Cowboy Poets Don’t Sing the Blues
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.
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 (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 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.”
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.
- 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.
- Years of drought have diminished pastureland.
- Companies mining gold, silver, and copper are buying ranchlands.
- 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.