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It was a grand celebration!  The Western Folklife Center's 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held at Elko, Nevada, January 24-31, 2004.

We celebrated the event with special features:

The First Time....
recollections from the stage and the audience...send us your story about your first visit to Elko...

The Programs
with thanks to Western Folklife Center Archivist Steve Green, we have information from past program books, 1985-to the present, with covers, contents, and lists of invited participants
(separate pages)

poems celebrating the Gathering
(separate page)

news and features


Western Folklife Center

Visit the Western Folklife Center web site for information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other Western Folklife Center programs and events,  membership information, and to participate in their on-line activities.






The First Time...

recollections from the stage and the audience...send us your story about your first visit to Elko... 



Bob Schild (1985)
Ray Lashley (1985)
T. J. Casey (1985)
Mark Silverstein (1988)
Virginia Bennett (1990)
LeRoy Jones (1992)
Pat Richardson (1996)
Rod Miller (1998)
Andy Hedges (2000)
Yvonne Hollenbeck (2001)
Janice Gilbertson (2001)
Jim Cardwell (2002)
Steve Dirksen (2003)


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  Bob Schild: Driving into Elko in 1985—sand in my eyes, sagebrush in my boot-tops and hope in my heart, I felt about as much like "One of The Boys" as a jack rabbit at a coyote convention. Public speaking was never my forte but, come the realization there were no coyotes, only a fun loving group of down to earth folks equally immersed in The Western Heritage as I was-—I loved the experience and the great people involved.


  Ray Lashley:  My invitation to the 1985 Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko is directly connected with the fact that I raise Appaloosa horses and that I like to go on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride that is sponsored by The Appaloosa Horse Club.  In the summer of '83, at a rest stop on the CJTR, one of the other riders bogged down in his attempt to recite 'The Sarry Petes' and I threw him the next line.  In a few lines more he gave up and I finished it for him.  One thing lead to another and I wound up doing poetry during the evening show when Pretty Perky Pickin' Peggy Malone, who furnished our evening dance music, took her breaks.   

Then, one day in the summer of '84, I got a phone call from feller who said his name was Gary Stanton.  Said he'd heard I recited cowboy poetry.  Asked how I'd like to go to Elko next January to recite with some - - - I interrupted him about then to explain that I did not commit any time or money over the phone so he should not expect me to donate anything to his cause—about then he interrupted ME to say the magic words, "Oh, no, no!  We intend to pay YOU to come and recite."  He was a'singin' my song!  

It turned out that he had heard about me from someone who had heard me on the Chief Joe. There followed some letters between another feller called Hal Cannon, a lady called Carol Edison and myself.  Late in the following January, in Elko, Nevada I was privileged to meet and become personal friends with those fine folks. 

Up until I got to Elko that time I had some vague notion that I might be almost the only feller left who knew those old poems by the likes of Curley Fletcher, S. Omar Barker, Gail Gardner and the like.  Then I started meeting such folks as Waddie Mitchell, who had a mustache longer than a piggin' string, Glenn Ohrlin, who never looked quite right without his geetar, Gwen Peterson, that was before she became a national known columnist, Baxter Black, I guess that even then he could have been called the Top Hand of cowboy poetry, Wally McRae, Gordon Eastman, Bob Schild, Jack Walther, and a whole bunch more who seemed to be very familiar with those same old poems and poets.

There was also about a blue jillion newspaper and TV people everywhere you looked. They apparently did their job pretty well.  Just about all of us reciters wound up in the papers and/or on TV.  I still have about a dozen clippings on that first gathering.  There's even one from the New York Times and another from The Wall Street Journal.  We were well covered nationwide over those few days. 

After all the shows were over Hal invited all those interested to a meeting to comment on what we had just done.  There was some comments on the cool reception from some of the learned, literary sources.  The most personally galling to me was one to the effect, "what can a bunch of field hands know about poetry?" There was much speculation on the possible/probable impact and future of cowboy poetry generally and the gathering in particular.  I felt that the poetry, which had been with us a long time already, would endure but I, like most, I think, wasn't sure about The Gathering.  I was fairly sure about one thing—that it would not just stay static.  If it did not make money, it would die.  If it did make money, that cash flow would carry it in some direction of which I had no idea.  But I believe no one there foresaw the magnitude of its impact on cowboy poetry, western music and many peripheral activities.  We begin to get an idea when attendance approximately doubled every year for the next several years.  By now those planning to attend must make their hotel reservations six months to a year in advance to be sure space will be available for them.   

  T. J. Casey:  My first Elko excursion was 1985.  I had been talking to a friend of mine in Idaho and he said that something was going on in Elko having to do with Cowboy Poetry and Western music and asked if I was going.  Well, I told him that I hadn't heard a thing about it, but it sounded interesting. So, I throwed my old bedroll in the back seat of my '76 Ford Brougham and headed for Elko. When I got there, it was colder than it was here in Montana, and I was wondering if I hadn't taken a wrong turn somewhere.  Elko is south of Montana!  Got to say, that that was a great experience in my life, and even though I nearly froze my...self to death, I met some real great people, and was enticed to come back again...

One of the best stories that I remember is when I was at Elko in 1986 and I didn't have a place to stay except the back seat of my old car.I had gone to see my good friends, Riders in the Sky, and Ranger Doug asked if I had a place to stay. He said, "TJ, we are only booked for one show and we are leaving on the airplane tonight, I sure wish you would take our room." I must say thank you a million times and my hat goes off to Riders in the Sky, for being and doing the Cowboy Way.



  Mark Silverstein:

Having been some days in preparation

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

And tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill!

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Lennon/McCartney


It has been two full decades since I attended my first and, to date, only cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevadaback in 1988.  But I have never forgotten that experience.


Maureen and I had been married less than a year when I got a job that took us to Las Vegas in the summer of 1985, where we have lived ever since and raised our three kids.  Sometime just before or after moving out west, I heard a radio program highlighting this recently formed annual gathering of cowboys poets, and for some reason I was drawn to see it.


Growing up, the only real connection I thought I had with the cowboying way of life was like that of most every other red-blooded American city kid of my day:  by watching TV shows like Sky King, The Lone Ranger, and The Rifleman.  In the Bronx, I never had much opportunity to see, no less be, an actual cowboyclosest I could get was seeing Dennis Weaver as Sam McCloud fighting crime with New York’s finest, and by listening to Jerry Jeff Walker records.


Then, when in my mid-twenties while out “finding myself,” among other occupations, for three years I found myself being herdsman without a horse tending to sixty or so head of Black Angus on a 210-acre farm in the Hudson Valley for what some might call a gentleman farmer.  Although worlds away from my urban upbringing, I also knew it was not cowboying.  Still, I was working with beef cows and, contrary to what they say about those wanna-be cowboys, of me at the time it surely could be said I was all cattle, no hat!



Little did I know then, there is a much more profound and deeper cowboy connection awaiting me in northern Nevada at the poetry gathering.


So, in late January 1988, Maureen and I pack up our almost 5-month-old Nevadan-born son, Andrew, and we make our way deep into the Great Basin from Las Vegas to Elko, not quite sure of what it is we are expecting to witness at this, the Fourth Cowboy Poetry Gathering.


The first thing we discoverthese being pre-Internet timesis that Elko is booked, and the closest room we can find is at a bed-and-breakfast about 20 miles out in the pastoral community of Lamoille.  Arriving in Elko the following morning for the first of the poetry sessions, the sky is grey and the air damp and rather icy, which I suppose is to be expected up there that time of the year.  And it is also trying real hard to snow.


Parking near the front of the Elko Convention Center, I get out and hoist Andrew from his car-seat confinement.  While bundling him in his snowsuit, I neglect to notice that the hood must have slid off from his almost hairless head.  This oversight is made ever-so clear to me when, unawares, as I am fumbling with his infant paraphernalia, from behind us approaches a tall, thin, somewhat gaunt old gentleman looking as if he has just stepped out from one of those very TV westerns I had been raised on.  Paying seemingly little if any mind to me, he leans forward and looks Andrew square in the eye from over my shoulder, lifts his right hand that bears the calluses of a lifetime of hard work, and oh-so gently brushes the child’s rosying cheek with the back of his curled up index finger.


“Where’s yer hat, there, young feller?” he questions Andrew in a rich western twang through an easy smile, although it is plain he is subtly talking at me.  He then turns and slowly ambles on his way, disappearing into the building without ever glancing back as if he has made all the point he intends to make of the condition he has just observed.


Feeling like I have just been scolded by my elders for not better protecting the helpless baby from the cold winter air, cupping the hood over Andrew’s head and, in the path of that old cowboy, I march into the warmth of the hall with infant gear in tow and Maureen by my side.  Inside we proceed to commence to settle in and enjoy the spectacle that is the cowboy poetry gathering.  I likely would have completely forgotten this episode with that old man, which couldn’t have taken all of five seconds, when during the opening remarks it is announced that one of the featured events of the gathering will be the showing of the film Cowboy Poets, a documentary about three cowboy poets each of a different generation, and each having a different perspective on how the changing world has been affecting the cowboy way of life.


It turns out that the eldest of these three poets is Slim Kite, from Chino Valley, Arizona, whom I immediately recognize as the very same man who, that very same morning, has spoken to my son regarding the whereabouts of his missing hat!  It becomes readily apparent to me that Mr. Kite is something of unofficial, yet unassuming, celebrity at this event.  Later, that evening, the movie provides a biographical sketch of Slim, including his being a lifelong cowboy who, born in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, moved as a young boy with his cowboy family by wagon train to New Mexico back before it had been admitted to the Union.


Now to that most direct of my cowboy connections:  my father, Joseph, who was a contemporary of Slim Kite.  Joe was born in Poland in 1902 and immigrated as a 2-year-old with his family by ship to the United States, where he was raised in Brooklyn.  Like his father before him, my dad worked as a butcher for pretty much his entire working life and for decades owned a small butcher shop in upper Manhattan with his younger brother, my Uncle Charlie.


So it dawns on me as I sit there in the dark of Elko Convention Center auditorium watching Cowboy Poets that these very cowboys of the open range whose words are entertaining us and whose way of life we are celebrating are as equally reliant on those butchers of the big citieslike my fatheras those who earn their wages in the retail meat-dealing business are on the cowboys who raise the beef for them to sell.  That my family’s direct connection to those cowboys who work hard at the front-end of the cattle trade is my dad, who has labored just as hard on its tail-end.  That each vocation, while operating in completely different environmentsis dependent on the other for the means of putting food on their families’ tables.  But, at the same time, rarely if ever will either interact with the other face-to-face or eye-to-eye.


Joe passed away in 1977, prior to my stint as a cattle herdsman and a full decade before the birth of his grandson, Andrew Joseph.  But, I have to wonder as I watch in mute fascination the film Cowboy Poets with my son resting on my lap, what are the chances that at some time during the same fifty-plus years when my dad was cutting meat for a living on one side of the country as Slim Kite was cutting cows clear on the other, that at least one side of one of those beef cows roped, branded, herded, and shipped to market by Slim was carved, weighed, wrapped, and sold to a customer by Joe?  Which leads me to wonder just a little bit morehad some spiritual circle just been completed or some other cosmic connection been made out there that morning on that cold Elko sidewalk when that elderly Arizona cowboy poet stood face-to-face and looked eye-to-eye with, and with his rough leathery finger softly stroked the tender pink cheek of that native-Nevadan infant son of a son of a butcher from New York City?


I’d sure like to think so, anyhow!


Curiously, in his keynote address at this very Fourth Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Mr. Guy Logsdon stated:


Non-cowboys are often thrown by the language of the occupation.  For cowboy language is a foreign language, derived primarily from English with a splinter of Spanish. An English-speaking New Yorker passing judgment on cowboy poetry is as logical as a non-Spanish-speaking person passing judgment on Spanish poetry.”


I submit for your consideration that my experience in Elko in 1988 shows how life’s interactions can be far more complex and relationships are often interconnected in more ways than any of us may ever begin to know.  In fact, today Andrew goes to school in Flagstaff, Arizona, and he and his buddies camp, hike, and fish all around that area--likely some of the very same county where Slim Kite once ran some cows.  And, heck, even Jerry Jeff Walker originally came from upstate New York, not all that far from where I once herded cows!


And with all this, the only beef I’ve got is what’s for dinner.



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  Virginia Bennett My first year at Elko was in 1990. I had never been to the gathering there before and in fact, had only been to one other gathering at all. That one was in Durango, Colorado, in 1988, and when I asked if I could do some poetry there (I think I had three poems kinda memorized), I was allowed to fill in for a woman poet (Janet Moore) who had had car trouble and was not able to be there that day. Colorado poet Vess Quinlan saw me there, and later I found out that he told the folks at Elko that they should invite me to represent Colorado (in the earlier years, invited poets were representing the states in which they lived).

When I look at my picture from that first gathering, I look so young! Well, it was 14 years ago, so I guess I was younger! As we drove there from Colorado, and I saw for the first time the huge ranches in the Great Basin country of Nevada, I began to doubt why I was even heading to that big unknown called The Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Surely, all the poets there must be true buckaroos! Though I'd been working with horses all of my life (for at that time I had been starting colts for ranches for at least 15 years), and though Pete and I worked on and then managed cattle ranches for that same amount of time, I was certainly not a buckaroo!

I remember we drove along a lonely stretch of snowy highway and there along the road, two cowboys were stopped to go through a barbed wire gate a-horseback. I sighed and spoke out loud, "They will think I'm a big phoney in Elko. I'm not working on a big outfit like these are out here!" Pete reassured me, "You were asked to Elko to represent ranching as you know it and as you experience it. Not all ranches are like these out here, and the gathering needs stories and poems from all different kinds of ranches."

That completely bolstered me, as it made such good sense. And I was able to hearken back to those words whenever I doubted my worthiness to be presenting cowboy poetry.

It was spitting snow as we arrived in Elko, and we were put into what looked to me like a luxurious hotel. It was the year they honored the Australian bush poets and many of them there there. Also performing that year was Patsy Montana and Pete was really moved to see Patsy up on the main stage. He whispered to me during the show, "I grew up listening to her music!"

I recited the poems I had memorized before the largest audiences I'd ever had to stand in front of before. I did poems about being married to a cowboy or training colts or what a momma cow might feel like. After one session, I stood out in the crowded hallway (the hall in the convention center used to be much more crowded between sessions, when they did not have so many other programs spread out at the Western Folklife Center and Jr. High School, as they do today) and an old rancher walked past me, and, obviously having seen me in the previous session, simply tipped his hat and said, "You'll do!"  It was the best thing anyone could have said to me, the one thing from the sort of person I most highly respect that could give me confidence. I've never forgotten that simple bit of praise, though I bet the rancher who said has.

The music sessions were held in the old police station down the street from the convention center, and continued to be there for a number of years after my first year there. It was called the Cop Shop and everyone loved packing tightly into that musty old gym with the high stage at the end of the hall, and listen to Riders in the Sky, Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn, Gary McMahan and others singing their delightful renditions of classic and original cowboy songs. The music sessions were ramrodded and hosted by Sawyer Tom Hayden, himself an excellent cowboy musician. As I began to
perform cowboy poetry locally in Colorado, I often found myself on stages with Tom Hayden, Gary McMahan and Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn. I was in very good company!

My first year at the Gathering (and for several of the years following), I got a little shaky upon meeting folks like Hal Cannon, Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell and Don Edwards. They were the BIG stars and though they are old friends to me today, I remember that kind of weak-kneed feeling I got when I met them or would see them those first few years.

The Gathering at Elko changed the direction of my life. All the good things that have happened to me over the years concerning cowboy poetry (including going to Belgium next year to entertain at the Embassy and University there) can be directly linked to the Elko Gathering. I made friends there who have taken up such a residence in my heart that I can't imagine not continuing with this side-line of a career mainly because I can't imagine those people not being in my life. Yes, I know the Western Folklife Center has achieved great things in terms of preserving the culture of cowboys and cowboy poetry and music, but it has also touched many, many lives in ways that range from seemingly insignificant to earth shattering. Love has been found and lost there...we've watched children, presented proudly by their parents when they were under a year old to those friends only seen at the Gathering, grow up to be teenagers about to head out on their own. We've seen youngsters blossom into married women and mothers, and, in the case of my son who used to playfully run the hallways of the Elko Convention Center, become a commercially rated pilot. And we've seen our old timers leave our midst as we all must do one day. A few have gone on much too soon. Perhaps that is why we all hug and cling to each other on that Sunday morning as we leave Elko. We've come to recognize that we are family.


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LeRoy Jones: Regarding my first time at Elko which was in 1992, the thing that I remember most is about the trip going out there.  When we were coming down off the mountains in Utah, from Soldier Summit to Spanish Fork, I noticed that I could never see the valley floor and could only see the mountains across on the west side. As we neared Spanish Fork we drove into fog and remained in it until we were some distance west of the Great Salt Lake on Interstate 80. It was harrowing to not be able to see where we were going and yet have big 18 wheelers pass us as if we weren't even moving. We tried pulling off the Interstate at an exit but could not even see if there was cross-traffic at the stop sign, so we decided to take our chances by getting back on the highway and trying to drive out of it. What a great respite when we finally arrived at Elko and the Gathering. Suddenly we were face to face and shoulder to shoulder with real people who had, before that time, been only names. That was the first time I met "Riders In The Sky," although I had been an admirer of their music for some time.  Suddenly Ian Tyson became a person and not just a name on the jacket of a tape. The camaraderie and the friendliness among all who were there truly exemplified the Cowboy Way.


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  Pat Richardson:  My first time as an invited guest to Elko was in 1996. I hadn't been performing very long and was so nervous I could barely remember what name I was using at the time. The performances were going smoothly (thanks to a sympathetic Elko crowd) but my nerves were tighter than Glenn Ohrlin's guitar strings. On the last day of the performance I woke up and couldn't talk, I elbowed Jane awake and whispered, "I can't talk, I've lost my voice." to which Jane responds, "Knock it off, I'm tryna get some sleep," thinking I was just horsing around.

Luckily my Other Brother Andy was at one time a Shakespearean actor and once told me that lemon juice in hot water would get you through a performance when you lost your voice. I dressed and hobbled down to the Stockman's and ordered several straight shots of lemon juice and hot water and it worked. However I refused to speak to Jane all day to punish her, and she loved it (darn women!). May God strike everyone in the audience dead if I'm lying.

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  Rod Miller: Although I had heard cowboy poetry recited many times in many places, it wasn't until 1998 that I finally went to Elko where they do it best. I had wanted to go for years, but the desire did not become overwhelming until I started writing poems of my own. So I finally stuffed some shirts into a suitcase and headed across the Salt Flats and didn't hit the brakes until I hit downtown Elko Tuesday evening. Since my primary purpose was to improve my poetic proficiency, I took a workshop seat early Wednesday morning to see what I could learn in half a day from Henry Real Bird. The afternoon and following morning was likewise spent in workshops conducted by Too Slim and Texas Bix Bender of Riders in the Sky fame. It was time well spent in all cases.

The challenge for the next two-and-a-half days was navigating the many and various sessions featuring poets I had read or heard while getting familiar with the work of others. Glenn Ohrlin was a revelation. Vess Quinlan's words proved as pleasing (and important) to the ear as they are on the page, as did Wallace McRae's. J.B. Allen and Joel Nelson should be (and have been since) seen at every opportunity. I liked Larry McWhorter's poems the first time I heard them. Likewise Frank Gleeson and Pat Richardson. I could go on and on. I also discovered there some musicians that instantly became favorites -- Wylie Gustafson, Jill Jones, and Cowboy Celtic, for instance. Finally, my first Elko Gathering offered an opportunity to meet Paul Zarzyski, who had kindly (and against his better judgment) encouraged and criticized my poems through the mail.

That was Gathering #14, 1998. I wish I had followed my instincts and made the trip earlier and not missed the first thirteen. But I have not missed one since and don't plan to anytime soon. I have attended several other writing workshops in Elko over the years and every one of them has helped me think more about a poem and work harder to try to get it right. Listening to the highest caliber of cowboy poets collected in one place at one time is equally inspiring. That's the practical side of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The other side is that it's a darn good time, all the time.



  Andy Hedges: Unless someone grew up in cowboy poetry circles or as a cowboy poetry fan, it's hard for them to understand the significance of my first trip to Elko. Since I was about 14, I had been listening to cowboy poetry every chance I got, reading any books I could get my hands on, memorizing poems, and reciting them to whoever would listen. When I was 15 I began reciting for family and friends, and when I was 16 I was invited to my first cowboy poetry gathering to perform. Little did I know then how much cowboy poetry would impact my life. During the following years, I found
myself traveling all over the West to cowboy poetry gatherings, reciting poems on stage, making some of the best friends I have ever had, and all the while having the time of my life.

Through reading books, listening to other poets, and their conversation, it didn't take me long to hear about the Elko Gathering. Anyone in the cowboy poetry business knew the story of how it all started back in '85 (when I was only five years old), and how the current revival and interest in cowboy poetry and music, and the success of many cowboy entertainers was due in large part to the Elko gathering. I had of course talked to many folks who had been there, watched videos from Elko, and listened to live recordings. I had always longed to go. Even if I did not perform, a dream of mine had been to at least go and see the Elko gathering. To perform there would even be better.

As a young teenager, that was my dream. While my peers were watching sports and dreaming about going to the Super Bowl or the World Series, I was dreaming about going to the Daddy 'Em All in Elko. So, in 1999 when I got a letter in the mail saying I was selected as one of the featured artists for the Y2K Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I was thrilled, to say the least.

Debbie Fant, the manager of the Elko Gathering at the time, had heard me recite at a classic cowboy poetry session in Alpine, Texas, earlier that year with cowboy poetry greats and regulars at Elko, Joel Nelson and JB Allen. To this day, it is one of my most memorable sessions and, as it turns out, the one that got me an invite to Elko. That year, between getting invited to Elko and actually going, I had moved from West Texas to Dubois, Wyoming, where I was working on a small ranch. I still remember getting up in the early morning hours to make the 70 mile drive from the ranch to the Riverton Airport. As I remember, I got there before the airport even opened. You can never be too early - especially for Elko!

From there, I would be flying to Salt Lake City, Utah, and catching the bus to Elko. In the stories I had heard about the Elko gathering, I had always heard about the bus ride. All of the poets and musicians who were flying in would ride together, which was said to be an experience in and of itself, and a great time to make new friends. It proved no different for me. There were many folks there that day, but I still remember visiting and getting to know Arizona cowboy, Ken Moore, and listening to cowboy music legend, Glenn Ohrlin tell stories the whole way.

After we finally got to Elko and checked into our hotels, Ken Moore, Chuck Cusimano, and I went to one of the local casinos to have a steak. That was the start of an awesome weekend of music, poetry, food, jam sessions, and an amazing celebration of an even more amazing way of life.

One of the things that I will never forget about that weekend happened one night when I was standing around in the Stockman's Casino visiting with Doug Floyd (mandolin/guitar player for Jill Jones and the Lone Star Chorale). After visiting for an hour or so, I was suddenly surrounded by security guards wanting to see my ID. I of course realized that I was underage and not allowed to be in the casino. They, of course, made me leave. It's since been a running joke that I got kicked out of Stockman's on my first trip to Elko!

So much went on that weekend, from the countless stage performances to the late night jam sessions, that there is no way I could write about it all. I made many new friends, saw lots of old friends, and was not let down a bit.

I have since been to Elko several times and have made many great memories, such as driving with my best friend all the way from West Texas, opening for Baxter Black, and sharing the stage with many of my cowboy poetry and music heroes. It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of such an incredible event. Truly, is has become a cow country tradition in the dead of winter to go to Elko to celebrate the cowboy culture. I look forward to many more gatherings in the future and being part of the tradition.

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  Yvonne Hollenbeck: As basically a beginner in the world of Cowboy Poetry, I decided to try my luck and apply for a position as performer at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko in 2001.  Perhaps it was beginner's luck, but I was accepted.  I was very excited, but also very nervous, something that usually isn't a problem, as from years performing as a musician, I had learned to handle crowds with ease.  Because it was a thousand mile drive from our ranch, we had planned to take two days to get there, however, the day before we were planning to leave, a bad Dakota snowstorm was upon us.  My husband, Glen, came in late that afternoon saying that he thought we had better leave right then.  In no time we were on the road and conditions were far from good.  It took five hours to go 135 miles to Gordon, Nebraska, where we spent the night at relatives.  Early the next morning we left Gordon, fighting terrible roads and visibility conditions.  The ranch had received 25 inches of snow in the night.  If we would not have left when we did, we would never have been able to get out.  By the time we got to Douglas, Wyoming, we began to run out of the winter weather and the roads were good the rest of the way to Elko.

By the time we got to Elko, we were both a bundle of nerves; my husband worrying the men and livestock back at the ranch; and me worrying about performing at what is billed as the premiere cowboy poetry gathering in the Nation.  My only salvation was knowing that I would be performing with one of my best friends, Red Steagall, and I knew he would carry me through.  As musicians, we had worked many rodeos together, and I knew he would help get me through this.  Did I ever have a setback when, after arriving, I learned that Red was in a hospital in Dallas, had just undergone emergency surgery,
and would not be at Elko.  I soon had the worst case of jitters I had ever experienced!  Just before going on stage for the first time, I was met in the hallway by Linda Hasselstrom, who I think must have had a sixth sense an d was there to give me advice and support.  All turned out well, and I had a great time.  My husband enjoyed himself also ... purchasing some Garcia bits.

Fortunately, I got invited back in 2003 and received a standing ovation for my performance on one of the night shows, which I understand is a rare happening for cowgirl poets at Elko.  Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and was more nervous after that then I was when I walked on the stage the first time.  Again, my husband enjoyed himself. . .this time he bought a new saddle.  I hope I get invited back again sometime, but I'm not real sure I will let Glen go along.  He met a trailer dealer just before we left last year.


  Janice Gilbertson: I first attended Elko's Gathering only three years ago. I had been a fan of cowboy poetry for a long time and had been writing some of my own for several years. I was extremely shy about sharing my poems with others but then I started sending some in to the BAR-D website and shared a few with friends and family. But going to Elko really sent me on a new adventure. I loved every minute of what I saw and heard there. My heart was just grabbed by the warmth and spirit of the whole experience. I think I knew when I left there that year that I wanted to be part of that. Because of each individual's perspective and experiences, we will never say all there is to be said about this most magnificent Western life. There is a payoff to this venture. At fifty-something years old, I learn something about myself every time I sit down and put pen to paper! It brings a lump in my throat now to tell you how proud I am to be an invited participant for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 2004! I hope the things I have to say there will do the Gathering justice. Thank you Elko. See you there.

And in 2004: I sure wish that I could share with you all the exciting details of my first performance in Elko, without writing pages and pages! What a thrill and an honor! After I received the letter that said "Congratulations! You are invited..." It suddenly struck me that I really had an obligation to do the very best job I could do when I got to Elko. I began thinking about performing from a whole different perspective.

My husband Ron and I arrived in Elko Wednesday morning and took my new CD to the Convention Center Store so they could get it out on the shelf. How proud I was to see it out there with all the others! I found my way upstairs to the office to pick up my packet and, yes, even that was exciting. Everyone was so kind and helpful. And how proud I was to wear that name tag.

Thursday morning's breakfast meeting made me nervous at first. I was absolutely star-struck! I sat at a table with young poet Alyssa Jane and her dad and Virginia Bennett seated Colen Sweeten in the chair next to me. What a nice man. I sure enjoyed talking with him. I am really on he shy side, so I just didn't have it in me to introduce myself to most of the other poets, but everyone was so friendly.

My first performance was the First Members show Thursday afternoon. What an experience! I was so proud to be there, that I was near tears. Lyn Messersmith and Ves Quinlan were there also and helped me feel more relaxed with encouraging words. I laughed afterward about the fact that I could see NO ONE in the audience from that stage and I wasn't prepared for that. I have been on stages in smaller theaters where I could see, at least, the first few rows, so that was a big surprise. I think I did OK for my first time.

Friday and Saturday I was in sessions in the Turquoise and Ruby rooms and I loved that. I was so lucky to share the "Women's Voices" stage with Lyn Messersmith and Georgie Sicking. The "All God's Creatures" session was right up my alley and I had fun with that. As with most anything I do, in hindsight I just know I coulda done better, but it was an event in my life never to be forgotten. I would love to do it again!


   Jim Cardwell: The first year I went to Elko, I expected poetry to flow my way on the drive there. It didn't happen. I was past expectation when I took a seat for  the first show I would see. As luck would have it, the poets were Wally McRae, John Dofflemyer, and Paul Zarzyski. I was familiar with Wally's poem "Hat Etiquette" as I pondered what to do with mine. 

The idea kept working around in my brain. Over lunch, I wrote it, then presented the first draft at an "Anything Goes" session that afternoon. What did I learn? Always keep your mind open, and never read an hour old first draft.

Read Jim Cardwell's poem, Sombrero, that came out of his that first visit to Elko.

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  Steve Dirksen: I have been paying attention to Elko since the late 80's, but never was able to go until the '03 show.  I wondered: What does it look like?  Is it freezing?  Who would I see?  So at the last minute in January my brother Mike and I made reservations for the big weekend.  We got the last room in a motel at the edge of town. And then we come barreling in Friday afternoon. We had tickets for Friday and Saturday. Yahoo! What was it like?  Just a little town full of folks.  Shows all over the place.  I knew it would be good when I spotted Waddie eating at the same place we did Friday night. And the best part was when I got to do an open mic there in town on Saturday.  It was a ball.  Glad we went. 



Send us your story about your first time in Elko. 


  News and More...  (most recent first; over time, some links may go out of date)


Listen to the Gathering cybercasts.

  A quilt made by Honored Guest Yvonne Hollenbeck is a part of the Silent Auction at the 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  You can view the quilt and other items that are a part of Item 4, "Casey Tibbs Collection," with items relating to the American rodeo icon right here.  There's a view of the quilt, and Yvonne says she included purple hues and the deep purple background because "Casey always wore purple and drove purple Lincoln convertibles."  Yvonne's an award winning quilter who has a popular traveling quilt show (and plenty of poetry about quilts). 

  Honored Guest Pat Richardson's drawings are featured throughout the program book for the 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  You can see some of them in the on-line program at their site, here. The drawings are included in Pat's great new book, Pat Richardson, Unhobbled, and we have a few right along with Pat's poetry right here.   

Mike Puhallo reports:

The Management Team from Kamloops Cowboy Festival is headed to Elko, Nevada

The rapid growth of the Kamloops Cowboy Festival has left the organisers with the kind of headache most grass roots festivals can only wish for. How do you manage an event that is growing by an average of 40% a year without destroying the intimate atmosphere on which your success is based?

What started out with a few dozen fans in the bleachers on a Thursday night at the Kamloops Bull Sale has grown to be the most prestigious cowboy culture event in Canada. The four day Kamloops Cowboy Festival had a paid attendance of more than 4,000 last year, and early ticket sales this year are running at nearly double last years pace. In addition to fans traveling from all over North America on their own, the festival has also began to attract bus tours with four buses confirmed so far for this year.

It will be eight years this March since we left the sawdust of the livestock sale ring behind and moved cowboy culture uptown. With the current rate of growth showing no sign of abating some fundamental changes will be needed over the next few years.

The BC Cowboy Heritage Society board has been wrestling with this issue for a couple of years and decided that it might be beneficial for our organizers to take a look at operations at North America's original cowboy gathering in Elko, Nevada. The Kamloops Cowboy festival has received an Arts and Culture Grant from Heritage Canada for the last 4 years and this year received an additional grant to fund travel by our board members to similar events to study options for continued growth. So on Wednesday, January 26, the management team from the Kamloops Cowboy Festival are climbing into a van for the 26 hour drive to Elko (we could have flown there, but us cowboys are a frugal bunch and the government didn't give us that much money!). It is hoped that a few days at the biggest cowboy poetry gathering in North America will give us some good ideas to incorporate into our future plans. We will also have the chance to cheer on Williams Lake's Official Poet Frank Gleeson as he will be performing at Elko.

The Elko Daily Free Press always has good coverage of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. One story about the Gathering's early days is here.

cpreunionbk.jpg (25377 bytes)   Virginia Bennett has edited Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, a volume published by Gibbs Smith in celebration of the 20th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

The book includes 75 poems by 75 poets, with BAR-D favorites such as Bruce Kiskaddon, Wallace McRae, Rod McQueary, Larry McWhorter, Darin Brookman, Jess Howard, Debra Coppinger Hill, Charles Badger Clark, Wylie Gustafson, Dennis Gaines, Howard Norskog, Dee Strickland Johnson, Jeff Streeby, Waddie Mitchell, Sally Bates, Buck Ramsey, Doris Daley, Colen Sweeten, Sunny Hancock, Red Steagall, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Rhoda Sivell, Robert W. Service, Chris Isaacs, Banjo Paterson, Andy Hedges, Pat Richardson, and many others.

Read our feature here, which includes Virginia Bennett's introduction and the complete table of contents.

The book is $12.95, available from Gibbs Smith, Amazon, and other booksellers.  

whjan04.jpg (201174 bytes) The January, 2004 issue of Western Horseman includes an article by Sally Haueter of the Western Folklife Center, called, "20 Years in Elko," accompanied by a full-page photo of our Special Guest and everybody's favorite Red Steagall, photos of others, and mention of the new book, Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, edited by Honored Guest Virginia Bennett.  The book will be officially released at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. 

Pagesjan04.jpg (51035 bytes)  The January 2004 issue of Pages magazine, "the magazine for people who love books" includes and article by Kathleen Conroy (she wrote an article about "Cowgirl Poets" for USA Today in 2003) about the women of the 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, "Poem on the Range."  She quotes Western Folklife Center program manager Sally Haueter, "...the women have always been a strong presence since the first Elko gathering..." and mentions that this year at Elko the female poets range from our pard Alyssa Jayne, who is 11 years old, to 80-something Georgie Sicking.  Our Honored Guest Virginia Bennett is pictured and quoted, and the book she just edited, Cowboy Poetry:The Reunion, gets notice.  

Official press release from the The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Elko:


ELKO, NV (Aug 27, 2003) For two decades cowboys, ranchers and lovers of the western lifestyle have been convening in Elko, Nevada to recite and listen to Cowboy Poetry. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko will celebrate its 20th anniversary, January 24 – 31, 2004. In the spirit of celebration the Western Folklife Center will bring back poets and musicians who were featured in the very first Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985. To honor the history of the poetry of horseback culture the WFC will host a special exhibition of poetry, gear, and artifacts in The Lingo of Our Calling. There will also be a special Wednesday night symphony, one of many collaborations to come out of twenty years of Gatherings. In addition, this year’s Gathering will showcase the nomadic herdsmen of Mongolia with special evening concerts, cooking demonstrations and an exhibition of Mongolian artifacts, curated by the WFC and hosted by the Northeastern Nevada Museum. Tickets go on sale September 2nd to members of the Western Folklife Center and on October 2nd to the general public.

Highlights of the 20th NCPG include:

Western Folklife Center Founding Director Hal Cannon states that although the organizers of the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering didn’t know it at the time, "1985 was ripe for ranching culture to claim its own story, to find the touchstones of its culture. Always before cowboys had allowed their story to be told publicly by others – songwriters, scriptwriters, novelists – but increasingly that story, told in popular culture, became a monolithic Arthurian myth, far from the breadth of the real life." It was the first Gathering that let the working cowboy share his poetic voice and musical song, and it was those first brave cowboys who stood on the Elko Convention Center stage that helped start the grassroots movement of cowboy poetry events across the nation. This year the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is bringing back some of those cowboys to let them share their stories again. Purchasers of the three-day guest pass will have the opportunity to hear these poets in daytime sessions January 29 - 31, 2004.

The Cowboy Symphony is scheduled Wednesday, January 28 at the Elko Convention Center and features The American Buckaroo Orchestra conducted by Kory Katseanes, along with the rich, burnished vocal blend of the Sons of the San Joaquin, and the traditional sounds of cowboy musician Michael Martin Murphey. Also joining the symphony will be Don Edwards, cowboy balladeer, and Waddie Mitchell, cowboy poet and spinner of tales. These famed artists have played special arrangements of cowboy songs with symphonies all across the United States. For this one night only they are pulling together to present "the best Cowboy Symphony yet!"

The nomadic herdsmen of Mongolia represent what is perhaps the last real horse-based culture in the world. Renowned for their horsemanship and animal husbandry, they rely on their vast grasslands for grazing and livelihood.

They have much in common with horse and cattle cultures in other parts of the world, including the American and Australian cowboy. On Monday, January 26 at 7pm join visiting Mongolians as they perform alongside our visiting Australians Janine Haig and John Best. They perform again on Saturday, January 31 at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, this time with Americans Henry Real Bird and Paul Zarzyski. Both shows will be at the Western Folklife Center’s G Three Bar Theater.


The Western Folklife Center, 501Railroad Street in Elko, will host an exhibit honoring the history and creative inspiration of cowboy poetry. The opening reception for The Lingo of Our Calling will be Thursday, January 29 at 5pm. The Northeastern Nevada Museum and the WFC have joined to curate the exhibit Mongolian Horseman to be held at NNM, 1515 Idaho Street. The exhibit will feature artifacts of the nomadic Mongolian herdsmen, including horse gear, a typical home (ger), photographs, musical instruments and other cultural artifacts.


This year’s event will include performances by Baxter Black, cowboy poet extraordinaire; Eddie McAlvain & the Maverick Western Swing Band, Western Swing Hall of Fame inductees; Red Steagall, poet and singer of the western prairie; Waddie Mitchell, spinner of tales; Skip Gorman & his Waddie Pals, performers of old-time cowboy songs; Oscar Auker, 11-year-old aspiring cowboy and poet; The Hot Club of Cowtown, "Bob Wills meets Django Reinhardt brand of swing music," and many, many more!


Workshops held throughout the week offer something for everyone. Ranch women will demonstrate how to cook a meal to please any hungry worker. Local Basque residents will share their skills in cooking the perfect appetizers and desserts. Folklorists and storytellers will teach how to turn memories into exciting forms that others will want to read. Instruction on how to forge your own trivet, fireplace set, or window grill will be given in a blacksmithing workshop. In the rawhide braiding workshop, participants will learn the art of braiding rawhide hobbles.

Tickets to this year’s Gathering can be obtained by calling the Western Folklife Center ticket office at 775-738-7508 or 888-880-5885. Most daytime events are open seating and require a Day Pass or three-day Guest Pass. An Advance Guest Pass costs $35 ($45 after December 23, 2003) and includes a special commemorative program book and pin. Single Day Passes cost $15 (program book must be purchased separately).

For more information, call the Western Folklife ticket office at 775-738-7508 or 888-880-5885, or visit our website at www.westernfolklife.org for an in-depth look at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and this years participants.

Western Folklife Center operating support comes from a combination of earned income, contributed income and public sources. Over 1,200 members located throughout the United States and several foreign countries support the WFC. Additional funding comes from local businesses, individuals, foundations and government organizations. Prominent supporters include the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Wallace Foundation, the R. Harold Burton Foundation, the Dick Burton Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the William Randolph Hearst Foundations, George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundations, the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, Anne Pattee, George Gund III, International Game Technology, James Irvine Foundation, Bill and Sally Searle, Sue and Wes Dixon, Trust for Mutual Understanding and many others

Western Folklife Center
501 Railroad Street
Elko, NV 89801


Among the scheduled participants are: Virginia Bennett, Baxter Black, Don Edwards, Janice Gilbertson, Alyssa Jayne, Ray Lashley, Wallace McRae, Waddie Mitchell, Red Steagall, Colen Sweeten, J. B. Allen, Frank Gleeson, Peggy Godfrey, Alice Hancock, Brenn Hill, Linda Hussa, Don Kennington, Michael Martin Murphey, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Glenn Ohrlin, Tom Russell & Andrew Hardin, Georgie Sicking, Andy Wilkinson...and others. 


  The Programs -- from 1985 to the present

With thanks to Western Folklife Center Archivist Steve Green, we're listing the contents, including the invited participants, from past program books, 1985-to the present. View that information here.

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