo was asked to fill in. “My mind wasn’t right,” Olivos explains. “I wasn’t ready to run. I wasn’t focused.” Olivo failed to tighten his saddle before the start of the race and at a 150 yards, it came loose. The saddle went to the side and Olivo’s spur got stuck in the synch. He fell underneath the horse and was dragged for 50 feet facedown and trampled nearly to death.
Olivo had two collapsed lungs, 12 broken ribs, a broken back and severe head trauma. “I was a mess,” Olivo says. He flatlined in the helicopter on the way to surgery and again the hospital. After three weeks in a coma, Olivo says he came back to life. “I don’t remember much of the accident,” Olivo admits. “I know my Native American brothers tell me that guy died, and I’m the new guy.”
Upon waking up from his coma, Olivo says his life was completely different. While he was in a coma, his wife left him and when he woke up he had to deal with the realization that he may never walk again. Despite all of this, Olivo says he remained positive. “For some reason, nothing seemed to bother me anymore. I was like ‘woah, I’m alive’,” Olivo explains.
For Olivo, the road to recovery has been difficult, but spiritual. He says he went through a lot of physical therapy and was given medication for his head injuries. “I wasn’t going to get well that way,” Olivo says. Instead, his mother suggested he return to his cultural roots and “pray the old way.” Olivo says his health improved after he went to a Sun Dance in Nebraska, and worked with his horses. Olivo attributes his death experience as his way to finding the “red road,” which is the Native American concept of the right path of life. “The red road is the Indian way of protecting Mother Earth,” Olivo explains. “Living off the universe. The red road is doing the right things for mankind and is very sacred.”
Initially, Olivo was told he would never walk or talk again. “There was nothing to do and the only people I had was my horses,” Olivo says. With the help of friends, Olivo slowly gained his strength back by riding his mule, Mula. Six months after his accident, Olivo had defeated medical odds and was admitted into a surgical tech program at Virginia College. To celebrate, Olivo and a friend decided to ride his horses, Mula and Texas, downtown. Still in a lot of pain, Olivo took painkillers and had a few drinks throughout the evening. At the intersection of Sixth and Red River, Olivo’s friend got down to take a picture with some onlookers marveling at the horses. “Right then, to my left, I see a bicycle police officer and he asks if I can get off the horse,” Olivo says. “I looked my friend and said ‘dude, that’s it. I’m spinning.’”
Olivo and his friend were charged with a DWI and arrested. Olivo’s horses were impounded. Later, when Olivo arrived to court he was informed the DWI was now a PI, since he had not been operating a motorized vehicle, he had been riding a horse. Olivo says when he left court, he called his brother to tell him what happened. “He told me to turn on the TV to any local station,” Olivo says. “So I turn on the TV to Fox 7, KVUE, KXAN– and there I am. Bobbing and weaving with the cops all around me.” Olivo says this was when the “Sixth Street Cowboy legend” began.
Four years later, Olivo has turned to music to tell his story. “I write songs now about things I’ve been through in life, because I can’t remember much,” Olivo explains. “If I sing about things I’ve been through, I remember.” His songs include singles titled “Arrested on Horseback” and “Toksa Aka Kola.” Olivo plays with musicians from all over Austin. Band members have included Kurt McMahan, Warren Hood, Joe Beckham, Trevor Nealon, Mike Bernal and Bob Hoffnar. “I have a great band, and I like sharing my gift with the world. To me, that’s the beauty of it– you know, there was a time I couldn’t talk and walk and now I can sing.”
Olivo uses his music to help others, as well. He sings for the disabled handicap and performs at different charity functions around town. In addition, Olivo makes trips to Zilker Park to allow kids to play with his horses and attends events at the Capitol regularly. Olivo says the red road lifestyle has taught him not to “worry about the illusion of the machine” or focus too much on making money. “The reality of it is that you either got it or you don’t, money wise,” Olivo explains. “People don’t understand that there’s a difference between being healthy and being rich.” This new outlook on life has led Olivo to dedicate much of his time to philanthropy, and helping out his Native American brothers on the reservation. “I don’t know what the task is I have, but I know there’s a task for me to do. Whether it be for the horses or helping the disabled.”
Despite the cruel history his Native American tribe has dealt with in Texas, Olivo remains positive towards the cowboy lifestyle. “In Texas, there aren’t reservations, it’s an extermination policy. The reality of it is there’s a bunch of Native Americans that have lost their culture, lost who they were, because history says it never happened. But it did happen. But, I don’t hold a grudge,” Olivo explains. He says that when he visits reservations up north, he stresses to his brothers the need to move forward. “It was inevitable, what happened, but you still gotta try to make things better and try to better ourselves, no matter what. Don’t blame somebody for the way things are, it’s just the way they are. Things happened and get off your butt and get to work.”
“I know that my life is going to be beautiful, but it’s a tough life,” Olivo admits. His only stable source of income is a $500 disability check from the government and he primarily lives in a tent on his farm. Still, Olivo says he likes the simplicity of his life. “The truth is I live a hard life. But, to me, as long as I’m walking and doing the right things - thats the best. As long as your humble things will happen to you.”