As a sellout crowd jostled its way into the first big show of the 34th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on a late-January night in Elko, Nevada, old friends backslapped one another and laughed about past gatherings. It was a rowdy, good-natured opening of what has become the premier celebration of The Cowboy Way.
The atmosphere was not surprising — Elko, population about 18,000, sits in the northeastern corner of Nevada, an oasis in the Great Basin’s high-desert terrain and the center of the area’s ranching lifestyle. And the gathering commemorates the end-of-the-cattle-drive festivities that defined the Old West, with camaraderie and all that the term encompasses: tall tales, poetry and songs, dancing, gambling, thick steaks and strong drinks.
Beaded buckskin and swirling skirts dominated the dress of the women, string ties and cowboy hats the men. But when the cowboys took their seats, the hats came off: The Cowboy Way dictates respect for other audience members — no one wanted to block views of Riders in the Sky and Wylie and the Wild West, the gathering’s kickoff musical entertainers.
Most of the participants and many of the attendees make their living as ranch hands, whether riding the range on horseback, herding sheep with quick-moving dogs or trying to manage acreage that is measured in square miles. Others come because of the event’s welcoming atmosphere.
Respect and courtesy, campfire storytelling and poetry, musical harmony and yodeling: all are part of The Cowboy Way. And all are part of the herding life in general.
Excerpt from “Old Eagle Eyes” by Yvonne Hollenbeck:
He’s got eyes like an eagle for finding new calves
that their mamas have hidden all snug;
so why can’t he see the mud on his boots
that he’s tracking all over my rug?Elko, as the event’s name is short-handed, yearly draws an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 revelers from across the American West and beyond. Past participants have included drovers from Australia and gauchos from South America. And there are Basques from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountain areas of France and Spain, visiting relatives whose ancestors immigrated to the Great Basin. That diaspora began in the mid-1800s, many seeking gold, others to work as sheepherders.
The 2019 gathering — Jan. 28 to Feb. 2 — will be the 35th. The theme is described in the official program as “about preserving tradition and about the quest to find truth and beauty in the creative voices of everyday people.”
Elko’s Western Folklife Center is responsible for the get-together, and its headquarters in the building built in the early 20th century to house the Pioneer Hotel is the main gathering place. The center’s G Three Theater and adjoining bar are primary venues for performances, official in the former and unofficial in the latter.
The antique bar — all polished mahogany and cherry and mother-of-pearl inlays — provides a suitable spot for laughing reminiscence, for catching up, for storytelling.
A corner of the barroom, equipped with a fireplace and a vintage saloon-style piano, is a popular site for impromptu singalongs. One afternoon of the 2018 gathering found a boisterous “Yellow Rose of Texas” competing with a “Red River Valley” songfest in the center’s art gallery next door. Other attendees, more interested in topping the tale of the cowpoke on the next stool, were bellied up to the bar.
The gathering began as a planned one-off in 1985, the idea of Nevada folklorist Hal Cannon; buckaroo, cowboy poet and songster Waddie Mitchell; and a handful of their cohorts. Cannon, who was doing fieldwork for the Smithsonian Institution at the time, was talking with “this grizzled-up cowboy who looked at me and asked, ‘You want to hear a poem?’” No folklorist, of course, could resist such an invitation.
The group met with Elko civic leaders and organized the first gathering. Elko was chosen because, recalled Cannon, “it has a convention center, and accommodations were inexpensive.” Add railroad and interstate-highway proximity, saloons, gambling facilities and legal prostitution, and Elko is a natural for a cowboy gathering.
The initial event was such a success that everyone wanted to do it again the next year. After three-plus decades, it has grown to a weeklong festival, featuring more than 90 official mini-gatherings as well as instructive activities and spur-of-the-moment songfests.
The 2019 lineup will include workshops where attendees can learn how to braid rawhide, make rope halters, dance the two-step and the Virginia reel, decorate leather, roast meat on a spit, and, of course, how to write poetry and songs.
Attendees can compete for the opportunity to step up to the microphone and make their own spoken or sung contributions. There are sessions for poetry, others for music.
Children, too, have open-mic chances, with one aimed at teens, the other at younger kids. Early in the week, participating artists visit Elko County schools to encourage children with demonstrations of their skills. And there is the high-energy Cow Kids Stampede, featuring rowdy musical entertainment.
The gathering’s lineup of seasoned participants always includes links to another cowboy tradition: the traveling troubadour, guitar slung over shoulder. The 2018 gathering included 85-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who has shared stages with Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan; Riders in the Sky, whose influences include Bob Nolan’s Sons of the Pioneers and Gene Autry; Michael Martin Murphey, who cites Bob Wills and Willie Nelson; and Dom Flemons, a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose stylings allude to ragtime, Piedmont blues and string-band music.
Poets scheduled for the 2019 gathering include Mitchell, who quit school at 16 to work as a buckaroo — a cowhand — on a Nevada ranch; Paul Zarzyski, who was mentored by Montana poet laureate Richard Hugo and spent 15 years as a bareback rodeo cowboy; Yvonne Hollenbeck, wife of a South Dakota rancher and a columnist for Farmer & Rancher Exchange; and Amy Hale Auker, a buckaroo at Arizona’s Spider Ranch, where her husband, songwriter and poet Gail Steiger, is foreman. His late grandfather, Gail Gardner, was honored in 1980 when Arizona declared Gail Gardner Day and Bruce Babbitt, then its governor, named him the state “poet lariat.”
The Cowboy Way has been a theme of the Riders in the Sky since the group began its harmonizing 40 years ago. Ranger Doug Green, who sings lead and baritone in addition to world-class yodeling, is playfully billed as the “Idol of American Youth.”
The other members are Woody Paul Chrisman, Fred “Too Slim” LaBour and “Cow Polka King” Joey Miskulin.
The group’s “secret mission behind the fun and comedy,” Green said at a 2018 workshop with kids, is to introduce people to a unique slice of American music.
“We’re very visual,” Green said, “and the kids love that — big hats, furry chaps, singing about riding the wide, open spaces. When you’re a kid, you don’t forget that kind of special moment.”
That was certainly the case for Green: “When I was in grammar school, the teacher brought her violin in one day and played it. I still remember the way she drew emotion out of that violin.”
While the Riders cite radio and screen cowboys as inspiration, the Basques draw from a much older culture. Their gathering sessions in 2018 involvedbertsolaritza, which is improvised poetry competition; irrintzi, a battle scream delivered by women; and traditional dancing from the old country as well as from Great Basin communities.
The 2018 gathering included outdoor Basque cooking lessons, with bread-making in the hands of 79-year-old Jess Lopatagai, a resident of the area who emigrated from Spain in the 1950s when he was 19 to work as a sheepherder. After a couple of back-and-forth trips between the old country and the new (including a close call at conscription into Franco’s military), he was granted permanent U.S. residency in 1965. His bread accompanied lamb dishes prepared by his friends Ramon Zugazaga, Zach Arbillaga and Choch Zaga.
Basque meals are also available at several Elko restaurants year-round, including at The Star, whose history as a cowboy boardinghouse is marked by the ringing of a bell announcing that it’s time to sit down for the family-style dinner.
During the 2018 gathering, another Elko restaurant, the Ogi Basque Deli, extended its usual breakfast and dinner hours for unofficial evening dances, with participants providing the music.
Pintxos (Basque tapas) were served along with sagardoa (dry Basque cider), patxaran (sweet liquor), craft beers and an assortment of Basque wines.
A 2018 lunchtime interview at the Ogi with the performers David Romtvedt and his daughter, Caitlin Belem, was constantly interrupted by the arrival of more and more Basques. Soon, berets outnumbered cowboy hats, and Euskara, the Basque language, was spoken as much as English.
Romtvedt, a native of Arizona, learned to play accordion as a teenager as part of a bet with his father. After spending time “soaking up the culture” in Louisiana, he married into a Basque community in northeastern Wyoming and is now the state’s poet laureate.
Daughter Caitlin didn’t waste time before she started trying to play music with a “box and a stick,” he said. She was 3 years old.
Now, she joins her father on stage as violinist and vocalist, with saxophone often added. Her dad is featured ontrikitixa (Basque accordion) and vocals.
After college, Belem traveled around Brazil for a couple of years, adding Portuguese and South American music to her repertoire.
Auker, who recited her poetry at the 34th and will be participating with her husband at the 35th, cites her $75-a-day buckaroo job as her primary influence: “The work feeds my writing in such an incredible way — I’m in love with the land and the job. I don’t know how you could do this if your feet aren’t on the soil.”
Auker grew up in a household that revered books. “Both my parents were English teachers,” she said. “They threw out the TV when I was 5.” As an adult, she began writing essays about ranching, cooking for cowboys and working as a buckaroo. After success with her essays and an invitation to participate in the gathering — and prodding from her husband — she added poetry to her efforts.
Excerpt from “Rightful Place” by Amy Hale Auker:
As I stood there looking back over that piece of land that was never mine but felt so much like home, I realized that, like a first lover, the prairie had prepared me for other terrain, other loves, gave me courage to seek intimacy with other places.
The poetry of Zarzyski, who lives in Montana and has been a part of the gathering for three decades, reflects his rodeo-arena background. After 15 years of bareback bronco competition, he decided it was time “to let go on the rodeo” and concentrate on the stage. “I went to spurring the verses instead of the horses,” he said. In a workshop at the 35th, he will explain how “the poem approaches us and demands that we write it.”
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Kristin Windbigler, the executive director of the Western Folklife Center, came to the gathering after a childhood on a logging operation in Northern California. “For almost 20 years,” she said, “I had been attending gatherings. The people here are so welcoming, I was immediately accepted as one of them. I love the stories that they tell. I believe in the power of stories and how they shape how other people see us, how they see things, how they help us understand each other.”
Her background, she said, includes “being around livestock most of my life.” Deciding she wanted to participate, in 2005 she produced a film of her involvement in the family business and has since produced six more for the center’s Deep West Video program.
In 2017, she took over as executive director after nine years as director of TED Translators, supervising more than 30,000 volunteers.
She say that her plans include more year-round programs extending the center’s mission of “connecting the American West and its herding culture with the rest of the world.”
But workshops and plans and missions are only part of what makes the gathering a must for attendees.
There are the singalongs in the G Three Bar with the piano. Or impromptu harmonizing at the bar following a session in the theater.
There are laughs at mini-gatherings such as the one that materialized in a hallway around Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and his friend Jim Boné, who describes himself as “sometime road manager, sometime bounty hunter,” as they swap stories involving last-minute headlong drives across the West.
There are attendees who return to relive past visits. “We got married here in 2007,” said Rose Mueller, enjoying drinks in the G Three with her husband, Matthew Warne. The pair has made the trip back from their home in Truckee, California, on their anniversary every year since.
The Hollywood version of the Cowboy Way gets its due with the presence and proximity of several casino resorts. As any moviegoer knows, at the end of the cattle drive, the buckaroos celebrate at the saloons, gambling, drinking and being entertained with barrelhouse piano and dancing girls. A half-block away from the Star are several legal brothels, including Inez’s, which announces its presence (in neon) with “Dancing and Diddlying.”
Perhaps Zarzyski — after 30-plus gatherings, after working to “make every line jump and kick” — offered the best observation of the Elko experience: “It’s like a family reunion of sorts, only here everybody likes each other. I always leave town feeling better about who I am, rewarded with new friendships and an infusion of hope.”