Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Inside Report from the 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Greetings, Cowgirl Cash and friends! It’s your roving Cowgirl Reporter, just back from my latest adventure, a trip to the 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Our annual pilgrimage to Elko is a long-standing tradition for my dad and I- this was his 22nd year, and my 19th! However, this was our first year accompanied by a toddler (a teething toddler, at that!), my son, Colton. He definitely added to the “adventure” aspect, but I’ll get to that…

Over the years, I’ve run into several other Central Oregonians at the Gathering, so I know many of you are familiar with it, but I’ll give a brief description for those who aren’t: Founded in 1984 by the Western Folklife Center, it was a way for cowboy poets and musicians- many of whom were, and are, working buckaroos- to showcase their talent and introduce their art to the public. In the ensuing years, it has become much more than a mere poetry festival. In addition to the “regulars”, (Ian Tyson, Paul Zarzyski, Wally McRae, and Georgie Sicking, to name a few of my favorites) new performers are invited every year. The Gathering features cowboys and cowgirls alike; this year, there was even an 8-year old girl who yodels! From Guthrie-era legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Cajun zydeco maestro Geno Delafose and his band, French Rockin Boogie, the genre-bending selection proves that “Cowboy” is as much a state of mind as an actual occupation. This is not to say that the authenticity is gone- as I said, most of the performers have agricultural backgrounds, and many of them have kept their “day jobs”, ranching, buckarooing, etc. Their experience is evident in their craft- who could write about prolapses, cow pies, and ornery camp cooks without actually being there?- but these performers are true artists. Their sincerity, depth and humor are touching even to those with no knowledge of the Western culture.

In recent years, the Elko gathering has also featured poets and musicians representing similar cultures from around the world, including the Argentinean gauchos, nomadic Mongolian herdsmen, Australian drovers, and Mexican vaqueros. This year, the “guest culture” was the stockmen of Hungary, famous for their distinctive Hungarian Grey cattle and vast grassy plain called the puszta. There were performances by Hungarian musicians, Hungarian tack-making demonstration, even a Traditional Hungarian Cooking workshop.

An increasingly popular part of the Gathering are the numerous gear and art shows, held at several of the casinos and the local fairgrounds. These bazaar-style trade shows feature a wide variety of Western artists and craftsmen, selling paintings, jewelry, tack, books and CDs, even custom-made hats and boots. Some of the notable artists are (and yes, this is a shameless plug!) Linda Davies-Gage and her husband, Leon Gage, painter and silversmith, respectively, from the Jordan Valley area; Deborah Kunic, a rancher from Paso Robles, CA, who produces unique paintings using an old-fashioned, labor-intensive etching and printing process; and Tracy Baird, an Eastern Oregon cowgirl who braids rawhide, hitches horsehair, and sews wild rags. This year, I was excited to run into Jacque Smiley of Vintage Revival, having recently read an article in Cowboys and Indians Magazine about her beautiful jewelry, handcrafted out of pieces of antique china set in sterling silver. Turns out, she is as personable as she is talented. Also available was artwork by late Powell Butte cowgirl Joelle Smith. I bought a gorgeous silk wild rag printed with one of her paintings, and the woman running her booth was kind enough to give a cookie to a very cranky little boy. I wish I could give individual accolades to all of the wonderful artists and craftsmen, but there were just too many extremely talented people to list them all!
Perhaps the best part about the Elko gathering is the feeling that everyone present is part of a big, close-knit but far-flung family. My dad and I have made many friends there over the years, and continue to see many of them every year. In a way, I feel like I have come full-circle, beginning my attendance as a child, and now, coming with a child of my own.
This familial feeling seems to extend beyond the attendees to the performers, as well. I have seen some of them literally give the shirts off of their backs (notably, Baxter Black, at an impromptu fund-raising auction to benefit a fellow performer who was battling cancer) to help others in need. It’s common to run into them around town, and most are just as friendly and personable as anyone, welcoming a chat over a cup of coffee at Cowboy Joe’s or a cold beer at the Stockmen’s.
The entire city of Elko, worth a visit in itself for the rich ranching and mining history, as well as the great Basque food, takes part in the Gathering. There are events held all over town, from art gallery exhibits to performances at some of the local watering holes. The Northeastern Nevada Museum has some great exhibits, and there are a number of impromptu amateur performances to be seen if you happen to be in the right place at the right time. All of these extra-curricular activities were great for us, as we couldn’t attend the regular shows with the little guy along. (Not that the shows aren’t family friendly- most of them, anyway- but I know my son’s disruptive capabilities!) The Gathering can be as exciting or as laid-back as one wants it to be; in the past, I’ve brought friends along and we’ve had some pretty wild adventures. This year, of course, I didn’t participate in the party scene, but definitely still had a lot of fun- and was in much better shape for the long drive home on Sunday!

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