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Sierra Vista (Arizona) February  

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February, 2008
16th Annual Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering  Sierra Vista, Arizona

  Reports by William Merritt

  and Les Buffham

  photos by Lori Faith Merritt,
photo by April Visell


  Report by William Merritt 
photo by Lori Faith Merritt 

There are so many amazing things to see and do in Arizona. According the magazine Arizona Highways (think of it as a National Geographic for Arizona), one of the top 25 things to do while you are in the Grand Canyon State is the Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering . The festival has been held in Sierra Vista for sixteen years now. On the first full weekend of each February you can experience some of the finest talent in the world of western poetry and music.

This gathering is distinctive for many reasons. This year the Sierra Vista Arts and Humanities Commission selected the Cochise County Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival as the recipient of its 2008 Humanities Award for the positive impact it has on the community. Also, the City of Sierra Vista and the Convention Bureau really get behind the event. As performer Peggy Malone noted, “It is the best. I have never seen such a welcome! The signs on the street, the banners, everywhere you turn…it’s wonderful!”

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Gathering Co-Chair Steve Conroy and Peggy Malone

This recognition is driven by the community’s involvement at large, but also because of the Western Heritage Program in the local schools. This program encourages awareness of Western history and values through the arts of poetry and song. The students are encouraged to compete in poetry and music contests. Winners are awarded scholarship savings bonds and have the opportunity to perform their pieces during the main stage performances during the weekend.

The volunteers, the community and its schools create a showcase for the some of the best poets and musical performances reserved for the Western genre. On February 1-3, 2008, thousands gathered in Sierra Vista, Arizona to listen, to laugh, to ponder and to tap their toes at the Buena Performing Arts Center.

Friday night’s line-up of headliners started with Liz Masterson who brings a rare breadth and depth of talent wherever she performs. Following Liz Masterson was poet and humorist Dennis Gaines. Dennis commented after his performance, “I think it’s a fine gathering, myself. But I question the judgment of any gathering that would actually have me as a participant.” Still, it’s safe to say that by the way he had the crowd roaring with laughter, he’ll be back at the gathering!

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Dennis Gaines

Student Poetry Contest Winners, Jeannell Hilton, Caitlin Rodd, Laura Wheat, and Erica Zaborac presented their works to a near- capacity crowd. Anyone who wonders if the "Heart of the West" is instilled in our youth will be happy to know that it is in good hands.
After a break, Arizona’s own The Desert Sons took the stage and filled the theater with (to quote their website) “a sound as honest as a good horse and as bold as an Arizona sunset.” They were followed by poet and rancher’s wife Bunny Dryden from Thatcher, Arizona. The outstanding guitar work and songs of Jim Jones were followed by Van Criddle, who brought his ranching heritage and love of the west to the stage, accompanied by his wife Kathy. Tucson's Due West Trio capped off the night’s entertainment with their brilliant harmonies, original songs and arrangements.

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Bunny Dryden


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Jim Jones

The next day, the start of the event’s schedule ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with free performances by a broad choice of performers (listed at the end of this article) in the Buena High Schools many rooms and side theaters. Kept away from the strong winds and cold, hundreds of people enjoyed samplings of the best in Western poetry and music.

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,

Jon Messenger and William Merritt at a jam session

Saturday night at the Buena Performing Arts Center could not have been started off better than Jean Prescott and followed by poet Sam DeLeeuw. Student Poetry Contest Winners Allison Gunsch, Camille Jones, Yvonne Montano and Amanda Wheat followed and delighted everyone with their work and presentation. Back at this gathering were the exquisite Daughters of the Purple Sage, followed by Shad Pease who definitely confirmed what Rex Allen had to say about him as being, “one of the finest and funniest cowboy poets I’ve seen.” Next was Andy Hedges from Lubbock, Texas, the always-charming Nona Kelley Carver and the incomparable talents of Trails & Rails.

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Joyce Woodson

Headline artist Joyce Woodson started off the Sunday concert with selections from her definitive album, If I Hadn’t Seen the West. Rolf Flake was next and brought his rich ranching heritage, to everyone through his poems and gentle humor. Student Poetry Contest Winners Evett Ayala, Jaclyn Reid and Kacy Sandlin entertained us with their pieces and outright bravery to be out on the stage in the first place! Musicians Ken & Lyn Mikell brought a unique sweetness and mastery of their craft to the stage. Dennis Gaines once again got everyone laughing and even kept it proper for a Sunday! The Desert Sons returned to the Main Stage to cap off the gathering with their exemplary talents.

The Cochise Cowboy Poetry & Music Gathering is already booked for February 6-9, 2009 so start your plans to attend now. Arizona is always a great place to enjoy the best of cowboy culture and the love of the American West but once you come, you’ll see for yourself why others keep coming back to this growing event and call it one of the best not only for Arizona but anywhere! For more information on the gathering, visit and for see the image galleries of the gatherings official photographer, Lori Faith Merritt, go to to the proofs and prints page.


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Mike Moutoux, Mike Dunn, and Jay Snider


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
"Buckshot Dot" (Dee Strickland Johnson)


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,

Liz Masterson and Jean Prescott


Here is a list of the performers:

"Buckshot Dot," Allen "Hook" Hill, Andy Hedges, Bud Strom, Bunny Dryden, Daughters of the Purple Sage, Dean Cook, Dennis Gaines, Desert Sons, Due West Trio, Eldon Housley, Elliott Family, Gail Starr, Gregory Scott, Jack DeWerff, Jan Choate, Jane Morton, Jay Snider, Jean Prescott, Jim & Nancy Sober, Jim Dalglish, Jim Dunham, Jim Jones, Joel Eliot, Jon Messenger, Joyce Woodson, Katy Creek Band, Kay Kelley, Ken & Lyn Mikell, Ken Graydon, Kerry Grombacher, Larry Harmer, Liz Masterson, Mary Abbott, Mike Dunn, Mike Moutoux, Nona Kelley Carver, Peggy Malone, Rhonda Stearns, Rolf Flake, Sam DeLeeuw, Shad Pease, Steve Conroy, Steve Lindsey, Sue Harris, Tim Nolting, Tony Norris, Trails & Rails, Trey Allen, Van Criddle, Washtub Jerry, and Way Out West.

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Shad Pease and Sam DeLeeuw


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,

Peggy Malone



See many more photos at Lori Faith Merritt's site:

Report by Les Buffham
photo by Jack Hummel


The 16th Annual Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering started off with a bang on Thursday, the last evening of January, at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona. All the artists who had signed up to perform at area schools were on hand and stepped on stage to give a one piece sampling of their talents. Sierra Vista’s own Jon Messenger furnished and engineered the sound as well as giving a stellar performance himself. The gathering’s co-chair Steve Conroy served as emcee and was in his usual fine form as well.

The Friday night show in the auditorium at Buena high school was a near sell out as well as all of the main stage performances throughout the weekend. Once again the highlight of each featured performer show was presentations by the student poetry contest winners. Steve Conroy stated that there were over two thousand poems submitted from area schools to the judging panel. What a job!

Those kids are by no means great performers as yet but imagine the courage they all had to muster up to face a full auditorium. They did it and all did it quite well, not one forgetting their lines! Hats off to them, the folks who encouraged them and furnished the venue!

For our reader’s information I will list all of the performers that were there just so you can see what a terrific line up they had.

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Kathy and Van Criddle

Some that came the farthest were Dennis Gaines from Kerrville Texas, Van Criddle and wife Kathy from Eugene Oregon, the long-lost Shad Pease, now from Corvallis Montana. and Kerry Grombacher from New Orleans, Louisiana.


photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Shad Pease

That Dennis Gaines can spit out more words in thirty seconds than an auctioneer can numbers in an hour. I don’t know how he does it but he can make you understand them, too!

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Dennis Gaines

Featured Performers were:

Nona Kelley Carver
Kathy and Van Criddle
Daughters of the Purple Sage
Sam DeLeeuw
The Desert Sons
Bunny Dryden
Due West Trio
Rolf Flake
Andy Hedges
Dennis Gaines
Jim Jones
Liz Masterson
Ken and Lyn Mikell
Shad Pease

Jean Prescott
Trails and Rails
Joyce Woodson

Participating artists included:

Mary Abbott
Buckshot Dot
Jan Choate
Dean Cook
Jack DeWerff
Jim Dunham
Mike (Dunny) Dunn

Joel Eliot
Elliott Family Band
Ken Graydon
Kerry Grombacher
Larry Harmer
Sue Harris
Allen “Hook” Hill
Eldon Housley
Katy Creek Band
Steve Lindsey
Peggy Malone

Jon Messenger
Glenn Moreland & Washtub Jerry
Jane Morton

Mike Moutoux
Tim Nolting
Tony Norris
Kay Kelly Nowell
Gregory Scott

Jay Snider
Jim and Nancy Sober
Gail Starr
Rhonda Stearns

Bud Strom
Lyle Suttill
Way out West

Special recognition was given in the gathering program to Buena High School librarian Mary Kohn designating her EDUCATOR OF THE YEAR.

The school poetry winners in the elementary division were:

Yvonne Montano
Jeannell Hilton
Evett Ayala
Allison Gunsch
Erica Zaborac
Kacy Sandlin

Winners in the High school division:

Amanda Wheat
Caitlin Roddey
Jaclyn Reid
Camille Jones
Laura Wheat

The gathering’s official professional photographer, Lori Faith Merritt was there for her third year to capture and preserve her candid views and imagery.

The nightly jam sessions at the Windemere Motel were jam packed. You had to be quick if you wanted to jump in there!

photo by Lori Faith Merritt,
Jon Messenger and William Merritt at a jam session

It was a grand event not lacking in organization and certainly did not suffer for talent or attendance in spite of being held the same weekend as Elko and the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Put this one on your calendar for next year, it is one of the best!!

To see Lori Faith Merritt’s image galleries from the gathering, go to and click on Proofs and Prints. For information on the gathering, visit


See many more photos at Lori Faith Merritt's site:



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