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This is page two of our report on the Western Folklife Center's 21st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

See the first page here.


The 21st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
January 22-29, 2005

continued from page one...

There are daily simultaneous sessions that last for an hour or so, and deciding which to attend is always a hard choice.  No one was disappointed in the "Plains Poetry" session that took place Friday, hosted by folklorist Jens Lund and featuring Bill Wood, DW Groethe, and Gwen Petersen.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Jens Lund, Bill Wood, Gwen Petersen, and DW Groethe

South Dakota cowboy Bill Wood told how he couldn't afford to come to the first Gathering in 1985, but made it in 1986, where he met his future wife, Jan Swann in a Ranching themed session. He delivered a touching poem about drought

The inimitable Gwen Petersen, Montana rancher, who was at the first Gathering, changed the mood considerably with her "Ticks," which she commented could be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Montana cowboy DW Groethe, introduced his zany "Talkin' Windy Blues" song saying that this time of year, where he's from, the air "it'll move on ya." The room came alive with his great performance.

Bill Wood came back with "Farrier's Revenge." He commented that "My wife reads, because she can, and I recite."

Gwen Petersen had what she called "a treat," announcing that she had been talking guitar lessons for two weeks.  She offered DW Groethe $50 to back her up, and it's not clear whether that is pain or humor on his face in the photo below. Her "Four Damn Dogs" and the accompaniment made for a particularly hilarious performance.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Gwen Petersen and DW Groethe

Groethe had his chance to come back solo, and delighted the audience with one his most popular songs, full of inspired writing, "When True Love Runs Thin." 

All three returned for another round or two of poems and songs, and the audience was glad to have experienced  "Plains Poetry."

There are a number of open sessions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and poets hurry to the Convention Center, early each morning, hoping to get a spot.

On Friday, Dick Morton , Jo Lynne Kirkwood, Jim Cardwell and others were in an afternoon session.  

Among the highlights:

Dick Morton gave a moving, impressive recitation of Henry Herbert Knibbs "So Long Chinook." 

Jo Lynne Kirkwood touched everyone in the room with her tale of "Ida's Bread," inspired by the loss of her mother as a child and the family members who raised her.

Jim Cardwell recited an impressive tale out of Iowa, 1842, about a snake.  That poem inspired session host Meghan Merker to regale the audience with a creepy and amusing snake story of her own.

You could hardly ask for a better comedic lineup than Pat Richardson, Rodney Nelson, and Chris Isaacs, and their "Pure Humor" show was just that (with a definite irreverence toward anything on "pure").

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Chris Isaacs

Session Host Warren Miller, organizer of the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering, introduced Pat Richardson with Baxter Black's quote about him, "If you boiled cowboy poetry down to what's worth saving, this is what the stew would smell like."

Richardson warmed up the crowd with one of his humorous stories, delivered with his customary deadpan expression. Next he set up North Dakotans and launched into one of his popular poems, "The Queen of North Dakota."  On stage, Rodney Nelson and Chris Isaacs were laughing as hard as the audience was.

photo by Linda Kirkpatrick
Rodney Nelson

Chris Isaacs followed "the cowboy Henny Youngman" with his own intricate, funny tale about the three cowboys who show up in heaven, weaving his stage mates into the story. 

In what became an I-can-top-that round robin, Rodney Nelson stood out.  He had the audiences in stitches with his introductions, jokes, and then a hilarious poem he said he sent Pat Richardson for his birthday, a humorous retaliation for the North Dakota poem, full of insults.  He even made Richardson break his deadpan, and Chris Issacs was enjoying it as well. 

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Rodney Nelson and Pat Richardson 

Richardson came back with a story from his rodeo days about Casey Tibbs, peppered with more North Dakota insults. It was a perfect introduction to his own windy "Duckin' the Law," which involves ducks in a car trunk, some wild escapades and fancy rhyming.

All three poets kept the humor at fever pitch throughout with jokes, poems and tales, most notably: Chris Isaacs with his "Wild Horse Race"; Rodney Nelson with "Good Clean Fun"; and Pat Richardson with "Only a Cowboy Knows," written with Yvonne Hollenbeck and featuring the phrase "cadavered up," which was interrupted by audience laughter countless times.

The happy audience, once again mostly Western Folklife Center members in this second Members Show, all left with smiles.

(You can listen to an audio cybercast of this show at the Western Folklife Center site.)

An early Saturday morning session was an unexpected feast of information and inspiration: a workshop called "So You Want to Be a Cowboy Star," with a panel that included Wylie Gustafson, Paul Zarzyski, Wallace McRae, Glenn Ohrlin, and Michael Fleming.  It was early for the panel, who had put in days and nights of entertaining and celebrating, and for the audience, who had attended those shows and also paid $5 each to attend.

The session got off to a deceptively slow start, with friendly banter among the panel, irrelevant jokes, and a few gems from Wallace McRae ("the number one thing is to be drop-dead handsome," "the ability to get an original thought" is most important) with retorts and more by Glenn Ohrlin.  The audience was amused, but they had come, many of them, with aspirations of someday being a part of such a panel or invited to the Gathering one day. Paul Zarzyski realized that and quickly stepped in, took charge, and put the session on track and held it there, throughout a free-wheeling hour or so of then-valuable exchanges.  He showed a sincere interest in getting his panel mates to give the audience what they wanted, and what followed was excellent advice, sometimes provocactive, from the panel of top thinkers and successful performers.

Michael Fleming advised performers to start out performing in manageable venues, and venues without a cowboy audience, to see if how they really hold a crowd. He suggested that performers should put themselves in adverse situations,  embrace criticism, and continually stretch their talents by learning new things. 

Paul Zarzyski, with refreshing honesty, explained to the gathered crowd that most of the top poets at the Gathering were writing long before the Gathering started, with "no where to go." He said it was hard for some of them to understand how someone could come to it without such a history, saying that Elko has created a lot of poets and singers who weren't involved in the genre before Elko.

Wylie Gustafson said that people should have a 10-20 year plan, and be prepared to deal with competition and with the 99% rejection that all performers encounter.  He also offered a comment that surprised some: he said that people who aren't cowboys, who don't live the life as he has, can have a valuable outsider perspective. He cited Zarzyski as an example. He also urged people to write for themselves, and told how it wasn't until he started doing that--after years in Nashville and Los Angeles, playing and writing music, but not the music he wanted to do--that he became satisfied and successful.

Wallace McRae related how back in 1984, it was proposed that the Gathering might be a competition, but that many participants were against that, wanting rather a sharing.  He commented that for the most part, lesser talents are winnowed out over time.

Michael Fleming expressed that writing was about the craft, and a passion for the art, not about "stars." 

Wylie Gustafson reminded people that the important thing is to "practice your craft." He advised people to avoid having an agent or a manager, saying that he more you can do yourself, the better. His wife still sends out their orders from their dining room table, and he commented that with the internet, it is possible now to reach a wide audience.  That caused Wallace McRae to say "CowboyPoetry.com, please stand up," thankfully putting aside his curmudgeon facade, at least for that moment.  

The panel was asked how many poets or even musicians were making a living from their craft, and they seemed to agree that only about 2% do.  Someone commented "You don't see any cowboy poets featured by casinos" (many of the area casinos feature western musicians during the gathering).

Comments came from the audience.  Poet Gwen Petersen mentioned the new Montana 4-H Spurrin' the Words" Cowboy Poetry guides, and spoke out against competitions for young poets.

In response to a question about "how long should you keep going to open mike sessions," poet Janice Gilbertson offered advice that was given to her by her friend and respected poet Virginia Bennett:  "Keep doing it as long as you are having fun, enjoy yourself."

Session host and Western Folklife Program Manager Sally Haueter told about how musicians and poets are chosen for the Gathering: a panel of three, a musician, folklorist, and poet, spend up to four minutes per person, rating the submissions on a scale of 1-5. She said that it was the hardest part of her job, and told the audience that the way they present themselves at all times is considered, and that negative, rude, competitive, or pushy behavior is not rewarded.

Wylie Gustafson said that he had been on the selection committee, and gave some feel for the task of considering 200 submissions, from which just 35 or so would be selected. 

Michael Fleming, songwriter, part of the popular band, New West, and organizer of the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, had come prepared with a handout with guidance for putting together promotional material and dealing with promoters and presenters, and he shared that handout with us:


So You Wanna Be a Cowboy Star
2005 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

by Michael Fleming

Survival Kit for Performer Submissions:

List of Venues Played
Quotes/Recommendations (1 page document)
Music Demos or Recordings
Stage Plot/Tech specs 
Song List (optional)
Web Site
E mail address
Business Cards
Phone (duh!)  

Bio material:

 Bio Forms

 You should have prepared and available:  

1.  A one page bio with details about your performing career that also defines your music or poetry. We don’t need to know your family history. Humor or whimsy is great but make sure we’re getting the story about what you actually are doing professionally. If you’re new on the scene it’s probably more important to stick to the facts. Visit other performer web sites to get an idea of what they are saying in their bios and then create your own. An identifiable logo helps but is not entirely necessary. Maybe a catchy phrase that identifies your sound or style. Have fun with it!

2.  A second shorter bio (50 to 100 words) that is usable as a press release or occasionally usable in program books

3.  A third, even shorter bio that easily inserts into a show program.

 All of the above makes the job easier for presenters, theaters etc.

 Make, not make up, a list of venues where you have appeared.

If you have press quotes or letters of recommendation or CD reviews include snippets from those on a separate “quote” page. You don’t need to have the entire article, letter or review. The key here is to inform quickly and succinctly.

Submit electronically

More and more producers and presenters are using and looking for Electronic Press Kits. That is…all of your promo material on a CD that you can mail to them. This has many advantages:

1.  Cheaper for you…it costs a lot less to send a CD than a promo folder.

2.  You can sometimes send these files via the internet and save postage and time.

3.  It can contain everything that you send in a folder like photos, song samples, bios etc.

4.  It takes up less storage space on the presenter end.

Note: Not all presenters work in this medium yet so ask first. Eventually, most will.



Very, very important!!!!!!!!

Spend the money the first time or you’ll end up spending it again. I don’t recommend that you have a friend of a friend’s great nephew do your publicity shots unless they are a professional or a REALLY good amateur. The photo is the first impression. In many cases I find myself looking at the photo while listening to the CD. It gives me a feel for the artist.  If you get it right the first time a good photo can last for several years. However, plan your budget so that you can do a new shoot down the road.

Have your photos done in color! You can always print in B&W. So can the presenter. But if you only have B&W and we have a color brochure you’re not helping us.

Convert or have someone help convert your photos to a digital file that you can store in your computer and copy to a CD. (See above). When we hire our acts we ask for photos. If we get hard copies it’s OK but remember that we and other presenters have to scan your photos to use in our program, brochure or web site. This can be expensive and/or time consuming.

A photo on CD is easy to work with. I can save it, E-mail it to our graphic designer or the press and he/she can insert it immediately. The information below is important to know because you want the proper size photo.

Photos (Electronic) 4” x 5” or 4” x 6” at 300 dpi./tif file or jpg file (color preferred)



NOBODY uses cassettes anymore. It’s time to come into the 21st Century..

If you’re new and/or don’t have the money for a good-quality CD recording of your material then spend the money for a good quality 3 song or poem demo.

Accept the fact that CDs are very expensive business cards (see above) until you really start rolling in bookings and selling product. They also tell the presenter that you are serious about your craft and business.


Web Site:  

Start thinking electronically.

Build a website or have someone do it for you. Make it clean, simple and user friendly.

Have all your bio material on the site so that people can download or copy it.

Photo files should be a manageable size so the receiver doesn’t grow old waiting for your material to download.

Refer people to your site as often as possible and set up links with as many people, festivals and/or performers as you can because the more “hits” you get, the easier you are to find.

Web sites are a great way to tell people about you, sell product, save mailing costs and keep your fan base informed of your schedule or new projects.  

If you don’t have an E-mail account already, please get one. It has become the norm for business communication. It still doesn’t beat developing a personal relationship with a presenter but it does add an important dimension to your marketing. These days, you might get a quicker response to e mail than snail mail or phone calls.


Dealing with Promoters/Presenters:


10 Helpful Hints

 1.  Be friendly even after you’ve left a dozen messages and e-mails. The presenter may be very busy or not know who you are or maybe even a royal curmudgeon but you never know…the next call might be the one. On the other hand, there is a point where you need to take the hint and wait ‘til next year.

 2.  When you leave messages always, always leave your phone number slowly and clearly even if you’ve done so before.

 3.  Do your homework before you call. Find out who you need to talk to via web sites or inquiry calls. You might consider introducing yourself via E-mail or by letter before calling. Don’t call a presenter or promoter at home!

 4.  Get a sense of who you’re talking to. They might be no-nonsense and want you to get right to the point or they might like to talk small talk first. Sometimes a presenter is not only evaluating your talent but your personality as well.

 5.  When you get the gig show up on time and be cooperative.

 6.  When you finish the gig thank the promoter, the volunteers, the stage crew and anyone else you’ve worked with.

 7.  When you get home repeat step 6 in letter form.

 8.  When you get home do NOT write an unsolicited letter of critique. If you don’t like the way things are run then consider not working the event in the future. Remember, people talk to each other and you’ll probably start gaining a reputation you’d rather not have.

 9.  Don’t take rejection personally. Festivals and gatherings are usually put together with a game plan in mind. You’re style or material may not be on the agenda one year but might fit perfectly the next.

10.  Work hard, perfect your craft and DON’T GIVE UP!!

© 2005, Michael Fleming

People came away with plenty to consider, thanks to the honesty and wisdom of the assembled panel.

Doug Brewer shared his report about this workshop, posted here on page four.



Continued on page three...



This is page two of our report on the Western Folklife Center's 21st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

See the first page here.





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