American Cowboy Poetry Month | The Gathering

Welcome to that phenomenon known as the "gathering"—Cowboydom's unique contribution to the American Entertainment Scene.
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Welcome to that phenomenon known as the "gathering"—Cowboydom's unique contribution to the American Entertainment Scene.
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Broadway has its staged plays and musical extravaganzas, Hollywood has its cinematic spectacles, and the mainstream music world has its globe-spanning concert tours. But in the West there’s a cultural phenomenon that, although small by comparison, is asserting its place as a brand of uniquely American entertainment that’s here to stay—the cowboy gathering.

Numbering in the hundreds across the West and beyond, cowboy gatherings attract people from all walks of life who want to experience the pageantry, wholesomeness, patriotism, tradition, nostalgia, and just plain fun that distinguishes cowboy gatherings from other types of events. 

Do you have cowboy poetry of your own? Enter our poetry contest here! You could win the opportunity to read your poem live at the Rock'n Western Rendezvous, or have one of the event's headlining poets perform your work. 

CowboyPoetry.com, a virtual on-line gathering, currently lists about 300 gatherings and events on its calendar. Margo Metegrano, Web site editor, says the site averages one new event posting each week. “Probably half of those intend to become annual events,” she says. “Based on the number of other events that I read and hear about, I expect our list reflects about 25 percent of the total number of events that are out there.”

Red Steagall, whose annual Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival is a major event in Fort Worth, affirms that “there are more cowboy gatherings now than we have ever had before.”

The streets of the National Stockyards Historic District, site of the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering, is flooded with nearly 40,000 people during the event. “We don’t sell nearly that many tickets,” says Steagall. “But the chuckwagons are open to all visitors. We do that so that anyone can experience the sights and smells and sounds, and be a part of the event, even if they don’t have the money to go through the gate. Our space is limited [inside the gates], but we divide the people up by having the concerts and the trade show and the coliseum events all going at the same time.”

Mary K. Brown, organizer of the Phoenix-based Festival of the West, says that gatherings have made tremendous strides. “If you looked back 20 years ago, there were maybe one or two out there,” she says. “They’re spreading more to the East and the Midwest, too.”

Events like Brown’s and Steagall’s have multiple stages, with acts running simultaneously. Some include a Wild West show as part of the offerings. Almost anything (Western) goes. There might be a mountain man encampment or staged gunfights, and most have a trade show and some kind of equestrian element, if not an all-out rodeo.

But traditionally the main draw is cowboy poetry and music. The gathering, with its sharing of culture through poetry, music, storytelling, and other performances, is the West’s most colorful folk tradition. These family-friendly festivals—evocative of dusty back roads, front porch visits with country cousins, and singing around a campfire—are winning large audiences across the United States and in southern Canada.

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Variety is the Spice

If all there was to a gathering (called simply a “gather” in some parts) was entertainment, it would be little less than a concert venue. It is, instead, so much more. With its multitude of experiences, a gather is a grand buff et of cultural treats, some of them as educational as they are entertaining. With its Chautauqua- like fervor and its spirit of community and camaraderie, the cowboy gather is an immersion in the qualities that make the West what it is.

Each region has its own unique way with a gather. Local events, while built upon the common elements of cowboy poetry and cowboy/Western music, are tailored to refl ect local history, with performers sharing insights into the local culture. In Monterey, Calif., for example, those gathered at the convention center near Fisherman’s Wharf might hear horse trainer and songwriter Mike Beck sing of a senorita gazing seaward from her father’s rancho, watching whales swim the coast. In Valentine, Neb., on the fringe of the Sand Hills, the Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Old West Days is held at a high school. Attendees there might hear poet and cowhand Ken Cook tell of the struggles of caring for cattle during a Plains blizzard.

Entertainers taking the stage include incredibly talented youngsters full of promise, as well as older folks rich with wisdom and life experience. Presentations, both homespun and finely honed, hark back to the heyday of the American cowboy, while sharing contemporary viewpoints from the American West. There’s always plenty of laughter, occasionally a tear, and frequently a surprise or two.

Mark Allen, who organized the Las Vegas-based Wild West Arts Club, says that it’s not just the audience that loves the experience. “Performers get a great feeling too,” says Allen, himself an expert in whip cracking, rope spinning, and other skills. “By doing these things you are carrying on the Western tradition. And the people who come out to see you are really interested in what you’re doing. You feel appreciated.”

Metegrano, whose work at cowboypoetry.com has kept her immersed in a world of all things related to gatherings, singles out what drives her passion for the genre: “It’s a connection you feel with the wonderful storytellers—as if you’re being transported into their lives. The performers are celebrating their heritage and way of life. Their proud sense of community is truly shared with the audience.”

Schedules range from a single evening performance to a full day of activities; from a get-away weekend to make-a-vacation-of-it festivals. Added attractions vary, but may include cowboy gear displays, chuck wagon cookery, storytelling, living history demonstrations, art shows, parades, dances, and cowboy church.

While most are annual events, the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Ga., produces a spring poetry gathering in addition to a fall cowboy festival and symposium. Vinton, Calif., organizers also present two shows per year. A handful of organizers rustle up monthly shows, such as the Heritage of the American West, which takes place the third Wednesday of each month at the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, S.D.

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Not Just for Country Folks

Attendees to shows such as these flock in from cities as well as from the country. While cowboy poetry and music arose as backcountry arts, their appeal crosses boundaries.

A century or more ago, more than half of the population was tied to agriculture. Today only 2 percent are. And yet today, even in the most urban areas, cowboy-inspired verse and refrain have found avid fan bases. The performing cowboy artist speaks to this country’s agrarian heritage, reconnecting city dwellers to ancestors and rural life.

As a vital folk tradition, the best contemporary performances have advanced beyond coyotes, coffee, and campfires to tackle such meaty topics as strip-mining, nursing homes, and derelict feed trucks. Women’s voices bring forth tales not just of feeding hungry branding crews, but of enjoying cherished family rose bushes, and dealing with annoying automated phone menus.

Liz Masterson spearheads the Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in January in Arvada. Less than 10 miles from the Colorado state capitol, Arvada draws many to its gathering because of its proximity to Denver’s National Western Stock Show and Rodeo. People come because they’re in a cowboy mood.

“We have regulars who have been coming every year for 20 years, and those who came late to the gathering and say they will never miss it again,” says Masterson. “They turn off their electronic gadgets. They sit and listen. We don’t do that much these days.”

Renee Miller, of Goshen, Utah, is one of those who come to listen. She attended her first cowboy poetry gathering eight years ago: “My son suggested I come along with him to Elko, Nev.,” she says. “He thought I would enjoy it. I’ve gone ever since. Common, everyday people get up and perform. It’s an experience you won’t find anywhere else.”

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A Rare Wholesomeness

Indeed, cowboy gatherings have earned a reputation for wholesome family fun. It’s not unusual to see parents and youngsters come for the day, as well as grandparents and grandchildren, and multi-generational groups. Some events offer special activities for children.

Montana free-verse poet Paul Zarzyski appreciates the shared feeling of connectedness in the Western tradition he experiences at gatherings: “I’ve always loved the spirit of the gatherings. You come away feeling better about the planet and our place in it. It’s an atmosphere of 180-proof joy. It’s pride in being a Westerner; being part of the Western landscape.”

Elko, a ranching-and-mining supply center in northern Nevada, is credited as the place where the seeds of today’s crop of cowboy gatherings were planted. Back in 1985, it hosted a little get-together that was meant to be a one-time event. Ferreted out by folklorists, covered by network television and major daily newspapers, the confab brought together practitioners of the obscure folk art of cowboy poetry.

“Cowboy poetry… starring ornery cows, bucking horses, and stubborn cowboys on a stage of rugged mountains, alkali flats, careening canyons, and sunsets the color of tropical fish.”—Baxter Black, cowboy poet, former large animal veterinarian, and “observer of the cracks in the universe”

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Do you have cowboy poetry of your own? Enter our poetry contest here! You could win the opportunity to read your poem live at the Rock'n Western Rendezvous, or have one of the event's headlining poets perform your work.