About This Festival
“Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam.
Where the deer and the antelope play,
where seldom is heard, a discouraging word
and the skies are not cloudy all day."
“Home on the Range,” to those in the know the state song of Kansas, is a classic example of cowboy poetry. It was a poem by Daniel Kelly long before it was put to song by his good friend Dr. Brewster Higley, to national acclaim. As improbable as it sounds, cowboys love poetry almost as much as they love their horses (which also means there are a lot of poems about horses). Long rides, wide open plains—combined with a lot of alone time for reflection and a love of storytelling—has turned roughnecks into a surprisingly sensitive group of heartfelt artists. Much like other poets, they write poems as a tribute to what they love or have lost. And thousands of cowboy poets gather in Elko, Nevada every year at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to listen to and recite poems of the West. But it’s not limited to poetry: fine art and musical performances as well as open mikes and workshops for aspiring cowboy poets are available all week long for ticket holders. It’s the artsiest group of cowboys you might ever imagine—friendly folk, too.
The Cowboy Poetry Gathering began in January 1985, when a small group of folklorists and poets congregated to share their work. It’s evolved into an internationally renowned event regarded as the “most honest and open hearted festival in America.” According to cowboy poet scholar David Stanley, cowboy poetry started when post-Civil War trail drivers (i.e. cowboys) mixed traditional British balladry with the form of classic Victorian poetry, using these wellworn lyric traditions to form their own reallife experiences on the trail (with a small amount of hyperbole, of course). As Stanley says, “Cowboys are great readers,” and their poetry is a way of processing everything they take in, on the trail and in life.
Pickers, Grinners & Poets-in-Training
You get the real deal at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering: cowboys (and cowgirls) who live the life and have the verses to tell it. Over the course of the week, you’ll find pickers ’n’ grinners, bluegrass orchestras and good ol’ fashioned storytellers holed up in every available square inch of Elko. Past performances include the energetic western swing of the The Saddle Cats, Al Simmons’s one-man prop show and Cowboy Celtic, featuring a poet who is the “Yo Yo Ma of mandolin players.” There’s something for everyone, and when you’re ready to explore beyond the bounds of the gathering, Elko offers plenty of simple, unadorned frontier beauty.
They say every poetry lover has a bit of the poet in him, and the Cowboy Poetry Gathering has lots of ways to bring it out. Whether you’re honing your chops or just eager to learn more, there’s an abundance of workshops available every day (like the popular yodeling class, barbecue cooking class and twostep dancing lessons). In the evenings, you can attend a multitude of readings and performances at the G Three Bar Theater or hit up the Pioneer Saloon for an oldtime piano serenade and a nightcap. Although most of the action centers around the Western Folklife Center, the Elko Convention Center and the Flag View Intermediate School Auxiliary Building are also busy with activity, especially as you close in on the final weekend’s events. During the week of the gathering, many businesses in Elko sponsor cowboy themed events, open mikes, or postparties for attendees.
Global Gathering with a Small Town Feel
Though focused on the cowboys of the West, this gathering has united cowboys of the world, drawing Argentine gauchos and Italian butteri from Tuscany. With all this manly talent it’s no wonder Glamour Magazine once called this roundup one of the ten best places in America for a woman to find a real catch — you know, the rugged yet sensitive and poetic type.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and introduce yourself. Everyone is there to share and have a good time. You will be pleasantly surprised by the downhome hospitality, and if you play an instrument, even better. Bring your guitar, fiddle, dinner triangle or what-have-you on down to the saloon and make some friends in a spontaneous cowboy jam and be prepared to drink some whiskey. It’s a great opportunity to delve into the cowboy lifestyle through those who do it for real. What you’ll notice, however, is that even “real” cowboys are hopeless romantics, seeking a life as thrilling as the one we imagine cowboys living.
From the Organizer
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, exhibits, conversations, food and fellowship, rooted in tradition but focused on today’s rural West. The Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering began 32 years ago as a place where Western ranchers and cowboys could come together to share poems about their lives working cattle. From the beginning, it was clear these men and women had found their tribe, an artistic community that few knew existed. Three decades later, the tribe has grown to a small nation of Western poets, musicians and storytellers, performing across the country, sharing their stories of hard work, heartbreak and hilarity, and what it means to make your way in the rangeland West. The Elko Gathering was renamed the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering thanks to an act of Congress. Known simply as Elko to many, the Gathering embraces its role as a pilgrimage destination for thousands of ranch folk and others who love the West and come to learn and experience art that grows from a connection to the rhythms of earth and sky. Join us in Elko to celebrate the arts and cultures of the American West.