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Taking in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Published: 2/24/2013
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By Maddy Butcher

During the week-long National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, thousands of fans leaned in. They wanted to catch every nuance of recitation as the world’s best cowboy poets took turns on stage.
The Western Folklife event is the Granddaddy of Gatherings, a week in which the genre’s best poets, artists, and musicians meet in Elko, Nevada. They fill the convention center, schools, bars, and museum galleries with their talents.

Soaking up their performances is an exercise in joyous fulfillment. It’s like going to church where cowboy life is the celebrated religion.

Not a believer?

The sheer passion and energy here will convert you.

It was backstage where I had the most mind-expanding moments:
Vess Quinlan recalled when the Gathering was just getting started in the mid-1980s. He remembered a young Los Angeles Times journalist complaining that his boss had sent him to a reporter’s Siberia:

What was there to cover at this obscure event in northern Nevada?
Who cares about a bunch of ranch guys reciting old campfire yarns?

They watched together as an old timer took the stage and started into a classic. Softly and passionately, he carried the audience through the story. Then suddenly, he stopped. He’d gotten lost in the verse.
In front, there sat a row of young buckaroos. One of them picked up the line and helped the elder man return to the words.

It was a quiet, compassionate gesture, like opening the door for a friend.
More significantly, it was oral history defined.

In that moment, the reporter realized why he was there. He’d found his story.

For natives to the ranch lifestyle, the Gathering is like a family reunion, a reaffirmation of all that matters in life.

For those less steeped in the culture, it offers impressions and translations far more compelling and accurate than country songs, Marlboro ads, and tough truck commercials.

“The event is a myth buster. These are real people. Real culture,” said Randy Rieman, one of the event’s most popular artists. [Pictured above]
For sure, many would agree when Rieman added, “I’ve never been able to think about poetry without the word ‘cowboy’ in front of it.”
Fellow poet Wallace McRae laughed at the stereotype when asked about it: “If you’re a cowboy you should be completely inarticulate. Shuffle your feet around for a while. Say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘No, ma’am. ‘”
If you’re a cowboy you should be completely inarticulate. Shuffle your feet around for a while. Say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ ‘No, ma’am'
In truth, they can be sentimental, intellectual, thoughtful, and eloquent. It's no wonder the National Endowment for the Arts has bestowed cowboy poets with awards and fellowships.

Poet and accomplished horseman Joel Nelson [pictured right] wrote this poem, as brief as it is beautiful in relating how poetry itself takes shape:

While I Sleep

While I sleep
Words come in the night
Like small birds and critters
Along dusty trails
Through the branches
Over rocky stream beds
To line up and watch me
Waiting for me to awaken
Looking at one another
Trading places
Rearranging themselves
As though they somehow know
Their proper order
And what they need to say
Sometimes I awaken
And acknowledge them on paper
As I should
If not
They dissolve back into the shadows
The thickets
The burrows
And if they ever appear again
Will they all be the same ones
And will the order be disturbed

Next year will be the 30th Gathering.
I’m taking the train there. Amtrak's California Zephyr will drop me right in Elko.
Won’t you join me?

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2/25/2013 Paula
I haven't been to this event but to some others similar done around a campfire. Totally moving. And not something us Easterners would ever think of doing. Going west is like going back to life in the 50's.
Yes siree - I've been wantin to be there since the late 80's so I plan to be there!

"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies