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I Am a Convert

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Wyoming radio host, emcee, and poet Andy Nelson comments on "competition," inspired by his experiences at the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo:

I Am a Convert

by Andy Nelson

A smile comes to my face as I remember the life lesson taught to me by a simple roadside sign. It was on an old dirt, two track road and it simply read, “Choose your rut carefully, you will probably be in it for the next 30 miles.”.The life lesson part came as I realized that we often choose paths that may trap is in a rut for a good part of our lives, and therefore I’ve tried to remain open minded to new things and still hold close the opinions I call my own.

So, when I first considered entering a cowboy poetry competition, my gut reaction was that cowboys expressing themselves in verse is not a competition and has no place in the cowboy lore...then I had to remind myself of a few basic things:

• a cowboy once stated that he could ride a bronc better than anyone else in the crew and thus saddle bronc riding competitions were born

• another cowboy bragged that he could rope and tie a calf better faster than anyone around and tie down roping contests got their start

• then some rancher said that he raised the best beef in the country and challenged any rancher to prove him wrong in the show ring

• another horseman boasted that the bloodlines in his remuda turned out the best working ranch horses in the world and the AQHA Congress judged the entries.

I came to the realization that there is no difference between these cowboys and the cowboy who believes he can write a verse or spin a yarn better than anyone. The only flaw in this theory is that there has to be an organization that levels the playing field and judges the contestants. Enter, the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, the only such organization, whose mission statement is “Excellence Through Competition.” Upon receiving the notice of a cowboy poetry rodeo, I saw the opportunity to show someone other than my family that I was a competent cowboy poet.

Certainly my poetry was good as the expert’s and I shouldn’t have any trouble taking their money, so I entered the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo with high expectations. My poor ego was sorely bruised after that first competition and I left with feelings of betrayal and animosity instead of a buckle and a paycheck. Surely the judges were mistaken and needed one more chance to recognize my brilliance, so I entered the competition the following year without changing a thing: my writing, presentation and demeanor were all the same... and the end result was the same. After the second year of crash and burn, I became more humble and more open to receiving advice. I spent the next years not participating, but learning from those who did. I went, I watched, I studied and I learned from those who competed, as well as from those who didn’t. I became a student of style, rhyme and meter. I had become teachable.

Now, cowboy poetry rodeos are not for everyone, just like bronc riding isn’t for everyone. But if you do decide to participate, perhaps you can learn from those who have gone before you with these simple tips:

Check your ego at the door: Everyone wants to win. Your poetry is like your children, it is bigger, better, faster, stronger and better looking than everyone else’s. Keep in mind, it is not you against them, it is how can we make each other better.

Do it for the right reason: The driving force behind entering a cowboy poetry rodeo should be the urge to better yourself through competition. If fame and fortune is what you seek, this is the wrong place to do it.

Close your mouth and open your mind: Learn to accept creative criticism in the spirit it is meant, as a way to help you hone your writing and performing skills. Learn, grow and improve from what others are teaching you.

Exorcize your own demons: We all have personal demons that retard our progress. Be they public speaking, competition, fear of rejection, whatever... learn to cope first, then dismiss them altogether.

Observe before you compete: Take some time to observe how these competitions work before entering. Familiarize yourself with the pace, mechanics and surroundings of the event until you are comfortable with the process.

• Ask the experts: Make sure you understand the rules. Ask the organizers to clarify anything you do not understand. Ask the judges about what points they will be judging you on. The only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask.

I can’t say that cowboy poetry competitions have changed my life, taken me to the summit or even given body to my dull, lifeless hair... but I have seen the light in a way. When it comes to writing, I dig deeper for content and meaning, I pay more close attention to rhyme and meter, and I nurture purpose and feeling in my performances. I am truly grateful to friends and associates who thought enough of me to share a kind critique periodically and also for a certain cowboy poetry competition that helped me drive out of a rut that could have been stuck in for the remainder of my life.

© 2009, Andy Nelson


Photo by Stuart Johnson


From Andy Nelson's web site, www.cowpokepoet.com:

As a second-generation farrier, Andy Nelson has the experience and the talents and humor to bring authenticity and entertainment to an audience. Raised in Oakley, Idaho, Andy traveled the Great Basin of southern Idaho, northern Utah and northern Nevada with his father on farrier jobs, from the time he was a child until he went off to college. While in college at Utah State University, he continued to shoe horses for the USU Horsemanship Program while studying in the Pre-Vet curriculum. He also spent many years working as a hand on a southern Idaho ranch, caring for cattle, from calving through selling and helped with the ranch's hay operation. Now Andy lives in Pinedale, Wyoming, where among other things, he and his wife Jaclyn raise horses and children.

Singer and songwriter Curly Musgrave has said this of Andy, "I'm intrigued and delighted by his connection to his material and audiences and how he puts just the right material to just the right audience. I've never seen him fail to engage a crowd...."

In 2006, Andy Nelson was named the Western Music Association's "Male Poet of the Year." He performs frequently throughout the U.S. and has been a featured performer at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, the Heber City Cowboy Poetry and Buckaroo Fair, the Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and other gatherings. He is a popular emcee as well, at shows across the West.

Andy Nelson has released three CDs of his poetry and humor, Full Nelson Shoeing, Land Mines, and Harvey's Moon, and has a book with an accompanying CD, RU Lazy 2? His work has been included in anthologies, including Wyoming's Cowboy Poets (Medallion Books) and The Big Roundup (New West Library) and on The BAR-D Roundup compilation CD (CowboyPoetry.com). In 2008, he collaborated with photographer Nikki Mann on the book, Jonah.

Andy and his farrier brother Jim co-host the "Clear Out West (C. O. W.) Radio" weekly syndicated radio show, and the brothers are in demand as announcers at regional rodeos. C.O.W. Radio, heard on 22 stations and the internet, spins the best of cowboy poetry and Western music, along with other regular features. The Nelson brothers were named "DJ's of the Year" by the Western Music Association and the Academy of Western Artists.

Read more about Andy Nelson and some of his poetry in our feature here.





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