I was a performer at the 27th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nevada, in January, 2011. After I returned home I was asked if modern cowboy poets are still largely ranchers and people who make a living from the land, or if they, like the majority of the US population, live in cities or the suburbs.
There's a strict selection process for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, so most of the performers are people who really do make a living from the land because that's one of the requirements. But the Western Folklife Center, sponsor of the CPG, is flexible as well-- whereas most participants used to be strictly from the west, we've now discovered there are cowboys in Florida, for example, and some of them come to perform. Moreover, the folklife experts have created links with agrarian grassland peoples all over the world, so each year features cowboys from other countries-- we've had Argentina, Ireland, Australia, and this year was Hungary.
Glaring exceptions, of course, get lots of attention. Like Baxter Black who used to be a country veterinarian but is now a performer. Success, sadly, may mean a person can make more money performing than ranching, so they may quit ranching to perform full time. Baxter Black is one of the rare individuals who has been successful enough to quit his “day job,” and he is known to generously lower his fees on some occasions when doing so will help a community organization.
Many of the performers, though, have to really pinch pennies to come to the gathering, since the pay is not great. We don’t mind, though, because we get a chance to speak with visitors about ranching. Most of us feel we do a considerable amount of education not only during our performances, but while standing in line for a buffet, or working our way through the crowds at the various events. I’ve been threatening for years to write a poem about the conversations that begin in the women’s restrooms, which often lead to exchanges of business cards, and further communication after the gathering. I’m sure that part of the attraction of the Gathering for visitors is the chance to talk with performers and ask questions about the real ranching life.
Many of the people who attend the Gathering are admirers of the life of the working cowboy or cattlewoman. Wally McRae (rancher, cowboy poet and philosopher, an inspiration to me for years because of his work against coal strip-mining in Montana) reminds us that they are our fans, so they want to be like us. We wanted Roy Rogers or Gene Autry pistols when we were kids, too. Thus they dress in cowboy gear: They buy flamboyant boots decorated with carvings in red or blue or black leather. They wear huge, swooping hats adorned with silver, and don’t observe western custom by taking them off during performances so that the audience members behind them can see the stage. They wrap themselves in leather vests, leather jackets, and leather dresses swaying with foot-long fringe. Around their necks are neckerchiefs in every color imaginable and big enough for a bed spread, held in place with silver scarf ties. Some of those folks are wearing gear that cost as much as a pretty good ranch. But remember, says Wally, those are the people who pay the entrance fees and buy the books. They wish they could live the lives we live; they are our groupies.
And some of them may even notice that we don't dress quite as well-- because we can't afford to-- and come away with a clearer understanding of the realities of ranching.
And while many of the audience members are fans of cowboy or rhyming poetry, or of individual poets, I received a great reminder that the interests of the audience are also broadening. When reading my poems “Butchering the Crippled Heifer” and “Coffee Cup Café,” I announced that the two poems had been accepted by Garrison Keillor for his third book of Good Poems about American Life, and the audience cheered.
One of the wonderful things about the Gathering, though, is that no matter who the performers are, it is held in ranch country-- though the town (Elko, Nevada) is now changing because of expansion of the railroad, and a big gas pipeline coming through from Wyoming.
The Gathering and its many sessions, particularly those at the G3 Bar, which is in the old Pioneer Hotel, now the headquarters of the Western Folklife Center, would not exist as it does without the more than 400 volunteers who are recruited from Elko and surrounding towns to hand out programs, drive performers from their hotels to their performances, set up stages, and do all the zillion tasks that makes an event like this work.
The cattlewomen-- both those officially belonging to several organizations, and other ranch women-- make food every single night for the performers at the G3 Bar. Each night before I performed, I could go down to the basement and choose something to eat from huge pans of meatballs, lasagna, spaghetti, salads, pies, and tubs of bottled water, soft drinks and beer-- all donated, and being kept at the proper temperature to be eaten before or after the performance. Many receptions throughout the week are supplied by these volunteer cooks, who are then in the line dishing up the food-- so the feeling of the Gathering remains very much like that of a potluck in a ranch community.
Someone did remark, though, that as the ranches get bigger, the communities get smaller.
# # #
For more information:
The Western Folklife Center website with information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
The Poetry Page on this website has information about my poems accepted for Garrison Keillor's book in 2011.
back to top