By Smoke Wade
Elko, NV. In 1985, when the first Elko Cowboy Gathering brought grassroots cowboy poetry to the stage, the organizers wondered if anybody would show up to listen to a bunch of old cowboys get up on stage and share their poems and stories. It was to be a one-time event, which was organized by a group of folklorists to gather and document cowboy stories, poetry, and song before the art form was lost to the world. Surprisingly, it was found the rhyming stories were, in fact, very much alive and, perhaps even more surprisingly, there were plenty of folks who wanted to hear these poems and songs of the cowboy. Perhaps it was something new for the media, or maybe it was just one of those celestial things where an event occurred at the right time and place. Whatever it was that occurred, the modern cowboy poetry gathering was born and the event organizers decided they would do it again in 1986. It was in this fashion that cowboy poetry became a household word and cowboy poetry gatherings began to spawn across the West.
Fast forward 25 years later to 2009 and we find not only the world has changed beyond our imagination, but also cowboy poetry has evolved greatly as well. Every weekend in North America there is a cowboy poetry gathering or festival taking place somewhere. In Australia, bush poets gather, while in our seaport cities, fisher poets hold their gatherings. Large gatherings occur on a regular basis across Canada, and cowboy lore from countries around the world is recognized and celebrated. Cowboy poetry has spread to schools, libraries, nursing homes, universities, churches, city parks and the Smithsonian Institute. Radio shows play cowboy poetry live and on the Internet. Cowboy poets appear on television shows and they have infiltrated musical organizations such as the Western Music Association. Dozens of cowboy poetry writer groups meet on a regular basis and cowboy poetry organizations and clubs boast large memberships. And all this time, cowboy and western musicians gathered with the poets and shared their songs of the cowboy.
During this 25 year span, the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center, became known as The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. So it was fitting to hold a reunion – a Silver Reunion - to draw back many of those that were there in 1985, and to draw back those that have participated since, and to invite new poets as well. And for 8 days in January, they came and reunited, and told their stories once again.
The granddaddy of them all, the 25th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering took place January 24 – 31, 2009, in Elko, NV, as hundreds of cowboy poets and musicians descended upon the small Nevada town. They came from around the world, from the United States, Australia and Canada. And their appreciative fans came with them - thousands of fans that turned Elko into a boomtown like atmosphere. Motels filled to capacity, long lines formed at restaurants, while casinos and nightclubs booked cowboy singers, and everywhere could be heard the song and poetry of the cowboy. Open mic venues took place in art galleries, there were school performances, and the media swarmed in from everywhere looking for a slant on this Silver Jubilee.
The large crowds of folks at the Elko Convention Center and at the Western Folklife Center were extremely diverse. Old time cowboys mingled with friends and newcomers alike. Local people visited with city folk from virtually every big town in America. Folklorists beamed with satisfaction as they listened to the cowboy artists share their work. Youth performers stood along side of modern day folklore legends. What had possibly been a media phenomenon in 1985 had evolved into the greatest cowboy poetry spectacle on Earth!
With more than 75 featured cowboy performing artists, including 16 featured performers from the 1985 gathering, the reunion got under way on Saturday, January 24, 2009. The heart of the event took place over a 3 day period later in the week – Thursday through Saturday, January 29 – 31, 2009. Added to the featured performers was a long list of performers that contributed to reunion shows at the Western Folklife Center and at the Elko Convention Center. Also added to this group were all those that came for the various open mic stages around town, as well as the featured entertainers at almost every nightclub and casino in town. The list of cowboy performers was long and impressive, yet several names stood out - household names from the 1985 gathering like Waddie Mitchell, Wallace McRae, Baxter Black, and Ian Tyson. From the original 1985 group, Baxter Black has emerged, as possibly America’s most successful poet of any genre.
A special show was presented over a two day period at the gathering that is certainly worthy of mention. A Ride With Bob – The Bob Wills Musical which was written by Anne Rapp and Ray Benson, and featured Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel, along with a large cast of talented actors and musicians. The full capacity audience sat spellbound through the entire performance, grinning ear to ear from start to finish. And no small wonder, for A Ride with Bob Wills was an amazing stage production. To sum up the show in two words – Absolutely Fantastic!
Some performers brought their own special mixture of high energy with them to the reunion. Several musical groups rocked the house every time they took the stage. Wylie & the Wild West, the Quebe Sisters and Hot Club of Cowtown, along with poet, Paul Zarzyski, all presented superb performances much to the delight of audiences. Wylie & the Wild West also presented a very entertaining tribute to the Snake River Outlaws, an Idaho band, circa 1950, that had a successful radio show in Missoula, MT.
During the heart of the gathering, multiple performances took place at a half a dozen venues at the same time. A bustling crowd scurried about the lobby of the Elko convention center trying to juggle their schedules between the Cedar, Silver and Turquoise rooms and the main auditorium. Others gathered in the front atrium jostling for a place in line at the goody table to buy cookies, brownies and coffee. Some found quiet time sitting at a table in the back of the lobby while reading a new book of poetry they had just purchased from the performer product sales store.
Behind the scenes other folks were just as busy. Behind the main stage, performers calmed themselves in the Green room while waiting their turn on stage. Upstairs in the media room, Lora Minter and Darcy Minter – no relation to each other – busied themselves for long hours with the press corp.
Across town at the Western Folklife Center, volunteers ushered people into the Wiegand Gallery to view Between Grass and Sky: Trappings of a Ranch Life, a display of finely crafted saddles, bits and leatherwork. On the wall in the Gallery hung a quilt hand-crafted by Yvonne Hollenbeck. The quilt displayed the brands of 159 cowboy performers. In the main lobby of the Western Folklife Center, other volunteers took up the role as bartender in the Pioneer Bar. Adjacent to the bar, non-stop shows took place in the G Three Bar Theater.
The Pioneer Bar in the Western Folklife Center seemed to be the central gathering point for folks at all times of the day. As the sun went down over the high desert mountains, the facility filled with people and it became standing room only. From the front door of the Center, one could look across the plaza and see the blazing neon sign of the Stockman’s Casino advertising Michael Martin Murphey in concert. On the other side of the plaza hung a sign over the door of the Duncan Little Creek Gallery advertising open mic for poets.
With so much going on in addition to the poetry and music venues – workshops, ranch tours, and film sessions – and so many performers, it would be impossible to include them all. The essence to be captured is that this week was Cowboy Carnival, and what a grand celebration it was!
An often-heard comment was "What happens when all these old cowboys are gone? Will their poetry and music die out?"
One only needed to expand their horizons at the gathering and take a look around. One young performer, singer-songwriter, Adrian, seemed to step up to the plate in grand fashion. There was a Young Buckaroo poetry session on Saturday morning, and the open mic sessions were crowded with new performers from across America hoping that one day they, too, would step into the spotlight. It would appear from these performances, that the future of cowboy poetry and music is in good hands.
With so much entertainment and activity to absorb in such a short period of time, it was easy to suffer from image overload. By Saturday afternoon, folks were beginning to have a glazed look in their eyes. Yet they continued on like it was their last day at Disneyland, trying to catch one more ride before they had to leave for home. Long days and short nights apparently were the standard fare for the Silver Reunion.
Everyone wondered how the Western Folklife Center could come up with a National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 2010 that would top this most recent event. Yet the planning for the next gathering had been going on for some time. In 2010 look for "cracker" cowboys from Florida and swamp cowboys from Louisiana. And to top it all off, the Florida Folklife Program has created an exhibition entitled Florida Cattle Ranching: Five Centuries of Tradition that will be featured at the Wiegand Gallery during the Gathering.
As the Sunday morning sun laced the peaks of the Ruby Mountains with gold, the gathering of cowboys began to depart for all points of the compass. Poets, musicians and fans hugged and bade each other goodbye in motel parking lots. Each one departed knowing that they had shared in something special - an event of a lifetime – for they were there, in Elko, and they had contributed to the experience. They had been to Elko when cowboys gathered as each brought 25 years of new stories with them. This gathering of cowboys had been a Silver Reunion, yet the memories they took home were solid gold!