Day 52 – Cowboy Poetry

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko is a week-long event, organized convention-style with performances and exhibits running simultaneously at 4 different locations. So, no matter how hard you tried, you would never be able to see everything, even if you stayed all week.

It is not limited to just poetry, though that is its namesake and mainstay. It includes anything that could be considered cowboy art. That means music, theater, film, still art, dancing, roping, cooking, and knot-tying.

Where else in the world can you recite open-mic cowboy poetry, take a 4-day rawhide-braiding workshop, and listen to a saloon piano player, all while blending perfectly into the crowd despite your handlebar mustache?

The workshops and a few of the bigger performances require admission tickets, which are often sold out long before the week begins. Admission to the vast majority of performances requires only a day pass—or basic sales skills. My first day in Elko, I attended 3 sessions without even realizing that a day pass was required. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also confidence, and no one questioned whether I should be allowed to go in because I thought it was perfectly OK to attend a “free” performance. The next morning, after I found out about the requirement, I had to talk my way in to one musical performance.  I was late, and did not have time to travel to the convention center, where the day passes were sold. The security guards, who were female and looked to be about 15 years old, let me through the door when I promised to buy a day pass immediately after the show—which I did.

The show that I talked my way into was one I definitely did not want to miss: a performance by The Gimbles. The Gimbles are a western swing band consisting of 3 generations of the Gimble family, including the patriarch Johnny Gimble. I had not heard of The Gimbles as a band, but definitely knew of Johnny Gimble from his time with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Like most 20-something urban dwellers, I am a big fan of depression-era western swing music. Groups like the Texas Playboys were essentially jazz bands, from the big band era, who played dance music using fiddles, steel guitars, rhythm pianos, and mandolins. They played live shows every day and made recordings almost as an afterthought. Making a record, after all, meant that the song would be played over and over exactly the same way, and these bands played mostly improvisations. As one of The Gimbles stated, they had been playing one song for decades and had “never played it the same way twice”—to which Johnny replied, “heck, we’ve never played it the same way once.” One of my favorite examples of this kind of improv is the Leon McAuliffe song “What the Hell”, an instrumental in which the band leader, halfway through the song, mutters “what the hell are we playing?”

Though fun to listen to, these bands are even more fun to watch. Mostly, this is because they are obviously having so much fun performing. You might think that 60 years of playing the same songs—improvised or not—might get old after a while. But Johnny Gimble, at 79, still seemed to be having a blast on stage, laughing and even attempting to dance a little jig. Last I heard, the surviving members of the Texas Playboys still get together to play concerts once in a while. During their down time at such events, band members will often gather outside their RVs and pass the time in jam sessions—because playing music is just what they love to do.

One might wonder whether each person has something they were born to do—something they are hard-wired to be good at and enjoy doing. For Johnny Gimble and friends, it is clear that they were born to be musicians. And if someone does what they were born to do, it never gets old for them, and they never willingly retire. Why would they, when they are having so much fun?

Some of you may be wondering, what is cowboy poetry?

It is not necessarily poetry written by cowboys, because a cowboy could conceivably write a poem that was not cowboy poetry, just as a non-cowboy could write a cowboy poem.

Basically, cowboy poetry is any poem that deals with cowboy life. It is usually traditional poetry, with rhythm and rhyme: if Robert Frost had lived in Nevada instead of the Northeast, he probably would have been a cowboy poet.

As far as what constitutes “cowboy life”, the poetry session titles give a good indication of the topics: The Animal Kingdom, Reverence for the Land, Reflections on the Ranch, Tearjerkers, Women on the Ranch, Rodeo Wranglers, Horses in the Blood, and Cowboy Humor are all typical listings in the poetry gathering schedule.

There are some themes that I have noticed are common in cowboy poetry, including:

  • Humor. Most cowboy poems are either touching or funny, and I personally favor the latter. The humor is often enhanced by relating it to the listener’s personal experience, though, so I am not sure if cowboy poetry is funny to those who have never been around a cow.
  • Tall tales. Cowboys are natural storytellers and embellishers, as I have experienced firsthand, and that translates into the poetry in a big way. Usually these exaggerations are played for humor, and are relatively believable tales until the punch line. For example, one poem in an animal-themed session talked about a cowboy riding up and roping an unsuspecting bear in the woods. Certainly not a wise thing to do, but it still seemed believable, since cowboys are known for doing things that are not wise to do. The poem went on to describe how the bear became angry and attacked, knocking the cowboy off his horse—which, again, is believable, because if someone did rope a bear, it most likely would attack. But when the bear then climbed in the saddle and came after the cowboy, swinging the cowboy’s rope, it was very clearly a tall tale.
  • Animals. Cattle and cats are often inspiration for the humorous poems, while horses and dogs are more often source material for the sentimental poems.
  • Clueless city folk. City slickers do not fare well in cowboy poetry, which I believe is a type of revenge. City dwellers often think of cowboys as unintelligent bumpkins, and criticize them for supposed environmental injustices or the perceived cruelty of raising animals for food. Cowboy poems often demonstrate how city people seem just as dumb when put in a rural environment, and how people who make a living off the land and animals are the ones who truly care for each and know how to best care for them.
  • Women, and what they have to put up with. Ranch wives are a unique breed, who work hard and have to deal with a lot of dirty laundry—both literally and figuratively. One session I attended was a poetic battle of the sexes between one cowboy and one cowgirl poet. The female side easily won the battle.
  • Death. People and animals die. A way of life can die. Cowboys witness death and birth more often than most modern people do.
  • Bankers. Because those who work in agriculture are always broke.

Besides the standard cowboy poetry, I also attended one session on Australian poetry—which was extremely similar, except it talked more about sheep and did so in a funny accent. And at one open mic session, a couple of commercial fisherwomen sang sea shanties and talked about how the cowboy poetry gathering had inspired a fledgling fisherman poetry gathering somewhere along the coast. Which, I suppose, makes sense. There would be some basic similarities between those who make their living off the land and those who make their living off the ocean.

Pam and her family made sure I was fed very well while in Elko, and insisted that I not pay for it. I argued a little bit against them paying for everything, but was unsuccessful. If I am honest with myself, that was probably my goal—to be unsuccessful in the argument.

On Friday evening, they took me to The Star, a steakhouse and one of the Basque restaurants. Pam described its location as being “between the courthouse and the whorehouses”—and that is, quite literally, where it is located. The food there was very good and very, very plentiful. Many restaurants will bring out communal bread or salad while you wait for your food. The Star brings out bread, salad, soup, spaghetti, and French fries, before you get your giant steak. It has now become one of my favorite restaurants.

It is the favorite for a lot of visitors. With the town’s population swollen by the poetry gathering, we got there early to avoid a long wait for a table. Because we got there early, the wait was only 2 1/2 hours.
To pass the time, we wandered around downtown. We visited The Gallery Bar, a bar/art gallery, to browse the artwork. I imagine it is easier to sell art to drunk people, especially when the art includes a rusty dragon and a fencepost/spring/sprocket combination of spare parts.

We also visited the Western Folklife Center’s small museum. One of the exhibits showed the different equipment used by cattlemen in the far west. As I learned from one of the film screenings at the gathering, there is a dividing line in the desert that separates two different styles of ranching. East of the line, we have the familiar “cowboys” who carry grass ropes sometimes called “lassos”. West of the line, ranch hands are referred to “buckaroos”, and they use thin braided rawhide ropes called “riatas”. I was surprised that I had never heard of this difference in gear and terminology before.

Another exhibit featured the different style of French cowboys, who were special guests at this year’s gathering. The French forgo ropes entirely and use long, metal-tipped sticks called “tridents” to trip up cattle. Going to a cowboy convention, telling everyone that you are French and use a trident to rope cattle? Not cool.

Back at The Star, we mingled through the crowded bar area while still waiting on a table. I spotted a man sitting in a corner who looked very familiar. He looked like one of the cowboy poets I had seen on stage. I was not completely sure if he was one of the performers, or if he just looked the part: besides his outfit, he sported the prototypical grey bushy mustache. Facial hair is very common among cowboy poets. It is not universal, but that is mostly because not all of the poets are men. Two of the more interesting performers I watched were a 15-year-old boy (in his 5th year performing at the event) and poet widow in her eighties. Still, this mustachioed man looked very much like someone I had seen on the main stage earlier that afternoon.

I walked over to where he sat waiting.

“Howdy,” I said. “Are you one of the performers here for the poetry gathering?”

“Yes. Joel Nelson,” he introduced.

“Kevin McConaghy. I thought I had seen you on stage.”

According to his bio in the poetry gathering program, Joel Nelson is a Vietnam veteran, Forestry and Range Management graduate, custom saddle builder, and working cowboy, besides being a grammy-nominated poet. Sort of a range renaissance man, and it showed in our conversation: he talked about the importance of my hometown Flint Hills to the study of range management practices, and knew some ag and forestry professors from my alma mater Oklahoma State. Joel himself was from Alpine, Texas, “200 miles southeast of El Paso”, in the Big Bend area. It was a part of the state I had never been to.

“You would like it there,” Joel assured. “It’s high country. Real pretty. Great cow country.”

I asked Joel the question that I really wanted answered: how does a working cowboy become a poet?

“It’s interested me since I was a kid,” he said. “My mom would sing around the ranch and read poetry, and I was just always fascinated by words.”

Perhaps what he was saying was that it was something he was born to do.

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