It’s an unseasonably warm November morning, and something strange is happening at Wasatch High School.
The parking lots are packed to overflowing by 9 a.m., full of large four-wheel-drive trucks that are clearly work vehicles more than simple conveyances. That sight is not so unusual, given that the school’s rural Heber location means it serves kids living on ranches for miles around.
Look at the license plates, though, and there are trucks from Arizona, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, Colorado and California joining those from Utah. Odd. And rather than fresh-faced young Utahns arriving to tackle algebra, football practice and all manner of daily teenage trials, the hundreds of people streaming through the school’s front doors are predominantly older males sporting one of the more impressive collections of drooping mustaches and wide-brimmed cowboy hats you’ll find outside a summer rodeo or Sam Elliott film festival.
They’re here for the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair, an annual festival dedicated to all things Old West, from ranching prose to old-time music to the arts, crafts and tools endemic to the cowboy life. It’s the biggest gathering of its kind in Utah—one of the biggest in the country—and while Wasatch High’s students are on fall break each year, it turns the building into a buzzing showcase of a lifestyle largely forgotten—or never known—by urban dwellers along the Wasatch Front.
Go through the doors of the school, and the front hallways have been turned into essentially a mall for cowboys and cowgirls. You can buy some custom-fitted boots, ornate Western shirts and dresses or a saddle for your favorite horse back home. There are CDs of favorite poets and musicians, and an adjacent room serves up barbecue and sodas while a band of identically dressed players pluck out some bluegrass licks. The school’s gymnasium and various auditoriums have been decorated with cactus cutouts, old stagecoaches and other stereotypically Western imagery, and soon those stages will be filled by a who’s who of renowned cowboy poets and musicians. Among this year’s featured acts: rancher-turned-poet Waddie Mitchell, who’s hosted the Heber gathering for much of the past decade; Suzy Bogguss, a singer who’s shifting gears from the Nashville mainstream country scene to a more traditional Western sound; and a range of cowboy poets from Utah and beyond.
Spend some time at the Heber gathering, or at one of dozens of similar events across the country, and one gets the sense that cowboy poetry, prose and music are as thriving an art form as any other. But are these artists and their fans part of a booming—if retro—subculture, or are they simply the last gasp of an art form that will inevitably disappear along with the cowboy and ranching life?
The answer, for now, is that both ideas are true.
Cowboy Poetry Gets A Name
Folklorist Hal Cannon (pictured at left) has spent much of his adult life studying traditional ranch and cowboy culture in the West.
He first encountered what he’d come to know as “cowboy poetry” while doing field work for the Smithsonian Institute more than a quarter-century ago, when Cannon was roaming the Great Basin documenting the folk arts of the region.
“I’d talk to a cowboy one day, and then a quilter the next day, then maybe a fiddler the day after that,” Cannon recalls. “I met these real cowboys, and heard their wonderful stories and started exploring the poetry and how it reflected their real lives, and that had a big impression on me.
“I met Waddie Mitchell, guys who were working cowboys at the time [and later became prominent poets]. I ran into these sort of rumpled guys and started talking to them, and I really thought it was amazing. That was before any [cowboy poetry] events or anything, very insider, traditional. A lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then.”
Indeed it has: In the years since that first introduction to ranchers and cowboys waxing poetic about their horses, their buddies and their homes in the rugged, rural parts of the American West, Cannon has spent countless hours documenting the cowboy life.
He was the Utah Arts Council’s first folk-arts coordinator in 1976, before starting the Utah- and Nevada-based Western Folklife Center in the mid-’80s. In addition to exploring Western life as an academic, Cannon has delved in as a filmmaker; Why The Cowboy Sings, a documentary he co-produced, aired nationally on PBS in 2003 and won a Rocky Mountain Emmy. And as a musician, Cannon led the long-running Deseret String Band, a group dedicated to researching and performing music found in the West in the 1800s, before leaving to join Red Rock Rondo, another group focused on traditional sounds and exploring the American West mythos.
It was while Cannon was working as the Utah folk-arts coordinator that he helped spawn the cowboy-poetry-gathering movement. He and his fellow Western-state folklorists held annual meetings in Logan at the time, and they would try to come up with ideas for joint research projects and grants they could apply for. After years of rejection, the National Endowment for the Arts finally gave the group a small sum to explore the poetry written and performed in the West’s ranching and farming communities.
That first grant led to a small gathering, in 1985, in Elko, Nev., town selected after a group of the participating cowboy poets rejected the idea of going to a resort town like Sun Valley in favor of a working ranching community. That first gathering only drew about 1,000 people, but it also lured national media like The New York Times and People magazine, which inspired Cannon and his fellow folklorists to continue the gathering the next year.
The Elko gathering has since become known as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and this January will mark its 27th year filling Elko’s hotels and casinos with poets, musicians, painters, chefs and folklorists obsessed with documenting and preserving the Western cowboy life.
While Elko is widely known as the granddaddy of cowboy-poetry gatherings, it is far from the only one these days. Across the West, cities like Santa Clarita and Monterey host large gatherings each year. And towns across Utah have hosted gatherings of their own, from Ogden to Kanab and many towns in between.
“From Salt Lake City’s perspective, it seems to me that Utah’s cowboy culture is not as strong an identifying force as it would be in Wyoming or Montana,” Cannon says. “And yet, there’s always been ranching and cowboys here. I went to a film premiere for a movie about saddle-bronc riding in Cedar City, and I looked around and it was all ranch folks.
“There are a lot of people who either make their living ranching or live in rural areas and identify with ranch culture. They may work delivering propane by day, but at night, they put on their cowboy belts and go out. Their identity is kind of ranch culture. You go out in rural Utah, that’s very prevalent.”
Those people make up the audience most likely to latch on to cowboy poetry and music for entertainment, but that audience is shrinking along with agricultural life in America. Roughly 90 percent of America was involved in ranching and agriculture during the late 1700s and early 1800s. A century later, that number was down to less than 50 percent.
And now, in 2010? Less than 2 percent of Americans make their living from the ranching and cowboy life. Yet cowboy-poetry gatherings continue to grow, blending traditionalists from rural communities with a new audience of urbanites yearning for a glimpse into a dying part of American life.
Utah's Homegrown Gathering
One need look no farther than the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair held each November to see how strong rural Utah’s connections are to the poets, musicians and other artists who specialize in traditional Western themes. And while fans from Utah’s far-flung ranching communities are the backbone of its success, Heber’s proximity to a major metro area like Salt Lake City helps it draw some curious city folk.
Want to see for yourself?
The 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
For a full schedule of events and to buy tickets, visit WesternFolkLife.org
How to get there
Elko is straight west from Salt Lake City, 230 miles on I-80. Other than driving, travel options include flying on Skywest Airlines, riding the rails on Amtrak or taking a Greyhound bus.
Where to stay
Stockman’s Hotal Casino (StockmansCasino.com, 340 Commercial St.) and the Red Lion Hotel and Casino (RedLionHotelElko.com, 2065 Idaho St.) are two of the larger Elko hotels. The Elko Convention and Visitors Authority also has a complete list of lodging options available (ElkoCVA.com).
What else to do
Besides the casinos, there’s a small downtown bar scene well worth hopping, in close proximity to the Western Folklife Center building. Be sure to eat at the Star Hotel, the best of Elko’s many Basque restaurants, and hit J.M. Capriola Co. (Capriolas.com), one of the best Western stores in the West, with a dizzying array of shirts, hats, boots, saddles and spurs.
Tom Whitaker, the Heber gathering founder and “trail boss,” never imagined the show would evolve into its current blend of poetry, concerts and Wild West shows when he sold his small chain of Pacific Northwest hair salons and moved his family to Midway, not far from where he grew up at The Homestead wrangling horses with his dad.
Trading a Seattle subdivision for 100 acres where he raises horses, cattle and alfalfa hay, Whitaker easily settled back into Utah life with his wife and five kids. One day, driving his pickup along a small road to Heber, Whitaker stopped at the side of the road to strike up a conversation with a couple of friends—a conversation that would lead to the first Heber gathering.
“They were both making a living off the back of a horse, starting colts, and they were just there yakking on a hot summer day,” Whitaker recalls. “I stopped to talk, and somehow it came up that we all had a few poems up our sleeves. I’d been memorizing a few of Waddie Mitchell’s poems.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we have our own cowboy poetry gathering?’ I had no idea what one was, but I’d heard of Elko, the name Elko Gathering. I really didn’t know what it was, but it sounded fun.”
Whitaker (pictured at left) immediately drove over to the Midway Town Hall, found an empty date on the calendar for early November, and the Heber Cowboy Poetry Gathering was born. Whitaker found himself throwing a gathering without ever having attended one.
The first year, Whitaker’s audience came mostly from around Heber, to listen to some local poets and musicians and eat chili at the town hall. “We charged five bucks for the chili and cornbread, and the music and poetry was free,” he jokes. “We printed up some flyers, and on it, we put ‘first annual.’ Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have thought this was going to be more than a one-time deal. We had about 250 people show up that first year, and we ran out of chili.”
By the third year, the Heber gathering was drawing 600 people, and it moved to Wasatch High School. Since then, it’s grown into a multi-day event that includes Wild West shows and horse exhibitions, cowboy poetry train rides on the Heber Creeper rail line and a slate of nationally known poetry and music talent.
|That “No Quit” Attitude
By Waddie Mitchell
Written by Mitchell at the request of the organizers of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 to capture the spirit of the West, its people and its connection to the dedicated athletes coming to visit.
While gatherin’ cattle near the ruins of a long abandoned homestead,
In the shadows of the mountains, questions swarmed around my mind
Of the people who had claimed there, most forgotten now and long dead.
Still, I wondered what had prompted them to leave their world behind
Searching for a life uncertain in a vast and rugged region,
Up and leave their home and kin for opportunity to find,
Taking little more to start with than an idea and a reason
And the dream of their succeeding in a future yet defined.
Soon these queries led to more, like why it is that some folks always
Need to push their borders out beyond the furthest milestone
On some never ending quest to find new ways and trails to blaze
And, in the process, stretch the realm of what is built and done and known.
From the little draw above me in my pard rides with his findin’s,
Throwing his bunch in with mine now shaded up and settled down.
I could see he’d gone through battle for his pony’s sportin’ lather
But his smile claimed he’d made it in with everything he’d found.
The sweat and dust and brush streaks on that pair done heaps o’ speaking
As he pulled up near, dismounted, loosened latigo a bit.
Said “We jumped ‘em in the roughs and would’ve lost ‘em had we weakened
But, I swear, this here caballo ain’t got one half ounce of quit.”
And that “no quit” phrase speaks volumes on one’s character and makin’s
To the cowboy drawin’ wages ridin’ ranges of the West.
Those who have it, you’ll find, usually conquer most their undertakin’s
For the best in them is drawin out when their spirits’ put to test.
Then I spot my cowdogs brushed up stayin’ well hid from the cattle
Knowin’, with a cue, they’d give all to do anything need done
And I thought, then, how the most of us will opt to shun that battle,
Never knowing fully what we could accomplish or become.
Still I believe, like dogs and horses, we’re all born with resolution,
And, like muscles and good habits, it needs use and exercise.
If left dormant it’s in jeopardy of loss to evolution
For eventually it shrivels up in atrophy and dies.
But, when flexed, it blossoms heroes and a source of inspiration
For we recognize the virtues in that “no quit” attitude.
And it proves its attributes in competition and vocation
Which evokes appreciation and a show of gratitude.
And since mankind started walking it’s been swifter, higher, stronger
As if pushed by some deep need to keep their limits unconfined.
Almost thriving, always striving for things bigger, better, longer
In an unrelenting pursuit of perfection redefined.
And, in this world of soft complacence, there’s still a few among the masses
Who will readily give all to see a job or dream fulfilled.
It’s a trait that’s void of prejudice towards races, sex or classes
Just demanding its possessor be of valor and strong willed.
Then, as we point our cattle homeward, letting dogs bring up the rear,
And we leave what’s left of, once, somebody’s hopes and dreams behind,
I’m convinced that “no quit” attitude will always persevere
And that’s the essence and the promise and the crown of humankind.
This year, the Western Writers of America were on hand doing lectures on Western literature. There was a Western art show presented in the school library, adding fine art to the folk-art objects filling the Mountain Man Rendezvous tents covering the school grounds outside. Part of the Heber gathering even made its way to Salt Lake City, in the form of a Riders in the Sky concert with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall early in the week, for urban dwellers and the out-of-state visitors coming early for the gathering.
“This whole thing has just sort of taken on a life of its own,” Whitaker says. “Now you actually have to choose if you want to be at the high school, do you want to be at the events center, do you want to take the train? It’s really the way we want it. If you go to Disneyland, you kind of have to decide: Where are we gonna go? You can’t do it all. Let’s just pick and choose what we want to do.”
Whitaker’s original idea for some poetry and chili and a few folks from town enjoying tales of the ranching life has turned into essentially a full-time job for the 64-year-old. The entire structure of the Heber gathering is based on volunteer labor, and Whitaker has to coordinate those volunteers as well as the booking, promotion and execution of the event. And by the time one gathering is done in early November, he’s busy booking the next one so he can advertise it at the Elko gathering two months later. In conversation, Whitaker constantly credits the dozens of volunteers in and around Heber who help pull off the gathering.
“Most of these gatherings have full-time paid staffs, and we do this just with people who want to do something for their community. A love for the music and genre [is why]. Our mission statement is to preserve the cowboy way of life by holding this event and giving back to the community.”
Whitaker acknowledges that in 2009, the gathering had more people than ever, but revenues were down a bit, something he attributes to the economy forcing people to attend just one or two concerts instead of three or four. And while he thinks being close to an urban area like Salt Lake City ultimately helps his attendance, he remains perturbed more Salt Lake Valley folks don’t make the trip to the Heber gathering.
“We must have an easier time of having people come and check it out [than more rural gatherings],” Whitaker says. “But am I surprised that we’re not turning people away because we’re just swamped? Yeah.”
The Poet's Perspective
Jerry Brooks is one of Utah’s most revered cowboy poets, but the Western life is an adopted one for the New England woman, who grew up obsessed with Westerns on TV. After moving to Chicago for a couple years, “I went insane and gave away everything I owned, bought a ’65 Rambler 220, headed west, and Utah is where I ran out of money in 1978. I went to work in the underground coal mines and been here ever since.”
She was introduced to cowboy poetry via old retired ranch wives who lived in south Sevier County and Piute County where she was working, although she had “never heard it as a defined genre of poetry.” When she started reading it, though, she realized she remembered a lot of the songs and verses from her childhood TV obsession. Soon, she was writing her own, and reciting favorites at gatherings across the West.
In Brooks’ view, appreciation for cowboy poetry is indeed growing, but not so much from the support of rural Utahns, because “the arts are not a real big deal in rural Utah. We’ve tried gatherings all over the state, and Heber’s the only one that can keep going. It’s too bad, because the people living in rural Utah, they can’t take off to go to a gathering [far away]. They’re too busy actually living the life.”
Rather, she believes it’s part of a “back to our roots” movement by urbanites similar to the one she witnessed back in the ’60s.
“When people get older, they have a career and they’re not happy beating their head against the wall for a 9-to-5 job, and they get to thinking, ‘What happened to my life?’” Brooks says. “You look back at what you loved when you were younger, and you start backing up and getting some perspective on what you’re doing to yourself. I think that has a lot to do with it, getting back to an appreciation of what we loved as kids.”
When Brooks recites, it’s a transfixing experience, her cadence and creative emphasis on certain words helping create a vivid visual in the listener’s mind. At the Heber gathering this year, she was featured in multiple showcases, and she found, once again, a surprisingly fresh audience for what she does.
“When I’m doing a reading, and I ask how many people are there for the first time, it still amazes me how many people are just discovering it! It’s incredible to me,” Brooks says. “I tell these stories just assuming people know what I’m talking about, but it’s all new for some people. How that’s happened, and how it’s been perpetuated, I don’t know.”
The gatherings are part of that perpetuation, of course. But people are exposed to cowboy poetry in other ways, too.
Take Jeff Carson, an American Fork native who moved to Heber about 30 years ago and started writing and reciting cowboy poetry about 13 years ago.
Most of his time spent performing poetry comes in the form of corporate gigs, where he’s hired to be the entertainment at conventions in Heber, Park City, Salt Lake City and beyond. Picture a room full of corporate drones—realtors or software salesmen—being regaled with tales of freedom, nature and life on a horse, and you can imagine more than a few being attracted to the lifestyle Carson describes in his work.
In fact, before he experienced the Heber gathering himself, Carson thought he hated all poetry, a feeling that went back to his high school days. But, Carson says, “I came to this gathering, and what I realized was, this isn’t poetry. This is storytelling with rhymes! And I thought, ‘Man, this stuff is great!’”
Carson writes and recites his own work for the most part, and his first effort was an example of the new directions cowboy poetry has taken through the years. While still dominated by classic tales of life on the range, issues of the modern cowboy have entered into the lexicon, too. I’ve heard poems addressing Internet connections on rural homesteads, and subdivisions of vacation homes decimating old ranches.
For Carson, it was anger at the Heber City Council years ago that inspired him to first try his own hand at cowboy poetry.
“There were developers coming into town, and they were kind of running roughshod over the city,” Carson recalls. “And, of course, you can’t fight City Hall, but I got so damned mad, I wrote a poem about it and sent it to the paper. That was my kickoff into doing poetry, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Back to the Future
While Brooks is always finding new cowboy-poetry fans at her performances, and Carson has tapped into the corporate market to expand the possibilities of where cowboy poetry can thrive, there is still concern over its future.
Hal Cannon, for one, is worried that most of its performers are getting too old to keep going for much longer.
“I’m hopeful there are more young people who are going to enter and take it in their own direction,” Cannon says. “That’s one concern I have, that a lot of the performers are my age or older. I look at traditions like bluegrass—that has attracted a lot of young people. I’m sort of hoping for a generation of young people interested in the West and poetry to emerge and take it over.”
He notes that at the Elko gathering, they try to book young musical acts to offset the older performing poets, and they’re always sure to host some events that aren’t too expensive, like free dances “where young cowboys and their girlfriends can come out.”
Look around the crowds at November’s Heber gathering, and there are plenty of young people in the audience. Many are there with their parents, and a love of the traditional Western arts will inevitably be passed down between generations in some families.
Among the performers, too, there are positive signs that the form can survive. Brenn Hill is in his early 30s, grew up in Hooper and has become a nationally renowned Western singer/songwriter while keeping his base in Utah. Skylar Harwood is a shy teenager who was a featured poet at this year’s Heber gathering.
Maybe Jerry Brooks is right, that more people will discover a love for the gritty prose capturing what life in the West once was and, in some rural places, still is.
But with the ranching life largely disappearing from the American landscape, cowboy poets might find themselves reciting to just themselves, their horses and their fellow ranchers out on the range.
Just like they were when Hal Cannon first found them, and for a century before.