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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: Teaching English Cowboy-Style

Back in Oklahoma, last year was a bad one for Johnny Lang.

"I lost my business, lost my dad and lost my girlfriend," said the former oilman. "I thought, 'Gosh, Oklahoma went to hell, maybe I'll try something else.' And, I've always been fascinated with Russia."

A few months later, in early February of this year, Lang, a part-time country western singer, arrived in Moscow for an intensive Russian language program. After five months of study, the 41-year-old was conversational in the language and had decided Moscow was a town he could live in for a while and perhaps even make some money.

Lang's idea was to return briefly to his native Ardmore, Oklahoma, find a business partner, then record a few western songs in a local recording studio and finally return to Moscow where he would sell the simple, melodious songs as a way for Russians to learn English through music.

"When I was in Zaire I used these songs to teach the kids in the jungle to learn English," said Lang, who served in the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in political philosophy. "The songs are simple English and the kids like to sing them ... People laugh at songs like 'She's Comin' 'Round the Mountain', but when you go international, it works."

He's back in Moscow now and hard to miss with his cowboy boots, pin-stripe suit, string tie, and big, black cowboy hat. By day, Lang works to get thousands of copies of his tape of 15 songs produced and distributed.

"The commercial aspect is no joke," said Lang when asked about the viability of the project. "Look at China. There are a billion people there and half of them are trying to learn English. Russia is my pilot program."

At night, he sometimes sings in front of local Russian country and western bands like Lazy Bones Hillbillies and Julia Jostin and Friends. "It's like finding shining pearls in a mountain of cow manure," said Lang of the musicians he plays with. "You find a technical proficiency that is just amazing."

Because the whole one-man operation is fairly low-budget, Lang lives in the working class neighborhood of Tekstilshchiki. Rather than being a hindrance to his work, Lang said it is more of an inspiration to hear the nightly gunshots and see "poor men staggering around with pain and terror in their faces."

If the sales of the tapes go well, Lang plans to find a publisher for the manuscript of a book that is to accompany the tape and further help students of English. Titled "The Legend of Johnny Lang," the story is of a young cowboy who leaves home and comes of age in the Oklahoma and Texas of the 1870s.

If none of this works out, Lang said he may head off to Taiwan, Hong Kong or China to sell his tape of Western songs. After losing his small oil firm when the market took a downturn, it is unlikely that he will return to the business where he worked for 10 years as a geologist and independent driller.

"Oil has been selling between $14 and $20 a barrel and there is not much money in it," he said. "I gave 10 years to the oil business and after a while it was like being with an old whore."