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The Western Folklife Center's 27th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held at Elko, Nevada, January 24-29, 2011. Below we have reports, photos, links and more.

photo © 2011, Betty K. Rodgers
Western Folklife Center Executive Director Charlie Seemann and Archivist Steve Green
jamming at the Western Folklife Center's Pioneer Saloon.

Thanks to Janice Gilbertson, Jeri Dobrowski, and Smoke Wade for reports, and to Jeri Dobrowski, Smoke Wade, Betty K. Rodgers, and Bob Kisken for sharing photos.

Visit the Western Folklife Center's special Gathering web site for archived webcasts of events, performer bios and audio tracks, program information, and more.

The 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering program and poster featured the artwork of Hungarian painter Káplár Miklós (1886-1935), titled Itatás A Kettös Kútnál, or "Watering at the Double Well."

From the Western Folklife Center's information:

At the 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering we welcomed special guests from the Hungarian puszta, the largest contiguous grasslands in Europe, comparable to the pampas of Argentina or the Great Plains of the United States. The puszta is home to the legendary Hungarian horseman, or csikos, who has tended and defended his herds of horses and grey longhorn Hungarian cattle since the Magyars first crossed into the area of the Carpathian Basin over a thousand years ago.

Renowned for their horsemanship and animal husbandry, the csikosók have traditionally relied upon the vast grasslands of the puszta for grazing and livelihood. They have much in common with horsemen and cattlemen in other parts of the world, including the American cowboy. We will explore this common ground through conversations with Hungarian horsemen, performances of pastoral music and poetry, workshops, and an exhibition on Hungarian csikos and herding culture.


The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Smoke Wade's "A Pilgrimage"

Janice Gilbertson's "Writing, Reciting, and More; Workshops and Sessions"

Jeri Dobrowski's "Dakotas Spotlighted During 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering"

Deep West Videos

Between Grass and Sky; Buck Ramsey's "Anthem"

Links to Photos, Blogs, Videos, and More



The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
January 24 - 29, 2010


....Wide open spaces that fill me up and leave me feeling blessed
Oh, I could have lived any place in the world, if I hadn't seen the West...

                                                     from Joyce Woodson's "If I Hadn't Seen the West"

California singer and songwriter Joyce Woodson's (joycewoodson.com) words express the feelings of so many of those at the the Western Folklife Center's 27th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held at Elko, Nevada, January 24-29, 2011. She delivered her heralded song in a particularly good session on Friday, January 28th (listen to it here).

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Joyce Woodson

Ask five different people what the highlights of the gathering were, and you'll have as many different takes on the best music, the best poetry, best workshop, best demonstration, best exhibit, best jam session, and so on. The venerable event offers many rich opportunities.

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Waddie Mitchell at a hat-making workshop

Participants included Adrian, Amy Hale Auker, Baxter Black, Dave Bourne, Muzzie Braun, Jerry Brooks, Doris Daley, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie, John Dofflemyer, John Doran, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Leon Flick, Dick Gibford, DW Groethe, Linda Hasselstrom, Andy Hedges, Jessica Hedges, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Jess Howard, Mike Hurwitz, Linda Hussa, Ray Lashley, Ed Littlefield and Marley's Ghost, Bill Lowman, Corb Lund, The Marshall Ford Swing Band, Sid Marty, Gary McMahan, Wallace McRae, Chuck Milner, Waddie Mitchell, Rooster Morris, Michael Martin Murphey, Barbara Nelson, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Kay Kelley Nowell, Glenn Ohrlin, The Quebe Sisters, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, Rusty Richards, Pat Richardson, Randy Rieman, Sandy Seaton Sallee, Sean Sexton, Georgie Sicking, Jay Snider, Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong, Dave Stamey, Ian Tyson, Clarence Wager, Dick Warwick, Dan Wheetman, Andy Wilkinson, Cora Wood, Joyce Woodson, Wylie & the Wild West, and Paul Zarzyski.

photo © 2011, Bob Kisken
Michael Martin Murphey

Following are reports, photos, links and more that touch on the myriad of experiences to be had at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.



  by Smoke Wade

A Pilgrimage

It is possible to wonder what the attraction of Elko, Nevada in January was all about. Such was the case the week of January 24–29, 2011 during the 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering presented by the Western Folklife Center.

In 1985, when the first Elko Cowboy Gathering brought grassroots cowboy poetry to the stage, the organizers wondered if anybody would show up to listen to a bunch of old cowboys get up on stage and share their poems and stories. It was to be a one-time event, which was organized by a group of folklorists to gather and document cowboy stories, poetry, and song before the art form was lost to the world. Surprisingly, it was found the rhyming stories were, in fact, very much alive and, perhaps even more surprising, there were plenty of folks who wanted to hear these poems and songs of the cowboy. Perhaps it was something new for the media, or maybe it was just one of those celestial things where an event occurred at the right time and place. Whatever it was that occurred, the modern cowboy poetry gathering was born and the event organizers decided they would do it again in 1986. It was in this fashion that cowboy poetry became a household word and cowboy poetry gatherings began to spawn across the West.

Spin forward to 2011—a week of unseasonable sunshine and warm weather for northern Nevada. Thousands of people came to Elko from across the country and around the world, and they filled the hotels and motels to the limits. Regardless of the fact that Elko can be bitter cold and laced with winter weather that time of year, the crowds assembled in mass at the various event centers around town.

With daily workshops, demonstrations, western music and cowboy poetry programs and western art and gear shows at a half a dozen simultaneous venues, there was a plethora of activities to keep the crowds occupied. And around town there were a dozen other western entertainment shows at various casinos, art galleries and nightclubs to further enhance the Elko attraction. In addition, hundreds of cowboy poets and musicians came to town to be a part of it all—invited performers or not, they were there to contribute to the experience.

At the Elko convention center, while poetry venues were taking place in the Turquoise, Cedar and Gold rooms, Baxter Black or Waddie Mitchell might have been putting on a show in the main auditorium. Upstairs in the media room, Lora Minter and Darcy Minter—no relation to each other— busied themselves for long hours with the press corps. Across the street at the Flag View Auxiliary, musicians lined up for open mic opportunities. At the same time a show would be in progress at the G Three Bar theater downtown in the Western Folklife Center.

photo © 2011, Smoke Wade
Ramblin' Jack Elliott and North Carolina poet Keith Ward

With more than seventy-five invited poets and musicians, the event organizers had little problem keeping the entertainment varied and exhilarating. Added to the mix was cowboy blues music by Grammy Award winning, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sourdough Slim and Robert Armstrong, along with Hungarian horsemen and Geno Delafose and Rockin’ French Boogie. The frosting on the cake was the grand hospitality provided to all by the staff and volunteers of the Western Folklife Center.

photo © 2011, Betty K. Rodgers
Hungarian Gathering guests

Still, one could pose the question of what was the attraction in Elko during a January winter week? Certainly all the top-notch cowboy entertainment would suffice an answer. Yet, one had to step beyond the venues to capture the true essence of Elko.

Outside the event centers, performersamateur and seasoned professional alike, often joined by western entertainment fans, would gather in small groups to share stories, adventures and opinions. Around town at night, young cowboys and cowgirls from the feedlots of southern Idaho, the ranches of northern Nevada and the sagebrush country of Oregon would dance the night away in rowdy cowboy fashion. For a few days, Elko seemed to be a cow town of the old west. From eight to eighty, age seemed to offer no discrimination to either the audience or the cowboy entertainers.

But was it the music and the poetry that brought the lifeblood and tourist dollars to Elko that winter week in January? Was it the exceptional tribute to the work of Buck Ramsey’s Between Grass and Sky presented by Jerry Brooks, Andy Wilkinson, Andy Hedges, Joel Nelson, David Walker and Nik Hafermaas? The Buck Ramsey tribute certainly could have been awarded "Best of Show." [Listen to the Saturday morning show here.]

Or was it the Cowgirls Rock show presented by poets Jessica Hedges, Cora Wood, Yvonne Hollenbeck and Doris Daley? The answer to the question encompasses a far broader speculation.

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Young Wyoming ranch gal Cora Wood is a poet, singer, songwriter, and musician

The annual journey to Elko during a winter week in January for the last 27 years perhaps has become a pilgrimage for cowboys, cowgirls, western entertainment fans, folklorists, cowboy poets and musicians and all that share, one way or the other, in the cowboy lifestyle. The argument is strong that Elko is now sacred grounda kind of Mecca for the cowboy. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko is a place to share beliefs in lifestyle and values, to swap stories and yarns. It is a place for the cowboys and cowgirls of all ages to replenish their souls and rekindle the fire withina pilgrimage of kindred spirits.

After a week of laughter, friendship, little sleep, prime entertainment and tears, those who attended parted company to all directions of the windvowing to return, when they can, to what has perhaps become the greatest cowboy spectacle on earth, a pilgrimage of cowboys to their inner sanctum Elko!

© 2011, Smoke Wade

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Doris Daley finds a quiet spot one morning,
in the calm before the crowds.

  by Janice Gilbertson

Writing, Reciting, and More; Workshops and Sessions

The Western Folklife Center's 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering offered a remarkable opportunity to learn about writing from the best of the best. When I say writing, I mean all kinds: Poetry, songwriting, fiction and non-fiction, and any other which requires the art of creative thinking. Informative and inspiring, each workshop or forum was filled with knowledge that will surely be helpful to inspiring writers as long as their pens meet paper.

There was much to think about in Andy Wilkinson's workshop "The Creative Process (The Zen Of The Whole Enchilada)." Andy's easy-going way of teaching and showing—by his word lists and drawings—opened up a new way for me to think about creativity and how we can encourage the thought process that helps us "show" our readers all we wish them to see. Andy Wilkinson is an accomplished writer of poetry, songs, fiction and non-fiction. He is also a playwright and teaches his skills at University level.

The wise and delightful pair of women, Linda Hasselstrom and Nancy Curtis, whose knowledge fits together perfectly, gave a great workshop, "From Poem To Reader," to help participants understand the entire process of preparing writing for publishing.

Linda is a superb writer of prose. She has a splendid, original way of captivating with her stories and making readers feel like they know her places and characters personally. When she stands at the podium and delivers her stories, she takes us with her where she goes. She offers up her knowledge and a writing retreat at her beloved Windbreak House in South Dakota. What a privilege it would be to spend a week there!

Nancy shared with us all the ins, outs and ups-and-downs of the publishing world. There is much to know and she has edited and published long enough to know the ropes.

We learned that it is imperative for writers to learn what is expected of them when it comes time to send their precious words away to have a complete stranger evaluate their publishing worth. Nancy's advice will save writers time, trouble and, yes, heartache by helping us do it right the first time.

I was completely enthralled with Paul Zarzyski and Judy Blunt's session, "Readings." After they both read prose that deeply stirred our senses, they accepted questions about themselves and their writing. They are both wordsmiths who mince no words. They lay it all out there. They share the good, bad and ugly of it all, whatever "it" may be. They swept me away with the honesty of their words. I have come to believe that is what it takes to be a truly great writer.

At the "Art of Recitation" session, poets Jay Snider, Randy Rieman, and Paul Zarzyski talked about their individual ways of writing, memorizing and reciting the poems we all love to hear. Their ways of writing or memorizing were as different as the individual styles of their poems and their deliveries. Even though I write and perform, I am in awe of those who do it as well as these poets do. As an audience member, I have sat in wonder as I listened to the perfect timing and tone of the words in the poems these poets share with us.

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Master reciter, poet, and noted horseman Randy Rieman

I have often wondered what "voice" readers hear in one of my poems or stories if they do not know me or have never heard me read. That subject was touched on in several sessions I attended. Jay, Andy, Paul and Randy agreed that if that is the case, the reciter needs to read the poetry as many times as it takes to become comfortable with the voice that conveys the words best; you can't get everything any poem has to offer without finding the right voice for it.

And that leads me to the session with Joel Nelson, Andy Wilkinson, and Wally McRae, a lively discussion of free verse, rhyme and meter, and a wide range of other topics. The session theme was "Different Strokes—Form Meets Subject." There are poems I have come to know and love over the years, that I can only hear in certain poet's voices. I have only been able to hear Joel Nelson's voice when I read Buck Ramsey's "Anthem"although after viewing the beautiful film shown at the gathering, I may now add Jerry Brooks' and Andy Hedges' voices to thator his recitation of his poem, "Equus Caballus." That is also true of Randy Rieman's rendition of Henry Herbert Knibbs' "Where the Ponies Come to Drink" and Jerry Brooks' version of Knibbs' "The Walking Man." Those are just a scant few examples of the subject of finding the voices of the poems. The voice is the heart and soul of a great poem. It is worth taking the time to "find" it. The same is true for prose. Listen to Wally McRae read from his book, Stick Horses. Can you imagine any other voice reading from that book? I cannot.

I would like to thank the Gathering staff for offering the golden opportunity during the 2011Gathering to learn from the masters of the genre so many of us love. I hope there continues to be a trend toward the opportunity to learn the ropes of writing at future gatherings.

As I do every year, I drove home from Elko so inspired, I had to stop twice and write some notes to use at home. I shared with Doris Daley that I came home feeling like a "big bundle of words." Now I hope I can sort them out to be useful!

© 2011, Janice Gilbertson

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell, and Hal Cannon re-live the poets' appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (listen to the Friday afternoon performance here.)

  by Jeri Dobrowski

Dakotas Spotlighted During 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

In recognition of the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s upcoming silver anniversary, artists from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana were featured during the 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. “Dakota Humor,” a day session, played at the Elko Convention Center, while “Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering” filled the seats at the G Three Bar Theater in the Western Folklife Center.

photo © 2011, Jeri Dobrowski
Jess Howard, DW Groethe, Rodney Nelson, Linda Hasselstrom, Bill Lowman, Yvonne Hollenbeck at the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering session.

Founded by Sentinel Butte, North Dakota rancher, artist and entertainer Bill Lowman, the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering is one of the longest running spin-offs from the national event. It has been held annually in Medora, North Dakota, since 1987.

Known for turning out top saddle bronc riders, the Dakotas are likewise known for producing heavy hitters in the world of cowboy poetry and western entertainment. Which is exactly the point that Lowman set out to prove when he organized the gathering. He attended the inaugural event in Elko in 1985 and was certain there were others from the area who could and would share their works.

Teaming up with the North Dakota Humanities, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, and the North Dakota Department of Tourism, Lowman extended an invitation to bards and musicians from the region to share their poetry and songs. Held in the auditorium of the Medora Community Center over the Memorial Day weekend, an overflow crowd greeted the 20 or so artists who responded.

The guidelines were simple: anyone who wanted could get up and recite or sing. The only limitations were that the pieces needed to relate to cows, cowboying, ranching, or rural life, and you couldn’t go over your allotted time. Rookies and more polished performers entertained the crowd during the day; in the evening there was a night show at the Burning Hills Amphitheater. A sales table offered publications and recordings produced by the participants. Adding to the experience was a western art show and displays by artisans and craftsmen.

The formula was an overnight success.

The following year the event moved to the larger multipurpose room with seating for 500. After a few close calls with the weather, the night shows were moved to the community center. Beyond that, the format has remained pretty much unchanged.

Which brings us back to this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where artists from the Dakotas were spotlighted. Among the familiar faces invited to perform in Elko—and at other festivals and gatherings around the country—are several who consider the Medora gathering to be their gathering.

Making her home on a cattle ranch near Clearfield, South Dakota, Yvonne Hollenbeck says Lowman gave her her first job as a cowboy poet. Since then, she’s been honored as the outstanding Female Poet by the Western Music Association, and her books and CDs have also won acclaim.

Formerly from Marmarth, North Dakota funny man Jess Howard now hangs his hat in Wibaux, Montana. His deadpan delivery of poems co-written with his brother Pat Richardson keep audiences in stitches. He’s a regular in Elko and also performs regionally.

Rodney Nelson, Almont, North Dakota, attended the first gathering in Medora, all the while protesting what he wrote was “just junk.” He’s gone on to develop a successful career as a banquet entertainer and also pens a weekly column, Up Sims Creek.

DW Groethe, Bainville, Montana, had been writing poetry and music for years before he accompanied a friend to the Medora gathering. He came to listen that first year but has been performing since, including two appearances at the National Folk Festival.

With Lowman, Hermosa, South Dakota rancher Linda Hasselstrom rounded out the Dakota-Montana contingent at Elko. An award-winning author who hosts writing retreats on her ranch, Hasselstrom’s forte is free verse poetry. A poem of hers appeared on the back cover of the 2011 Gathering program.  

Lowman says his biggest satisfaction in ramrodding the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering is exposing a lot of good talent to the public who might otherwise have stayed home: “I’m glad to have gotten people like Rodney out sharing and preserving the heritage. It’s not just about the poetry, it’s raising awareness of cowboys in the Dakotas. So many people think we only have plowboys.”

© 2011, Jeri Dobrowski

A version of this article appeared in the Tri-State Livestock News

photo © 2011, Betty K. Rodgers
Elko County



The Western Folklife Center's Deep West Video project has been presenting "first-hand stories from the rural West rooted in the values of life on the land" since 2005. The project is further described, "... the Western Folklife Center has been working with people from throughout the rural west to produce short videos and slide shows about their lives on the land. Using the tools of digital communication, these home-made productions are simple yet elegant; they are not glossy and commercial, but from the heart."

The 2011 videos debuted at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and each can be viewed here on YouTube. Among the highlights: "It's Time for Dandelion Wine," by Madeleine Graham Blake, which features Miss "V" the Gypsy Cowbelle and her enchanting life; "Astronomers and Sheepherders," by Frank Kanig, about significant rock art of the southwest; "Honoring the Cowboys," Cheri Ann Cloudt's film about her great grandmother who documented her ranch life in pictures over 100 years ago; and "Last Lifetime Owner," by Leslie David Schwabacher, about the fate of a California family ranch.

Among poets and musicians who have contributed films to the project are Jane Morton ("The Edge of the Aquifer," 2009; "Branding," 2008; and "Turning to Face the Wind" 2007); Linda Hussa ("Life is a Four Letter Word" with other filmmakers, 2007; "Mothering in the West," with Madeleine Graham Blake, 2006); and Patty Clayton ("Ben and Ole's Land," 2008). Yvonne Hollenbeck's poem, "The Annual Christmas Program" was used in a 2006 film by the same name by Cheryl Turner.

Find more about the project and more links to all of the series' films here at the Western Folklife Center web site. DVDs of the films are also available.



photo © 2011, Bob Kisken
Dave Bourne entertains at the Western Folklife Center's Pioneer Saloon

Wyoming photographer Bob Kisken offers fifty of his
 candid photos for exhibit. Contact him at bkisken@hotmail.com 



One of the most commented-on sessions at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (commented on above by both Smoke Wade and Janice Gilbertson) was Between Grass and Sky, hosted by Andy Wilkinson.

The impressive film, Between Grass and Sky, was shown. It was produced by Jerry Dugan (FLF Films) and features top poets and reciters Joel Nelson, Jerry Brooks, and Andy Hedges reciting the late Buck Ramsey's "Anthem," the prologue to his master work, Grass. (The film begins with Buck Ramsey's voice.) The three reciters were on the program, and they also recited other Buck Ramsey works and other poems and shared reminiscences. Nevada Museum of Art Director David Walker and the film's eloquent director Nik Hafermaas also spoke.

The Nevada Museum of Art originally conceived and commissioned the work, and provided this description:

The poem Grass has impacted generations of cowboy poets throughout the American West. This audiovisual presentation features an original rendition of recitations by three renowned cowboy poets combined with a 1993 recording of Ramsey’s voice. Joel Nelson, a dear friend of Ramsey’s, owns and operates a ranch outside of Alpine, Texas. Andy Hedges, a young cowboy poet and musician, lives and works in Lubbock, Texas. Jerry Brooks, of Sevier, Utah, is one of the most respected reciters of Grass. Together, these poets’ voices pay tribute to the legacy of Buck Ramsey’s words and the universal themes they evoke.

The exhibit's artistic direction was by Nik Hafermaas, UeBersee Inc., Los Angeles.

The Nevada Museum of Art and the Western Folklife Center have produced a DVD of the film, Anthem; the prologue to Grass, which is available for $10 plus postage here at the Western Folklife Center Gift Shop.

You can listen to the Saturday morning show here at the Gathering cybercast site.


photo © 2011, Betty K. Rodgers

Elko County


Links to Photos, Blogs, Video, and More


     Official gathering photographer Jessica Brandi Lifland's "Saturday at the Gathering" photographs


   Norwegian journalist and photographer
Karin Haugen has an extensive article about the gathering and a gallery of dozens of striking photographs. The article (a pdf file here), with photographs and graphics is in Norwegian. The excellent photos can be viewed here. They include area ranchers, cowboys, the town of Elko, casinos, gathering performers and performances, people at the event, fashion, food, and more. Find more of her photography here.

       Jeri Dobrowski's growing gallery of Gathering photographs (find previous years' galleries as well)


     Artist and writer Teresa Jordan's blog entry, "The Truth of the Land"

     Poet and writer Linda Hasselstrom's blog entry, "I See by Your Outfit That You're Not a Cowboy"

     Poet, writer, and filmmaker Ken Rodgers' blog entry, "Leap of Faith"

     Rancher and poet John Dofflemyer's blog entry, "Elko "

       First-timer, artist and writer Shelley MacDonald's day-by-day blog entries