On stage, a cowboy decked out in his best boots and Stetson is wrapping up a rib-tickling poem about chasing the neighbor’s bull away from his herd of purebred heifers. The next performer cradles a battered old acoustic guitar as she stands ready to take her place on stage. And you … well, you’re wearing a smile a mile wide as you enjoy the performances at your first cowboy poetry gathering.
This year, more than a hundred cowboy poetry gatherings will be held on college campuses and in community centers, coffee shops and theatres, around campfires and in rodeo arenas in nearly every state west of the Mississippi. You’ll find numerous annual events in traditional cowboy states such as Texas, South Dakota, Utah, Nevada and Montana, as well as gatherings in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. If you live in the south, there’s even an annual Southeastern Cowboy Gathering in Cartersville, Georgia.
Many cowboy poetry events are free to the public. At the annual Chadron State College Cowboy Poetry Gathering in northwest Nebraska, for example, you can enjoy an entire afternoon of free performances by as many as 15 cowboy poets and musicians, then attend a show by a headline entertainer that evening for as little as $10 per ticket.
Cowboy poetry is an oral folk art that’s been around since after the Civil War, when trail drivers bringing herds of Texas longhorns north to the Kansas railheads swapped stories and tall tales around the campfire at night. By the 1900s, the public began buying books of cowboy poetry written in meter and rhyme by pioneer cowboy poets such as Arthur Chapman, Larry Chittenden and Badger Clark.
Cowboy poetry kicked into high gear in 1985, when the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Elko, Nevada. Today, thousands of visitors flock to this northeastern corner of Nevada each January to see dozens of the nation’s top cowboy poets and musicians, including superstars such as Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell and Don Edwards, perform during a three-day celebration.
Most cowboy poetry gatherings also feature cowboy musicians and singers who perform original songs as well as old favorites. Some of the larger events feature performances by top groups including Riders in the Sky, Wylie and the Wild West, and the Prairie Rose Wranglers. But local and regional shows like the Missouri Cowboy Poetry Festival in Mountain View, Missouri, also include impressively talented performers like Bob Miller, a singer/songwriter from Denton, Texas, with a voice as big as his home state.
Today, several hundred cowboy poets can be found around the country, many of whom perform at local celebrations and fund-raising events, and at nursing homes, schools and libraries. You’ll find examples of their work, and a full year’s listing of cowboy poetry gatherings nationwide, at www.CowboyPoetry.com. The Web site is a project of The Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry, a not-for-profit organization that, in 2002, declared the third full week of April as Cowboy Poetry Week.
Whether you’re enjoying the show from a folding chair on a college campus, seated around a campfire, or attending a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, cowboy poetry is a uniquely American art form that entertains, amuses and reminds us of our rural heritage.