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Willits (California) October

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October, 2009
Cowboy Music and Poetry at Emandal   near Willits, California

report by Carol Caldwell-Ewart, photos by Trisha Pedroia,  Wendy Wilmes, Shelley Macdonald, Sande de Salles, and Carol Caldwell-Ewart


Down a Dusty Road
Carol Caldwell-Ewart

photo by Shelley Macdonald

On a gloriously sunny Saturday in early October, my friends and I piled into the jeep and headed north to Mendocino County. We took a right at Willits and bounced along corduroy and gravel through manzanita, scrubby oaks, and dust to the end of the rainbow. We’d come for Cowboy Poetry at Emandal with singer/songwriter Dave Stamey and poet Susan Parker. We found magic in the three-part harmony of poet, musician, and place.

photo by Shelley Macdonald

Emandal is a farm on the Eel River that became a haven for generations of family campers when Em and Al Byrnes bought the place in 1908. Clive and Tamara Adams became Keepers of the Farm in the 1970s. Since Clive’s death in 2003, Tamara has been the sole (and soul) Keeper of Emandal, with the help of her amazing crew, and when needed, her children and other Emandal stalwarts.

photo by Shelley Macdonald
Huey and Precious

When we jounced into Emandal, we passed Huey and Precious, an ostrich pair, on the left and a beautiful sculpture “Damselfly” the size of a Piper Cub on the right (artist Bryan Tedrick). We off-loaded our gear and the car at our cabin, “Blue Heron,” which features down-comforted bunks for six or so, a cozy bedroom for mom and dad, a sink, a wood stove, and a thundermug, because the outhouse (with flushing capabilities) is down the path through the trees and uphill both ways in the dark.

photo by Shelley Macdonald
Tamara Adams and Dave Stamey in front of the Emandal barn

At the dining hall, round tables for 10 were scattered across the green lawn next to the garden and the outdoor pizza oven. “Don’t eat too much pizza,” we were warned, “that’s only the appetizer.” And soon a feast of Emandal pork, Emandal vegetables, fresh-baked bread slathered with Emandal butter and Tam’s jam, and a choice of blackberry or rhubarb/strawberry pie with homemade vanilla ice cream rolled out of the kitchen and into our bellies in a wave of flavors and comfort.

photo by Trisha Pedroia
Emandal's outdoor oven

photo by Trisha Pedroia
Dinner, Tamara Adams at right, Daisy at front

photo by Shelley Macdonald

photo by Shelley Macdonald
Sande de Salles, Trisha Pedroia, and Carol Caldwell-Ewart

photo by Carol Caldwell-Ewart
Susan Parker chats with guests

Stuffed and happy, we staggered to our feet and headed to the barn for words and music.

photo by Trisha Pedroia
Sound check in the barn

Cowboy poetry is relatively new to Mendocino County. Tam and others brought Paul Zarzyski to Willits in 2006 and Jerry Brooks and Jim Cardwell in 2007. But the slow 16-mile trips to town while trying to manage such events and run the farm, which can house 70 guests at a shot, was too much. This year, Tam decided to bring cowboy poetry home to Emandal.

photo by Trisha Pedroia
Tamara Adams

She began by researching house concerts to assure herself that these were possible at Emandal, and then she went shopping for performers. “When I went to Elko, I had Dave Stamey in my mind,” she said, recalling this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

“When Tam asked me to be here,” Dave reported, “I said ‘You bet!’ It opens up new country for me. Plus, Emandal is delightful. That families have been coming here for generations speaks volumes about the way it’s run.”

Tam met Susan Parker at the Zarzyski performance in Willits and saw her perform at the benefit for the American Cancer Society that Susan organized in Benicia, California, earlier this year (with Zarzyski and Mick Vernon). Susan, too, was “absolutely thrilled” to be invited.

photo by Trisha Pedroia
The Emandal Chorale

Meanwhile, back at the barn, 140 of us settled on hay bales to see the show. The home team, the Emandal Chorale, led off, with “When I Was a Cowboy,” arranged by director Don Willis; it was complicated and fun. The volunteer group has been singing together for 25 years and includes Tam.

photo by Wendy Wilmes
Dave Stamey

Dave was up next. “I’ve performed in a lot of barns,” he told us, “but generally there aren’t any other people there.” His voice is rich and mellow with a wonderful lilt, and his words are even better. “It’s inspiration from perspiration,” he said later. Wherever he gets them, his words and images have a visceral impact, bringing an audience “Ooof” of surprised appreciation in every song: “The rumble of hoof beats much stronger than wine” ("Come Ride With Me"); “I like a dusty road and the story it tells” ("Dusty Road"); “There is truth in these prairie winds, truth in the way the mystery begins” ("Sharon Littlehawk"); “The whisper of the sage is like poetry” ("Rosa May"). Terrific stuff.

photo by Wendy Wilmes
Dave Stamey

We all got into the act when Dave sang “Used Rough,” and the locals roared and laughed at “Someone [Needs to] Go Back Home,” particularly when they heard: “The western dream got covered up when they built that shopping mall.” Apparently, there’s a big box store development on the ballot in the next local election, and Dave had captured their feelings exactly.

Dave has been on the road full time now, making a living as a cowboy entertainer, for two years. “Life has changed immensely. My horses are getting fat.” He acknowledged that constant traveling takes him away from the things he writes and sings about. “It’s a struggle for balance; I’m still adjusting.”

Fortunately, Melissa, Dave’s wife and road manager, often travels with him. They’ve driven 114 days and 29,000 miles to performances so far this year, not counting airplanes and rental cars. “And we still have a ways to go. It’s a rich, full life if you don’t weaken,” she said.

photo by Wendy Wilmes
Susan Parker on the barn's stage

Susan Parker presents her own contemporary cowboy poems and those of other poets. She has also taken as her mission preserving the stories of women who were part of settling the West. “We’re forgetting about these women, and we shouldn’t.” She includes their poems in her performances so we don’t forget.

For Susan coming to Emandal offered two great opportunities. “My favorite venues are small and intimate where I can connect with the audience.” In addition, “I have wanted to work with Dave Stamey for years.” Two of Dave’s songs “partner perfectly” with poems by Clyde Robertson that Susan recites. (Clyde was her father’s seventh daughter—he gave up waiting for a boy and named her Clyde. When well into her eighties, she was the Poet Laureate of Colorado from 1952 to 54.)

photo by Sande de Salles
Susan Parker

In a highlight of the second half of the evening’s performance, Susan and Dave traded off. Susan recited Robertson’s “The Woman in the Wagon,” and Dave sang his song “Wheels,” both about the hardships endured by those who came west in covered wagons. Then, Susan recited “Talk o’ the Town” and Dave sang “Rosa May.” Each tells the story of a prostitute in the old West.

When the performances were over, we left the barn to find an Emandal encore—a sky so thick with stars, we could have sledded across it on the drift of the Milky Way. Tam built a fire in the dining hall, and we shared wine and good company before heading up to our cabins.

Breakfast was another feast. To walk it off, we explored the Eel River and stopped by to admire Huey, Precious, and the russet pig with black polka dots, before reluctantly heading out again along the dusty road back home.
“People don’t want to leave,” Tam told me, and she was right. Our only consolation is that cowboy poetry will be back at Emandal in late September or October 2010. Tam has offered to do a benefit for the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada (producer of the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering). The performers haven’t been decided yet, but you know that Emandal will be there—and so will we.

To find out more, visit:

Emandal at
Susan Parker at
Dave Stamey at


photo by Carol Caldwell-Ewart
“Damselfly” at Emandal by artist Bryan Tedrick

Story © 2009, Carol Caldwell-Ewart


Find additional photos and more about the event at Emandal in two entries on Shelley Macdonald's blog (, "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere"and "A Cowgirl at Heart."



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