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Mama, you can let your babies grow up to be cowboy poets

Annual roundup of cowboy poetry in Elko, Nev., keeps a way of American life sitting tall in the saddle

Small Town America

ELKO, Nev. — The tiny 88-year-old tugged the microphone down to her level with great difficulty, and even that left it hanging a little high, so she stood on the toes of her pink cowboy boots. At first she looked fierce, but suddenly a grin bloomed across her weather-beaten face.

“You guys,” Donna Andress said in a high-pitched drawl, addressing a quartet of ranchers in their 30s who had been extolling their love of the cowboy life. “You guys make it all worthwhile. You soothe my heart.”

That’s all Andress said but, as proved by the small audience’s applause as she hobbled back to her seat, no further explanation was required. In an anxious era when the cowboy world wonders who will carry on a classic, fast-disappearing American way of life, the notion that some — any — young people were declaring their allegiance to lives among cattle, sheep and horses was cause for relief.

Indeed, the 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which ended Saturday, took over this central Nevada agricultural and mining hub last week with an aggressive, all-out push to encourage a new generation to embrace both the ranching life as well as the music, art, literature and craft work of this young nation’s oldest traditions.

Lewis Smith, a 4-year-old cowboy from Elko, at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
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“We want to re-energize what we do while staying rooted in tradition but also while making it relevant to the young folks,” said Charlie Seeman, executive director of the Western Folk Life Center, which organizes the weeklong festival. “A lot of the first cowboy poets were already old guys 30 years ago when we started this. We made a very deliberate effort to reach out this year to broaden our appeal. Our job is to let the young people tell their stories about what is important about their lives today.”

To that end, this year’s gathering — which was expected to sell more than $400,000 in tickets to dozens of events across four venues to an estimated 6,000 attendees — is overwhelmed by the modern, inclusive touches. A pre-event media campaign emphasized the forward-looking theme, “Expressing the Rural West — into the Future” via tweets and Facebook posts, and many performances are being live-streamed. One of the marquee poets, soft-spoken 21-year-old New Mexico rancher Forrest Mackey, won his slot in a YouTube contest for poets under 35. Most of the podiums and stages are adorned with recommended hashtags and reminders to Instagram it all.

In addition, this year’s exhibition at the Western Folk Life Center’s Wiegand Gallery displays leather, silver, weaving and photographic works by artists under 40, all of whose bios and wares are available for view on Facebook. They include horse saddles with intricate flower print engravings that are priced at more than $10,000.

Seeman said he thinks these efforts have paid off in a 15 percent bump in attendance from last year and the best attendance since the peak 25th anniversary year of 2009. The entire event costs about $750,000 to execute, he said, with about $350,000 coming from corporate and private sponsors.

Many of the performers, of course, are also tech-savvy. Take Thatch Elmer, 10, who took the stage in his billowy pink scarf and knee-high auburn cowboy boots to recite two poems he wrote in November. He’s an old hat; Elmer is the proprietor of, where the Bear River, Wyo., boy offers himself up for bookings and touts his forthcoming debut CD.

Cowboy poet Thatch Elder, 10, already has a website and a CD of his poems.
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“This one’s another original,” he told a packed room at Thursday night’s Young Buckaroo Open Mic and Talent Showcase featuring performers between ages five and 18. “It’s about how me and my horse like to take a ride.”

Yet even the Young Buckaroo showcase was borne out of concern about diminished appreciation for cowboy culture — surprisingly including this part of the world. The Elko region is the nation's biggest gold-producing territory and increasingly the kids of ranchers are marginalized in schools overwhelmed by students whose parents are making upper-middle-class incomes at the mines, said Deb Howard, who was the emcee at the open mic for kids.

“Our population has changed,” she said. “The poetry gathering really gives credence to the kids that they’re not lost. Suddenly, what they do and the life they’re from is very important.”

Ryan Carpenter, of Owyhee, Nev., demonstrated his leather carving and other skills at the gathering.
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The gathering goes well beyond traditional prairie poetry, though. It’s become an all-purpose festival with tutorials on silver engraving, panel discussions about the state of rural life and even a chance for city slickers from Las Vegas -- 400 miles away -- to dress up in chaps and 10-gallon hats and play-act the cowboy part.

That phenomenon used to irk leather carver and rancher Ryan Carpenter, 36, of Owyhee, Nev., who on Friday pounded with a polyurethane maul on the end of a silver tool for a public demonstration of flower stamping. Allowing outsiders to feel a part of this world is another way of perpetuating its place in American culture, he said.

“In order for this lifestyle and the things we do to be seen and understood, people need to have that opportunity to see this,” said Carpenter, who teaches high school agricultural science on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation along the Nevada-Idaho border where he and his wife have a horse ranch. “Everybody’s gotta live out their dreams, right?”

Still, for all the newfangled high-tech touches, many of the young people attending and performing at the gathering are decidedly old souls. Jeneve Rose Mitchell, a 12-year-old with a booming bluesy voice who can play a dozen instruments, bragged about how she and her parents live on a 35-acre ranch in Crawford, Colo., with eight horses and no electricity. Sam Weiss, a 24-year-old fiddler from Albuquerque, N.M., who performed in the Caleb Klauder Country Band at an Old Time Ranch Dance in the Elko High School gym on Friday, said playing these tunes is “what I enjoy most in life.”

Sam Weiss playing with the Caleb Klauder Country Band.
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The ranching life has battled the draw and sprawl of the city and the conveniences of the modern life for decades. In the 1970s, for instance, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson famously had a No. 1 hit with “Mamma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” Many parents here seemed torn between desires to carry on traditions and fears of encouraging their children into a life of backbreaking labor with slim financial rewards and increasing challenges from regulators and environmentalists.

At the forum where Donna Andress mooned over the young ranchers talking about their devotion to the land, the panelists raised a host of modern concerns -- the organic beef market, how to sell via the Internet, whether to blog, how to counter animal-rights activists who sneak into barns to capture cell-phone video that make ranchers seem cruel -- that never troubled Andress and her contemporaries.

One, Joe Heguy, 30, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, recalled how his father tried to dissuade him from taking up the profession.

“My dad would say, ‘You don't want to go this route, you want to be a doctor or an attorney or something else,’ ” Heguy said. “It's just like anything else you tell your kids not to do. My wife is over there with our 8-month-old daughter. I'm just going to teach her all the things I love so much and let her ride with me and help me. And then I'm going to tell her, ‘No, you don't need to do this.’  And I betcha she comes back.”