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Cowboy Poets Don’t Sing the Blues

Dr. Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin. Photo by Charlie Ekburg.


By Bobbie Leigh

Why  in the world would anyone travel to the middle of nowhere  in freezing cold temperatures to listen to cowboy  music and poetry?  At least  7,000 people  from all over the U.S. and  Canada knew exactly why when they traveled to Elko, Nevada, last January.  The lure was the  fun-fest that was  the 30th  National  Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1.  Elko  is  in the northern part of the silver state on the fringes of the Ruby Mountains,  about a four-hour drive from  either  Salt Lake or Reno.  Where else  could you find such an enthusiastic and appreciative audience of ranchers, buckaroos,  cowpunchers, and  city people from all over this country and  Canada  who love the music, art, dance,  and poetry  traditions  of  western cowboy culture?

The Gathering is dedicated to preserving and celebrating cowboy culture in all its manifestations. It started as a way to give ranchers and wranglers, known locally as buckaroos, a chance to meet and mingle, tell  stories, poems  and  share their music. The Gathering has grown from a small town affair with musicians and poets playing and reciting informally to a full-fledged extravaganza with events—solo and group musicians, films,  art  and gear shows,  ranch visits, cooking and dance classes.  Workshops all week feature braiding, silver work, hat and cinch making.  Performances are scheduled throughout the day and early evening in various  places in Elko including the high school gym. Except for free-mike events and discussions, all the participants are  invited. Most  live or work some of the time on ranches,  so the Gathering is scheduled in deep winter when  ranchers have  fewer chores.

Paul Zarzyski
Paul Zarzyski

Among the  roughly 50 poets reciting,  one  laugh-to-you-cry free verse  bard was Paul Zarzyski  (www.paulzarzyski.com) A   former rodeo circuit, bareback  bronc  rider,  he is smart, savvy  and slim  in “uniform  –jeans, boots, bright shirt, fuzzy face, and the obligatory cowboy hat.  He  packed the house at the G Three Bar Theater  in  Elko’s Western Folklife Center.  This much awarded rodeo poet  read “stories” about his  demon-infested  ’65 Maytag washing machine,  his father’s possible reincarnation  as a gopher,  his dog Zeke’s obsession with a  woodchuck hole, a great takedown of  telemarketing, and driving his 1970 Monte Carlo into town to pick up the mail.   His latest,  book “Steering with My Knees, Zarzyski Lite,”  was sold out after his reading.

Yvonne Hollenback
Yvonne Hollenback

Yvonne Hollenback  (yvonnehollenbeck.com), a South Dakota rancher’s wife, was as entertaining as Zarzyski. One of the last lines of her poems:

So, if your daughter is wanting to marry a cowboy

And the idea has you in a quandary;

the best way that I know to help her change her mind

is to show her some cowboy laundry?


Georgie Sicking
Georgie Sicking

Georgie Sicking  at 93 is not exactly spry, but her memory for her poems  was unfailing. Sicking recited a poem about  a word she despises “housewife” whose last lines are:

“ I’ve been a rancher’s daughter, I’ve been a rancher’s spouse, but never was I ever married to a house.”

The Creole Cowboys
The Creole Cowboys

If  you go on the  www.westernfolklife.org site you can listen to some of the poets and musicians.  Not to be missed are the soft-singing and understated guitarist  Glen Ohrlin.  High marks also go to balladeer  Don Edwards.  Gary Haleamu’s family band  was  a hit but the most toe-tapping, hand-slapping group  was the Creole Cowboys. Jeffery Broussard, lead singer, always had a toothpick dangling from his mouth. This charismatic musician is a master accordionist,  acoustic fiddler,  and old-style button accordion player.  Creole  Cowboys’ music is a mix of  Southwestern Louisiana Creole, zydeco, blues, hip hop, r&b—a sort of nouveau – zydeco for our times.

A pretty strong strain of nostalgia pervades through most of the  Gathering.  It is rooted in the challenge  of how to  preserve and sustain the artistic and cowboy traditions of the rural west considering  the state of affairs today. Here are just a few problems one rancher mentioned.

  1. The number of cattle on the range has dwindled to its lowest level since 1952 according to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  2. Years of drought have diminished pastureland.
  3. Companies mining gold, silver, and copper are buying ranchlands.
  4. Kids don’t want to follow their parents’ tough way of life waking up at four in the morning even weekends.

A pining for the old days  also  turns up in how  some visitors dressed—many wore   western  ensembles– felt  hats, bandanas, boots, embroidered vests, silver-buckled belts,  walking skirts —reminiscent of  Hollywood’s version of  the last frontier. One visitor said she outfitted herself from black hat to  lizard boots at the legendary  J.M. Capriola, known for high-quality cowboy gear and hand-carved saddles (www.capriolas.com).

While  poetry and music were high points,  one of  the best attended events was the keynote  talk by Dr. Temple Grandin, who spoke movingly about  how ranchers need to take care of  the feelings of their animals. “A calm animal is easier to handle,” she stressed. Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, is a revered consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior and an activist for people on the autism spectrum. (www.templegrandin.com)

Elko, this small scale locale, translated into large scale entertainment during the  30th Annual Cowboy Gathering.  It’s not too soon to plan  for the 31st: January 26-31, 2015 (www.westernfolklife.org). For travel info, go to Visit Nevada.


bl  Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, andDepartures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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  1. March 5, 2014 at 11:24 am — Reply

    What wonderful reporting from a New Yorker who probably doesn’t go around Manhattan in a cowboy vest. The personal touches are what makes this piece so engaging.

  2. March 13, 2014 at 2:58 pm — Reply

    Bobbie Leigh, you may just have achieved “buckaroo” status with this one! And I may have to get a Road Trip in the works for next January.

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