Benefit for Joel Nelson
JOEL NELSON BENEFIT AT ELKO, 2002
Report by Virginia Bennett
Cowboypoetry.com asked me to write and describe the benefit held Thursday night at the recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. This event was held to raise money to help with medical bills incurred by cowboy and poet Joel Nelson of Texas.
To understand the program, first you have to understand who Joel is. I can’t say that I really know, but I will share what I have learned in the 12 years since I’ve made his acquaintance at Elko in 1990.
First of all, Joel is respected as a cowboy’s cowboy. He knows the work and handles horses and cattle with a gentleness of spirit. I recall years ago, his then-wife, Barney Nelson, published an article about Joel and how he works cattle. There were photos of Joel all alone, no dogs, just he and his horse without benefit of panels or working pens, out in the middle of a Texas pasture, loading a bull into a trailer. No ropes, no yelling, just quietly taking his time and convincing the bull that it was much better inside the trailer than out in the herd with beautiful cows.
Joel and I served together on the steering committee at Elko one year, and flying back to Salt Lake City, I asked Joel about his way of working with cattle. He confided to me he’d much rather work cows alone, that if someone were to be with him, they would not have the patience to steadily, slowly, quietly work the way he does. I would have to agree.
Amongst contemporary cowboy poets, there is a complete respect for a man named Buck Ramsey. Buck was one of a kind, and we all know there will never be another one. He knew the work, he had the heart, and he could write better than a million, widely- published poets or authors.
Buck wrote an epic poem called “And as I rode out in the morning,” and the prelude to the poem was a piece that instantly became a classic. It is called “Anthem.” Joel says that when he first heard “Anthem,” he had to memorize it and recite it. I think the poem owned Joel, and I think the poem belongs to him, as well. Personally, I don’t think anyone else should present “Anthem” while Joel is around to do it. Call it narrow-minded of me, but why fix what ain’t broke.
Buck passed away a few years ago, and we all mourned his loss. He was the father and friend of contemporary poetry in a classic style. He could not be replaced. But in our hearts, we needed another such a one worthy of our respect. I don’t mean we needed to stand in awe of anyone or put anyone on a pedestal. It just feels good to know that there is someone to carry on the purity of the well-crafted, cowboy poem. It’s a heavy mantle to bear.
And it falls to Joel to bear it. And he carries it well.
Last year, Joel was presenting a colt-starting clinic when a big, raw-boned Thoroughbred colt stomped him in the face, both feet. All who heard of it took a deep, ragged breath. It could have happened to any of us. Should have happened to us. But, dang, it had to happen to Joel! Of course it did. You work that many colts, the odds are against you.
The event left Joel with every bone in his face broken, I was told. I’m sure there was a lot of damage I didn’t hear about, but Joel was what we all thought he was...tough to the bone, and he survived. He doesn’t blame the horse. He can still recite a multi-page poem. We dodged the bullet on that one.
Paul Zarzyski and Gail Steiger, poet and singer/songwriter respectively, are both close friends of Nelson and decided to put together a jam session of sorts to benefit Joel, help him pay those medical bills. Joel would have done the same for any of us. So, they proposed a show at the Western Folklife Center that would begin at 11 pm. Each artist would pay $10 to perform one piece which had to be one never before done at Elko. And the audience was along for the ride, each paying $10 to watch and listen.
I would say that night was a pure, cowboy smorgasbord, with every performer at the Gathering there to participate or at least, listen and enjoy. Baxter Black offered up his new poem about a vet trying to make sensible ends meet by going into the sideline of a taxidermy business, using the carcass of an unfortunate first-calf heifer.
New West, a great cowboy band from southern California, left the audience with sides aching with their “Remember Song,” with Dave Jackson on lead vocals. Dave told me later he found that song on an old Chuck Pyle album, and had never heard a song that circled back around like that one does. It starts out: “I’m lookin’ for my wallet and my car keys...” and don’t we all relate to short term memory loss!
Poet Mike Logan of Montana read his newest poem about Indian place names, and received enthusiastic responses. R.W. Hampton proved that cowboys don’t just play cowboy songs when he sang an old Eagles’ hit (“Peaceful, Easy Feelin’), a song he used to sing around the campfire when he was a working cowboy in New Mexico.
Ian Tyson, Tom Russell and their bands, all eagerly presented their tunes. Host Paul Zarzyski began to up the ante, saying that musicians would have to pay $20 per song for the privilege.
Lorraine Rawls of Oregon, along with her band, presented a laughable song and Joel himself recited an epic poem about the last horse standing at the Little Big Horn. Don Edwards took the stage, blessing us all with his quality tone of voice and throaty notes from his custom-made, Santa Cruz guitar.
Poet after poet after musician after singer eagerly waited hours to take their turn. Some of them knew Joel well. Some did not know him at all. But that night, they were all his friends.
I was personally touched by Michael Martin Murphy, who signed up late, waited his turn like anyone else, and finally took the stage at 1:00 am. Much of the audience had already left, but Michael sang with gusto his revolutionary song, “Range Rebels,” a great piece holding ranchers somewhat accountable if their land is taken away from them.
I left soon after Michael sang, but I hear the show went until 4 am or so. More than anything else, this singular event reveals the familial feeling that participants and audience members to the Elko gathering share. If one falls down, we all stoop to help lift him up. I hate to repeat a hokey-sounding and too often-said phrase, but to help out our neighbor and friend, it does seem like it was the “cowboy way.”
Lauralee Northcott and Virginia Bennett
Read more about Virginia Bennett and read a selection
of her poetry here at the BAR-D.
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