Saturday, February 12, 2011
An Inside Report from the 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
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.
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!