Cowboy Poetry Gathering
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"Cowboys aren't endangered; they're just hard to see from the road."

Greg Harness visited The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. .


"Cowboys aren't endangered; they're just hard to see from the road." So says Baxter Black of Arizona, perhaps the most well-known cowboy poet today due to his long-standing weekly commentary on NPR's "Morning Edition." Black was one of more than 50 performers who gathered in Elko, Nevada the last week of January 2013 for the 29th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Cowboy Poetry

Since the first Gathering in 1985, organizers have sought poets who come from the ranches and rural communities across the American West. While many of the poems (and essays and stories and other writings) are about life in the rural West, there is an amazing breadth to these works.

I think it's because of Baxter Black's popularity that many people expect cowboy poetry to be humorous. Black does write funny poems, and his recitations can make audiences howl with laughter. Many others make audiences laugh just as hard. Rodney Nelson has some hilarious poems about his fellow Norwegian Americans in rural North Dakota. Yvonne Hollenbeck had the best punch line of the week in her poem about leaving her South Dakota ranch to run to town for groceries. Dressed in battered work clothes and coming off a hard day of feeding cows, mending fences, and losing track of time altogether, she ran her errands. She was quite surprised the following day to see her photo on the front page of the local paper with the caption, “'The Annual Costume Winner!' ...yesterday was Halloween.”

My favorite of the humorous poems was by Gary McMahan of Colorado, “The Best Cowboys Ain't Always Human.” This is the story of a cowboy who got through the Great Depression by giving pony rides. The twist was that his ponies were all trained by an ape he bought from a traveling circus. McMahon said with a straight face that this was a true story, and that he had seen the pictures.

Cowboy poems also tell serious stories, both of contemporary times and the olden days. Wallace McRae of Montana, perhaps best known for his humorous poem “Reincarnation,” read a wonderful poem he wrote about his ancestors who came to the US from Scotland. He followed that by reading a prose essay about the winter it was so cold all of his grandfather's sheep froze to death. Grandfather McRae salvaged the sheepskins, and used the money from their sale in the spring to buy his first patch of land.

Californian Linda Hussa's poem “Love Letters” is a much shorter story that begins with the single word “WOW!” written in the dust on a bedside table, and moves from the sensual to the melancholy. I've read that poem before, and even heard her recite it on a radio show a few years ago. But as I sat in the front row and watched her read this poem, I'm not ashamed to admit my eyes welled up. In Elko, it's ok to cry, even if you're wearing a Stetson.

I've heard many pieces by the Montana poet Paul Zarzyski, but his “Black Upon Tan” was the poem that has really stuck with me this year. It helps that the poem was set to music by Alberta's David Wilkie, the mandolin player from the band Cowboy Celtic. But even before I heard the words lovingly sung, I was hooked. The poem is based on a gift, says Zarzyski, that he received from a bartender as she poured him a black and tan in Billings, Montana. When complimented on the appearance of the drink, the bartender replied, “The Guinness caresses the Harp as you sip it.”

From a poetry perspective, the most moving show of the Gathering was the tribute to Badger Clark who died in 1957. He was a cowboy poet before the term had been coined. He came to Elko in 1926 and recited his poems at the high school. His poetry runs the gamut from the humor of “Boastful Bill” to the contemplation of “Ridin'” to the great love story “The Border Affair.”

Fourteen of the Elko regulars recited Clark's poems and sang his songs. These pieces obviously meant a lot to the performers, and as the show went on the magic seemed to spread, each performance becoming more powerful than the last. (You can listen to the whole show here.)


Music of the American West

From the earliest years, the Gathering has also included musicians. One of the primary keepers of the traditional flame is Colorado's Don Edwards. He does sing some contemporary songs, but his repertoire leans heavily on the classics. He kicked off his show saying, “I hope the young folks will find the old songs are just as good as they always were.” And to the packed house of about 300 people in the G Three Bar Theater, Edwards offered a sentiment many other of my favorite musicians have uttered: “This music isn't for arenas.”

One of the finest examples of contemporary Western songwriting is Dave Stamey who now resides in California. He writes a lot of songs about raising and riding, or trying to ride, horses. But he covers a number of other topics important to the American West like Native Americans (“Sharon Littlehawk,” “The Mission Bell,” “Geronimo's Children”) and mining towns (“Rosa May,” “Ruby Could Sing”).

In a songwriters' session, Stamey said he often re-writes a song 20-30 times. He cited Leonard Cohen, saying “If I knew where all the good songs come from, I'd go there more often.” In that same session, Mary McCaslin talked about writing what many consider to be some the finest songs about the American West (“Prairie In The Sky,” “The Ballad Of Weaverville,” “Way Out West”) while living in Vermont. McCaslin quipped, “I always wanted a horse, but I got a guitar instead.”

As with the poets, rural themes dominate the songs at the Gathering. Corb Lund and The Hurtin' Albertans put a spotlight on many contemporary Western issues with their anthem, “This Is My Prairie.” The song references dead calves, sick children, poisoned water, and how “They want a big pipeline right through Pop's grove.” Lund dedicated the song to “all you landowners fighting against the man.” The chorus was echoed by many other voices throughout the weekend:

This is my prairie, this is my home
I'll make my stand here and I'll die alone
They can drill, they can mine o'er my mouldering bones
'Cause this is my prairie, this is my home

Serious as Lund can be, he also has time for fun. His new tongue in cheek song states that “Everything is better with some cows around” because “What else you gonna spend that extra money on?” and “What else is gonna get out when you don't close the gates?” Lund told the audience, “I play this song in Toronto, and they don't understand. They say, 'It's catchy, but I don't get it.'” The audience at Elko was in the know.

The Hurtin' Albertans help point out that the American West doesn't have political boundaries. The geography of the West stretches north through Canada and south into Mexico. Canada was well represented by Lund, Cree guitarist Ed Peekeekoot from British Columbia, vaudevillian Al Simmons from Manitoba, and more.

The phrase I heard more often than any was, “Ian isn't here this year.” By my count, Ian Tyson, another Canadian, has appeared at 21 of the 29 Gatherings, and this is the first he's missed in the last ten years. He's a mainstay in folk, folk-rock, and Western music circles, from his days with the duo Ian & Sylvia through his time with the country rock band Great Speckled Bird and on to an impressive solo career with some 15 albums to his name.

We still heard a number of his songs. Ramblin' Jack Elliott sang part of “Will James” before launching into a story about how he recorded that song and left out what Tyson thought was the best verse, and “Ian wouldn't speak to me for years.” Tom Russell sang “Navajo Rug” which he and Tyson co-wrote. And Wallace McRae read a poem he wrote for Tyson, “We Never Rode The Judiths,” which contains the line, “The deejays and the Nashville hands won't let your songs turn gold.”

Seems every performer had a story about Ian Tyson, and nearly every story was ended by telling the audience that “Ian had throat surgery recently” and “His voice sounds better than ever” and “I know he'll be back next year.”


Music with an International Flavor

While most artists at the Gathering are from the American West, the Western Folklife Center has worked to bring in guests from other rural cultures around the world, particularly from cultures centered around horsemanship or raising cattle. Past guests have come from Mongolia, Hungary, and Columbia to name just a few. This year, the focus was on the Italian region of Maremma and the butteri culture. Buttero, the singular form, translates to “leader of oxen” and shares the same root as the Spanish word vaquero or the English term buckaroo.

The art gallery at the Folklife Center featured exhibits of the butteri, both historical and contemporary. There were workshops on cooking, both from the Italian cow country perspective and from the Italian-American ranch community. There was also a panel discussion on Ranching in Maremma past, present, and future.

And of course there was music. Gianluca Zammarelli is known as a maker and player of the zampogna, the Italian bagpipe. More than once I was sitting in the Pioneer Saloon at the Folklife Center, when out of the art gallery would come a parade with Zammarelli in the lead playing dance tunes, followed by various tambourine players and other percussionists. It was always a crowd-pleasing moment.

Marco Rufo is the accordion player and founder of the folk group Scantu de core who specialize in the folk music from various regions in Italy including Maremma. Early on Saturday morning, the last day of the Gathering, Rufo brought his accordion on stage joined by Zammarelli on various lutes and flutes. Together they played some energizing morning music.

Then they were joined by the Texans Max Baca and his nephew Josh Baca who form the core of the conjunto band Los Texmaniacs. Max plays bajo sexto and Josh plays accordion, and they treated the audience to another energetic set of traditional Mexican dances and German polkas. For the finale, all four musicians played together, blending influences from Italy and Bohemia and beyond that had the audience on their feet. 20-year-old Josh Baca is a musician worth keeping your eye on.

Another ensemble at the Gathering explored the connection between the music of the American West and the British Isles. Canadian-based Cowboy Celtic links the music of Ireland and Scotland, through the emigrants who came to the US and Canada, and how that culture influenced Western music. Along the way they connect the dots between drovers in the Highlands and cowboys on the North American plains. From them I learned that Gen. Custer used “Garryowen” as his battle song, yet another example of cross-cultural influence. Most people attending a cowboy gathering might not expect to see a Celtic harp or a bodhran, but Cowboy Celtic knows how to use those instruments effectively across genres, from traditional Irish pub tunes to a cover of the theme from High Noon (“Do Not Forsake, Me Oh My Darlin”).



Although storytelling isn't an official part of the Gathering, a lot of it happens. Highlights included Ramblin' Jack Elliott telling us why he and Slim Pickens were edited out of a Kris Kristofferson movie, Sourdough Slim's story of being trapped in his hotel room, and Glenn Ohrlin's tale of his entrepreneurial venture, The Cheapo Casket Service.


The Gathering is about more than poetry; there's plenty of music, dancing, folklore, history, and swapping lies. And it's about bringing people together from all over the American West and beyond to both enjoy the parts of life they share and to celebrate the diversity of their experiences.

But as the event's title demonstrates, this festival was put together for the poets and they remain at the center of what happens every winter in Elko. I know where I'll be the last week of January 2014. The 30th annual Gathering ought to be something extra special. - Greg Harness

You can see and hear lots more from this year's Gathering at The Western Folklife Center


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