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(an essay by Sam Jackson)
America was built on competition. It’s the engine that makes us who we are, and drives improvement in any field worth mentioning. It is natural and mentally healthy for humans to compete. That it affects our daily lives for the better is an absolute. It is a part of life that cannot be avoided, and in one way or another, we’re involved with it from the day we are born to our last hurrah! If it weren’t for the progress afforded us through competition, we would still be living in—or near—the stone age!
This statement summarizes the basic philosophy taught at the campus of O.I.C. (Opine Institute on Competition) of which I am one of the founders.
Today’s topic of study will be The big 'C'—and its many faces. But rather than spend valuable time engaged in shallow discussions, I have the better idea—we will get behind the wheel of our new van and proceed to discover some everyday examples of "Competition in action" while, indulging ourselves in a bit of recreation. I have in my possession tickets to a football game at Oval stadium, passes to the Salt Lick County fair and reserved seats at the Pepper Palace for the PRB rodeo. Upon its conclusion, we will head South on highway 89 to Richpasture’s annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and finish out our trip at the world's one and only Cowboy Poetry Rodeo at the Old Barn Theater in beautiful downtown K-a-nab Youtaw. So hop in, buckle-up, lets head’em out!
How do you like this new vehicle? Notice any difference in the quality and workmanship over those we were cursing just a few short years ago? The rapid strides in quality are quite obvious and were caused by one of two things: (a) “Competition” or (b) The auto industry CEO’s suddenly being overcome by the “nice guy” syndrome. My money’s on (a). Believe it--in today’s world, every commodity from the mouse trap to the space shuttle has its current look due to competition.
Here we are at Oval Stadium in beautiful downtown Salt Lick City. The Chest Thumpers are playing the Meat Eaters this afternoon. Let’s fill our fists with hot dogs, and soda, while we watch the blood-letting. Whoa, what’s this? Right off I sense something’s wrong--why all the empty seats? It’s perfect football weather, the game is in full swing with the usual pass, catch, kick and other hand-to-hand, crowd-pleasing combat, but only a handful of the sparse crowd is cheering—so what gives? The mystery clears up as I realize there is no score board—no one is keeping score! Without that one small item, there is “no competition” and without “competition”—what’s to get excited about? OK gang, eat up—let’s try something else.
As we pull into the fairgrounds, I’m thinking—How could anyone not enjoy a county fair? Merry-go-round, Ferris Wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl, happy music, cotton candy, souvenirs, agri-displays and everything that goes with it. From the moment we walk through the front gate, competition surrounds us—Vendors hawking everything conceivable from corn dogs to John Deere hay balers to remote-controlled lawn mowers.
Out in the livestock barns we see every kind of creature from bantam roosters to 2000 pound steers being groomed and readied for judging. Here again we see The big ‘C’ at work. Some of these folks have spent a lifetime developing a particular breed of animals. Countless hours are being spent today grooming them for this one brief encounter, and why? Because most potential customers demand quality! They prefer to purchase the "best of the best" and will pay a premium for it, with the winners gaining publicity, bragging rights and possible future business by staying on top of the game. Ever wonder what the steer, the lamb or the chicken might look like without the information exchange and visual awareness that competition brings? I suspect we would probably still be producing beef that was 80% bone, feeding sheep shearing a meager six pounds of greasy wool and caring for chickens that lay one robin-sized egg every three days. Who’s to say?
Time to be moving along.
Ah, the Pepper Palace! Great place for a stock rodeo! Out of the weather, every seat gives a clear view of the arena and tickets don’t cost an arm and a leg. I see the producer and judges are having a pow-wow. Let’s see if they might have time to answer a couple of questions before the action starts.
Howdy fellers, we’re from O. I. C. tech, doing a bit of research on competition today and wonder if you might have time to answer a couple of questions on how it fits into professional rodeo?
Sure thing, pard, shoot—
Q: What would happen if you were to eliminate competition in this business--just pay the contestants to ride, rope or race, neither timing nor scoring the events?
A: Hell, that’s an easy one-- we’d be out of business after the first show!
Q: Why’s that?
A: Simple, first off, we wouldn’t be able to attract the top riders, and secondly, the sponsors would disappear along with our paying audience.
Q: Could you explain that a bit further?
A: Sure—watching a cowboy ride a mean bull, or a saddle bronc, or wrestle a steer in itself is exciting, but competition is what it’s all about, Who’s the best? Who’s the fastest? Who’s the class act, are the lures that bring top riders, a paying audience and purses from big money sponsors.
Q: But doesn’t competition also create contention and hard feelings among the contestants?
A: Just the opposite. Seems there’s more camaraderie here than in most sports.
These cowboys go out of their way to cheer each other on, helping both physically and mentally. Sometimes if a feller has a string of bad luck, they’ll even help each other out financially. Great bunch—oh sure, you run across hot-heads, and sore losers every once in a while, but they usually don’t stick around long enough to do much harm and are soon lookin’ for greener pastures.
Looks like you’re about ready to start. Much obliged for your time and good luck!
That was a great show boys, but it’s time to hit the trail.
Two hours south, we pull into Richpasture Youtaw’s, umteenth annual cowboy poetry gathering. Great crowd today and some mighty fine cowboy poetry floatin’ past our ears from the stage of the outdoor pavilion. Half hour into the program I hear “Hey Coach!, thought we were supposed to be studying competition today—so what’s with this cowboy poetry? Sure isn’t any competition involved here!” Ah-yes, I’ve been waiting for one of you deep thinkers to come out with that. No competition you say? Boy are you ever wrong!! Do you think these folks entertaining us are on stage just because they’re someone’s’ brother-in-law, or family friend? No way! They are here because the producers are aware of their talent from past performances! If we could have tracked the careers of these poets over the years, you would see the better entertainers are invited to the better events. Here is a good example of the crème rising to the top.
Each time an entertainer steps onto a stage they are in competition—subtle? yes, but bona-a-fide, dyed-in-the-wool (pardon the pun) competition. The Judges? You and me, and anyone else that happens to be in the audience. One of the most interesting aspects is that most involved do not recognize it as competition!
Now a scenic two hour drive through Youtaw’s beautiful Dixie country, brings us to a billboard announcing: “Welcome to K-a-nab Youtaw, Home of Western Legends Round-up, featuring the world's one and only Cowboy Poetry Rodeo!”
Yes-sir-ee folks, more cowboy poetry, but in a little different setting—now before you go askin’ me; What the heck is a Cowboy Poetry Rodeo? Lets look up an old friend of mine who can explain it better than I, straight from the horses [mouth?] so to speak.
As we pull into the parking lot of the Old Barn Theater in downtown K-a-nab, I spot my old buddy leaning up against a post with a surprised look spread all over his ugly yap. “Howdy Sam! Long time no see!” “Well, darned, if it ain’t ol’ Jimmy B from Salt Lick City’s "Oh, I See" think factory! Climb down outta that covered wagon, come on in and let’s hoist a cup.”
Jimmy B: Sam, we’re on a field trip today, been looking at some examples of competition. Think you might have some time to tell us what your Cowboy Poetry Rodeo is all about, then answer a few questions?
Sam: Sure thing Pal, how’s this for a starter—Cowboy Poetry Rodeo: An event, fashioned after a stock rodeo, designed to pit the skills of one cowboy poet against those of another in such a manner as to further develop the talents of both, with an over riding goal of upgrading the genre that it might benefit both performer and audience.
Jimmy B: Hey pard, that’s a "right-up-town" mission-statement. Good enough to impress this old scholar!
Sam: Well thanks, comin’ from you, that’s quite a compliment, and now with the formalities out of the way, I’ll give these young whippersnappers yer haulin’ around, a rundown on what present day cowboy poetry is all about.
As public entertainment, cowboy poetry is a fairly new "kid-on-the-block." Got its start out in Elko Nevada a few years back when a feller, name of Hal Cannon, figured it was high time he brought some of the old timers together to set down their stories and songs about cowboys and ranch life. The good news is, from that small beginning, Cowboy Poetry "snowballed." The bad news is, its popularity soon out ran the talent pool, with some folks announcing themselves as “Cowboy Poet Entertainers” a bit sooner than maybe they should have—so, bottom line: the Cowboy Poetry Rodeo is about encouraging "fair poets" to become "good" and "good poets to become "better."
and I’d ask you to please note our slogan: Excellence through Competition.
Sam: Glad to, and it’s fairly simple: These last thirty or so years have seen countless thousands of ranch folks, for one reason or the other, headin’ for the big city, leaving some of us to wonder what will happen when nobody can remember where their grub comes from? Why hells' bells—last time we showed our livestock at the state fair, some poor souls from back East ask my Mrs. “Where’s the Spam pens?” Kinda makes ya wonder what’s the world comin’ to. Might be well that we don’t know!
But back to your question. Several years ago me and a couple other fellers were chewing over that very thing, wondering what could be done to help keep our Western Heritage alive and out front of the public's eye? Thinkin’ that cowboy poetry might be one of the answers but to ever gain, then keep, an audience large enough to be worth its salt, the art form would have to be written and presented in the most professional manner possible. We agreed that competition works for the betterment of most everything else—so why not cowboy poetry?
Jimmy B: Sounds like a reasonable approach. How’s it been working out?
Sam: Just great and gettin’ better every year. There a number of success stories about poets who, at one time, couldn’t poetize their way out of a paper bag, who are now quite successful at entertaining audiences, spreading the word that cowboys and ranching is alive and well and making a few bucks at the same time. You can read some of their comments here.
Jimmy B: I’ve been hearing that some of the "big guns" on the circuit say that “cowboy poetry is too sacred to be subject to competition.”
Sam: Yessir, that’s a fact and I’ve had conversations with some who hold with that opinion—but if ya pin ’em down, they can’t come up with a credible answer as to “Why.” Being at the top of the food chain, they are surely smart enough to know that competition has a way of giving poets some new perspectives on how to entertain an audience and the way I’ve got it figured, they’re grazing in tall clover and may not want any company.
Jimmy B: Are there any other reasons why you feel that "up-grading" the talent level is so important?
Sam: A couple with the short answer being: So people will listen! Taking that a bit farther: It’s common knowledge that ranchers and other folks here in the West take a lot of undeserved heat for the [alleged] ruination of the public’s playgrounds by using them for such frivolous things as raising food. Perhaps if Cowboy Poetry were upgraded to a level of excellence acceptable to a wider spectrum of the general public, it could become a valuable tool in helping to spread "The Gospel of Western Horse Sense," which reasons that "Underneath those ten gallon hats live some 'Good Ol’ Boys’, perfectly capable of managing our western lands in a manner benefiting everyone.” In summary: The better entertainers we become, the more opportunities we will have to tell our story.
Jimmy B: Moving on to a different subject: How do the cowboy poets handle competing with each other?
Sam: Much the same as you see in the stock rodeos: Cheering each other on and helping in every way you can imagine. The majority think it’s the best idea since the good Lord decided to give horses four legs instead of three! Ninety percent of the riders, regardless of whether they get thrown or receive a high score, come away feeling they have profited from the experience.
Of course, as with any competition, you run across those few who feel not winning the gold means failure, and are quick to look around for someone, or something, to blame, but to the majority, not-winning simply means; I’m not as good as I could be, and will try to do better! Those folks are the real winners. For most poets, competition moves them in one of two, directions—they either get better—or fade away. Note that I refrain from using the word; "loser," as no one in a competition "loses" unless they bring it on themselves. Perhaps the money or the silver buckles ride home in someone else’s outfit, but the astute gain something far more valuable by watching, listening and interacting with their peers. Quoting an old proverb: "An hour with a wise man is more valuable than a year of self learning.”
Jimmy B: For what reasons do most poets enter the Rodeo?
Sam: For several, that range from "winning the gold" to "just for the heck of it" and everything in between: to improve their skills; to see how they stack up against their peers; to garner a bit of publicity; for the camaraderie it affords; and I surely wouldn’t want to leave out "bragging rights." Winning a year's worth of "bragging rights" is big medicine for anyone. For most, all of these come reasons come into play.
Jimmy B: One final question, Sammy Old Pal—in all honesty--how would you, as the producer describe and rate the event?
Sam: As the absolute best cowboy poetry seminar you could possibly attend! Recall what I said about making fair poets good and good poets better, I like to think of the Cowboy Poetry Rodeo as a school, but of a different sort, for here the poets can both learn and teach, and in a setting that allows comparing themselves with their peers, then seeing how others, outside their circle of regular associates, might accept their work.
Jimmy B: Thank you old friend, on with your show and best of luck!
Author’s note: Any similarities between persons, places or events is purely by design..
The unique National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, conceived and produced by past Lariat Laureate Sam Jackson, is held each fall.The Rodeo started in Cedar City, Utah, then moved to Kanab, Utah, and currently takes place in Hot
Springs, South Dakota.
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