Heading west out of Salt Lake City, Interstate 80 sheds lanes as the city’s skyscrapers become indistinguishable from the mountains in the rearview mirror. Shrinking to a narrow two-lanes-in-each-direction highway, it winds through chalky white salt flats and among shallow lakes that seem to reach for the snowcapped mountains in the distance. It’s a great expanse of land, of loneliness, and of solitude. Scrubby sagebrush sprouts in the median. Over the border into Nevada, casinos crop up in every little town along this former route of westward expansion. Salt flats give way to rolling hills covered with sparse grass, sagebrush, and stunted trees; it’s easy to imagine mounted cowboys driving herds across the cracked earth. After 230 miles, as the Ruby Mountains become visible to the south, the 80 leads to Elko, Nevada.
Every January since 1985, cowboys, rodeo riders, ranchers, and poets have convened to recite poems and share songs with fans and one another at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering at the convention center here. Dozens of other events around the country celebrate cowboy poetry, but the Elko event is widely regarded as the biggest one.
Cowboy poetry emerged on the trail drives that moved cattle across the western United States at the end of the 19th century. Trail driving was grueling and monotonous: a job could last anywhere from five to nine months and offered almost no human contact apart from the people working the herd. Many cowboys were immigrants or freed slaves (one in three was Mexican, and roughly 25 percent were black), and there was little room for prejudice. They shared stories to pass the time. Around the campfires at night, traditional work songs swirled together with African American spirituals and the ditties of Mexican, Irish, and Scottish immigrants.
But as the widespread use of barbed wire eliminated the need for trail drives, cowboys set about memorializing often larger-than-life versions of their days on the trail. By the early 20th century, oral histories, stage performances, novels, and movies had reshaped the journeyman cowboy into a rugged, stalwart lone ranger.
As this image took hold in American cultural mythology, the popularity of cowboy poetry faded—but it never entirely disappeared. The practice of composing and reciting it persisted on ranches and among working cowboys before reemerging into public view in the 1980s. The first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering brought together a handful of poets from around the country and established a community that, three decades later, is flourishing. Last year’s event drew more than 50 performers and an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 spectators, and it featured young voices, female voices, and nontraditional styles of poetry, such as free verse and blank verse, that expanded and enriched the storytelling. The 2020 gathering will highlight black cowboys and their contributions to cowboying and cowboy poetry.
BRIGID REEDY: Plays the fiddle and banjo
• Home: Whitehall, Montana
• Age: 19
• Her inspiration: “A lot of what makes cowboy poetry distinct is a sense of place.… My own inspiration daily is from the changing variety of weather and the light and the animals that I live with and the nature of work that can’t help but have an influence artistically.”
Inside the Elko Convention Center last January, a mounted cowboy chased a steer under pink-tinged clouds on a painted canvas—the backdrop of a temporary stage. Dressed in a snap-button plaid shirt, red cowboy boots, and a black, flat-brimmed gambler hat, an 18-year-old Brigid Reedy stood with her fiddle in rest position, tucked on her hip under her right arm, a horsehair bow dangling from one finger. She recited a poem about an old graveyard in her native Montana, switching her left hand between the neck of the fiddle and its body to mark each stanza.
Last year, Reedy was one of the youngest performers ever to play the main stages at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Finishing the poem, she traded her vintage German fiddle for her banjo, a 1920 Orpheum No. 3 with mother-of-pearl and abalone inlays. Plucking a gentle, meandering tune, she sang, “Oh carry me over them old desert sands with the yellow moon shining on high.”
“Desert Sands” was one of the last songs she played onstage at the gathering with her mentor, the celebrated cowboy poet Glenn Ohrlin, before he died in 2015. From the time he began bringing her onstage with him, when she was about 11, until his death, Ohrlin regularly wrote and illustrated letters to Reedy. When they performed together, he passed down songs and folklore of tough men and women who, like Ohrlin—and now Reedy—lived close to the land, rode horses, loved it, and wrote about it. “He was one of the last connections to the legitimate, really, really old cowboy music,” Reedy says. “He was my pen pal. He was my best friend when I was little.”
Reedy lives with her brother and parents in a two-room bunkhouse on a small ranch in Montana. On the walls of their 600-square-foot home hang a dozen instruments. When Reedy is inspired to learn a piece of music she has heard, she and her brother, Johnny, take two of these instruments off the wall—guitar for Johnny, usually fiddle or banjo for Brigid—and sit facing each other at the feet of their beds. They listen to the song, often on Brigid’s phone through her Apple Music subscription. Roughly two feet apart, the pair figure out the chords and the melody, and then Brigid starts arranging in her head, adding her own harmony. When she’s ready, she sings the harmony to Johnny, who picks it up by ear. When Brigid writes her own songs, Johnny adds the complicated guitar chords.
“Johnny is the first person that I show,” she says. “I often arrange and orchestrate the harmonies and then sing them back to Johnny, and he picks them up immediately because he’s brilliant.”
Nearly every morning at home, Reedy writes songs and poetry. In the lean-to on one side of her family’s house, she sits on an overturned bucket in front of a new front-loading washer, laundry tumbling in circles behind the clear, round door. In her lap lies her favorite notebook: a black, spiral-bound Mnemosyne with a silver saddle concho on the front. Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory, the mother of muses, and Reedy finds the monotonous hum and the repetitive thwack of wet clothes conducive to creativity. Outside the window behind her, the sharp spires and crags of the Tobacco Root Mountains tower over the swaying grass and the winding slough. Though she’s still in her teens, she writes about life and death, love and loss, joy and work, hoping to produce the sweet patter of words beautifully strung together.
EXCERPT: “A CEMETERY IN SOUTHWEST MONTANA”
Souls whisper their welcome, kindly, softly
As you pass underneath lovely, lofty
Spruce bows, braided together by time
Memories dancing amid shafts of light
That sift through the branches and between the trunks
Trunks lining your path like humble, hushed monks
But they alone are silent for the air is filled
With nature’s chorus and the sounds of the hills
The wind in duet with yet uncut grass
Chickadees chatter a happy hymn as you pass
A solemn note is added by the cry of an eagle
As you move down the hall of the great spruce cathedral
Some churches take hundreds of years to complete
And thousands of lives devoted to the feat
But these trees, too, have taken an epoch to grow
And the care of generations and diverted water flow
To somehow sustain this temple of conifer
On an otherwise parched hillside bereft of any cover
And now within the towering walls of evergreen
Is a basilica lined with lilacs looking nearly Florentine
That needs no mosaics or frescos as it looks over the valley
Range grasses and wildflowers adorn all the alleys
That run between markers of miners and ranchers
This valley’s history rooted deep in these ancestors
AMY M. HALE: Cowboys for a living
• Home: Prescott, Arizona
• Age: 49
• The persistence of cowboy poetry: “Why is it relevant? Because we’re still doing it. We’re still growing food.… It’s not surprising that people who have been working people since language began have been documenting their work via the written word and oral tradition.”
At the heart of all cowboy poetry, new and old, is an appreciation of the wide-open spaces of the American West. Considerations about how to care for and use the land run through poetry and conversation in Elko. Cowboys are no longer pushing the frontier, the West is settled, and the stakes are different now.
At 49, Amy M. Hale still, as she puts it, cowboys for a living, running cattle on U.S. Forest Service land in Arizona for Spider Ranch, where her husband is the foreman. She’s 4 foot 10 and jokes that she has to outthink cows and horses because she can’t outmuscle them. “I need to write a poem about working for $75 a day” is a refrain in her conversation—and a line in a poem of hers. She spends 60 to 70 nights a year sleeping on the ground in a bedroll.
The dust and sweat, the fresh chill of dawn, the sweet scent of damp desert air, and the dark, musky mud at the bottom of water troughs are fodder for her essays and poems. Most mornings, Hale writes three pages in longhand, even if she’s waking up on the ground beside a campfire. And always, she returns to the same question: “Is it going to fucking rain?”
She writes about the raw power of nature and the mundanity of pushing cows into a chute, the reciprocity of beauty and grind. When I sat down with her at last year’s gathering and mentioned that a lot of people would be surprised to know about cowboy poetry, Hale practically yelled as she spoke about a long tradition of working people writing about their lives. It took me a minute to realize she wasn’t angry at me, but rather at all the people who have stereotyped her because of where she lives and how she makes a living.
“We want everybody to be in a red box and a blue box. We want everybody to be left or right. We don’t see people as individuals and humans,” she said. “This common story told in poetry or music, poetry and song, and even storytelling, is what brings us together.”
Hale’s verse, some of which she classifies as slam poetry, is a kind of advocacy, not merely for herself but for her way of life and the beauty she sees in it. She is proud to work the land and to provide food for the country. Standing in tan boots embroidered with silver and a brown blazer on a plain black stage in Elko, she recited, “And I don’t know what it is you think about when you lie awake at night… / Do you ever think of soft tender hooves and fresh new life / Up under a cedar tree at 6,000 feet with a mama who’s new to this gig?” Cheering and clapping, the audience made the connection.
“I work hard on the land so that I have something of substance to write about, something to lift me up out of a shallow existence,” Hale says. “I write so that I don’t become numb to the work and the hard things and the life-death-life cycle.”
EXCERPT: “LIVESTOCK MAN”
I need to write a new poem about what it is like, as a woman, to cowboy for a living.
All I can come up with is how much I hate it when my toes get cold.
All I can think of is that last old cow we put on the trailer for the sale barn, about the scorpion that ran away when I rolled my bed out on the ground at Alkali Spring in August, about how I alone can catch that roan mare when she won’t let the men lay a hand on her.
All I can come up with is that I like cows and like them, I have ovulated, copulated, gestated a miracle in my body, and lactated…for months.
I think I’m qualified to be a herder of mammals.
And that is what I am. I am a herder, a custodian, a caretaker, a steward.
I am a livestock man.
I grow food.
I need to write a new poem about what it is like, as a woman, to cowboy.
But there are no new poems and we’re never finished shipping cattle in the fall.
There may be new foxes in the night and new orioles in the canyon and new griefs to be borne and new ways of looking at the world, and oh don’t let me become blind.
And I might become blind if you put me in your cage of expectations.
For I have a rebel heart and that rebel heart gives me the grit to stay in my saddle even after it turns sideways when the bullfight breaks and we’re in the way.
And that rebel heart says this poem…doesn’t have to rhyme.
—Amy M. Hale
DOM FLEMONS: Discovers the old ways
• Home: Silver Spring, Maryland
• Age: 37
• The blending of fact and fiction in cowboy poetry: “I think that there are two Wests in that way: there is the West of the mind, the ideological West, and then there is the physical West.”
Inspired by the book The Negro Cowboys, Dom Flemons, a 37-year-old former string-band musician who performs as the American Songster, was contemplating a project about African Americans in the West when he heard poet Andy Hedges perform “Ol’ Proc.” Hedges, in turn, had first heard the verse while listening to noted cowboy poet and third-generation Montana rancher Wallace McRae recite the semiautobiographical work on a live recording of the 1993 Elko gathering. In it, a youngster listens as old folks compare stories about the best cowpunchers they have known. At the end of the poem, the finest of them all is revealed to be a black man.
“The pioneer spirit went beyond racial boundaries, and there was a moment where people were working side by side together, and they weren’t really necessarily thinking about the color of your skin, but your work ethic,” Flemons says.
“Ol’ Proc” became the cornerstone of Flemons’s Grammy-nominated 2018 album Black Cowboys. He starts the album with a couple of songs that depict the black experience out West: like “Black Woman” and “Texas Easy Street,” in which he imagines a lone cowboy riding into town. Flemons includes his own versions of some of the best-known traditional poems, “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail” and “Home on the Range,” and celebrates several prominent black western figures: Nat Love, a slave turned cowboy; Bass Reeves, possibly the inspiration for the Lone Ranger; and Bill Pickett, a rodeo cowboy who invented the wrestling technique called bulldogging. He also brings in his own family’s Mexican heritage and the Mexican cowboy, or vaquero, in “John Henry y los Vaqueros,” an instrumental remake of the traditional song, and plays cow rib bones to illustrate how cultures and music blended on the western frontier.
In the years after the trail drives ended, railroads employed African American men as Pullman porters, work that required subservience but offered some economic opportunity and, through the powerful porters’ union, a degree of political clout. Flemons’s own grandfather was a porter on a local line in Arizona, and in the song “Steel Pony Blues,” the musician imagines a former cowboy in his new role as a porter.
Flemons concludes the album with an instrumental version of “Red River Valley,” one of the best-known cowboy standards, and “The Old Chisholm Trail,” an homage to the trail-drive era first documented in folklorist John Lomax’s 1910 collection of cowboy poems.
Flemons, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, wanted Black Cowboys to be a primer for the African American experience out West while also presenting the enduring appeal of wide-open western expanses. “Wonderful art and literature can transcend experience, because the art doesn’t necessarily have to be your own visceral connection, but it can inspire something within you,” he says.
These visceral connections tether young cowboy poets to the past generations whose stories and memories ride through Elko.
EXCERPT: “LITTLE JOE THE WRANGLER”
Little Joe the Wrangler will never wrangle more;
His days with the “remuda”—they are done
’Twas a year ago last April when he joined the outfit here
A little “Texas stray” and all alone.
’Twas long late in the evening he rode up to the herd
On a little old brown pony he called Chaw;
With his brogan shoes and overalls a harder-looking kid
You never in your life had seen before.
His saddle ’twas a southern kack built many years ago,
An O.K. spur on one foot idly hung,
While his “hot roll” in a cotton sack was loosely tied behind
And a canteen from the saddle horn he’d slung.
He said he had to leave his home, his daddy’d married twice
And his new ma beat him every day or two;
So he saddled up old Chaw one night and “lit a shuck” his way—
Thought he’d try to paddle his own canoe.
Said he’d try and do the best he could if we’d only give him work,
Though he didn’t know “straight” up about a cow;
So the boss he cut him out a mount and kindly put him on,
For he sorta liked the little stray somehow.
Taught him how to herd horses, learned to know them all
To round them up by daylight if he could
To follow the chuck wagon and to always hitch the team
And help the “cocinero” rustle wood.
—Attributed to N. Howard “Jack” Thorp; as performed by Dom Flemons
RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT: Can talk the talk
• Home: Marshall, California
• Age: 88
• Why growing up in Brooklyn inspired him to run away to the rodeo: “Well, just too many people, and I just wanted to be out in the West somewhere where there were not so many people and more horses and cattle and sky and mountains and trees.”
Not all the cowboy legends are dead and gone.
The White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas, is nestled in the curve of a one-lane road next to a railroad track; ruddy paint peels off the slanted-board exterior, and inside it smells like decades’ worth of whiskey and beer spills. Tucked in one corner is a 10-inch raised stage with a single stool, a microphone, and a small table dressed up with a flowered tablecloth. A 1972 Martin Dreadnought guitar rests in a stand. To the right of the stage, a staircase ascends toward the ceiling; at rafter height, it turns and disappears. Below, the audience is quiet and still.
A black cowboy boot appears on the landing; a second one catches on a step and settles next to the first. Clad in Wrangler jeans, a dark polka-dot shirt, and a blue-and-white silk scarf knotted at the neck, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott descends the stairs. White hair curls out from under his cream-colored felted cowboy hat. He steps onto the stage and settles himself on the stool, the Martin guitar tucked far back under his right arm. Without an introduction, he plucks the opening chords of Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.”
Between songs, Elliott relates meandering, embellished tales about places he’s been, people he’s known, and the things he’s learned. “I didn’t get my name because I travel a lot,” he’ll tell you, no punch line needed. Sometimes one story turns into another before he begins to play again, almost reluctantly.
Plucking the slow, doleful opening chords of a ballad called “The South Coast,” he lets each one hang in the air, evoking the desolate loneliness of California’s Big Sur wilderness and a couple who try to homestead in it. He growls the first verse; the crowd whispers along. Elliott coughs. Several verses in, he can’t shoo away the cough by clearing his throat. The crowd waits quietly as he sips from a water bottle. He begins to pluck again.
At 88, Elliott is, as country singer Kris Kristofferson observed in a lyric, “partly truth and partly fiction”; he’s an almost folkloric character whose well-worn stories are interwoven with legend. Elliott fell in love with cowboys as a child through Will James’s western adventure books and trips to see rodeos at Madison Square Garden in the 1940s. As a teenager, he ran away to work as a rodeo hand. Between shows, a singing clown introduced him to the guitar. Although he began his career during the Greenwich Village folk revival, cows and cowboys have remained his favorite company.
For the past 26 years, Elliott has lived in a plain, compact house on Highway 1 amid the ranchlands of the Northern California coast. Steering his 2001 midnight-blue Ford F-350 Super Duty through lush green hills and sun-dappled eucalyptus groves, he narrates stories about the herds of cows, sheep, and water buffalo and tells me which horses he knows.
“Hey, hello, girls, howdy,” Elliott says to a group of cows near a fence. He’s not exactly performing, the way he does onstage, but he is showing off his home turf.
“They know my truck,” he tells me. He answers my questions with stories and cracks a cheeky, one-sided grin each time he lands a punch line, looking over to see if I like it.
He parks so we can get lunch. Stepping out of his truck, he pauses to let his joints warm up and adjusts his tan, corduroy bomber jacket, which has an NFR Pro Rodeo Cowboys, Las Vegas 1985 chest patch. I offer him an arm, but he declines gruffly: “Cowboy. Don’t need arms, I’m arrrrmed.”
EXCERPT: ‘”THE SOUTH COAST BALLAD”
My name is Lonjano de Castro,
My father was a Spanish grandee.
But I won my wife in a card game
To hell with those lords o’er the sea.
Oh the South Coast is a wild coast, and lonely;
You may win in a game at Jalon;
But a lion still rules the barranca,
And a man there is always alone.
I played in a card game at Jalon;
I played there with an hombre named Juan.
After I’d taken his money,
I staked all against his daughter Dawn.
Picked up the ace, I had won her;
My heart what was down at my feet
Jumped up to my throat in a hurry;
Like a young summer’s day she was sweet
He opened the door to the kitchen
And he called the girl out with a curse
Saying take her, god damn it, you’ve won her,
She’s yours now for better or worse.
Her arms to tighten around me
As we rode down the hill to the south
Not a word did I hear from her that day;
Nor a kiss from her pretty young mouth.
That was a gay happy winter, we carved on a cradle of pine
By the fire in that neat little shanty;
And I sang with that gay wife of mine.
But the South Coast is a wild coast…
That night I got hurt in a landslide,
Crushed hip, and a twice-broken bone;
She saddled a pony like lightning,
And rode off for a doctor in Jalon.
The lion screamed in the barranca,
Bucky bolted and he fell on the slide;
My young wife lay dead in the moonlight;
My heart died that night with my bride.
Oh the South Coast is a wild coast…
—Lilian Boss Ross; as performed by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
ANDY HEDGES: Prizes a solitary state of mind
• Home: Lubbock, Texas
• Age: 39
• The meaning of recitation: “I really developed this deep appreciation for words and for the sound of words and just for the pure pleasure of reciting well-written poems and being able to savor those words over and over again and take that with me.… It’s the folk music and the folk poetry of my place, of my culture.”
Elliott is one of Andy Hedges’s heroes, and they played a show together at last year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Perched on a stool, Hedges smiled as Elliott rambled through his familiar stories. As ever, to be a cowboy is as much a state of mind as it is a state of physical being.
Hedges tells me how the pickguard of Elliott’s guitar, which depicts a cowboy riding a rearing red bull, is rubbed faint where his hand has swept across it for 40-odd years. “It’s so perfectly weathered and aged, you know, just the patina,” Hedges says. “There’s something with that guitar and the tone of it—you could go get a 1972 D-28, another one, and it wouldn’t be the same, and I don’t know what that is, if it’s from all the rambling and jackin’ or what.”
Traditional cowboy poems and songs fascinate Hedges and help him understand the cultural heritage of his native Texas. Yet the fantastical tales that are told, retold, re-created, and rehashed at the Elko gathering are distinct from the myth of the cowboy himself, Hedges explains. “When I say cowboy poetry is based in reality, it’s not trying to say that every cowboy poem is true, or that all these stories are true, or that there’s not exaggeration, or any of that. It’s that you could listen…and, I think, learn a lot of true things.”
Admittedly, stories of the American cowboy are usually far different from the realities of the men and women working the land today, and often, too, those who perform at Elko. Yet according to Hedges, it’s the mythic quality of these songs and poems—and the truths about life—that makes them so appealing. Paraphrasing the words of Randy Rieman, another cowboy poet, Hedges tells me, “We’re not doing this to save it; we’re doing it to savor it…and the feeling that’s created from those words.”
Concern that this art form might soon disappear has been a theme throughout its existence. Hedges does not believe that cowboy poetry is nearing its final moments, but he does feel a responsibility to document it, nonetheless. For the past three years, he has produced a podcast called Cowboy Crossroads, in which he interviews cowboy poets about their work. “Even if the culture itself isn’t on the brink of fading away, all of us have an opportunity to capture the people and the stories of our own time, because those people are going to fade away,” he says.
EXCERPT: “SOME COWBOY BRAG TALK”
I was born full growed
with nine rows of jaw teeth
and holes bored for more.
There was spurs on my feet
and a rawhide quirt in my hand,
and when they opens the chute
I come out a-riding a panther
and a-roping the long-horned whales.
I’ve rode everything with hair on it…
and I’ve rode a few things
that was too rough to grow any hair.
I’ve rode bull moose on the prod,
she grizzlies and long bolts of lightning.
Mountain lions are my playmates,
and when I feels cold and lonesome,
I sleeps in a den of rattlesnakes
’cause they always makes me nice and warm.
To keep alive
I eat stick dynamite and cactus.
The Grand Canyon
ain’t nothin’ but my bean hole.
When I get thirsty
I drink cyanide cut with alkali.
When I go to sleep
I pillow my head on the Big Horn,
I lay my boots
in Colorada and my hat in Montana.
I can stretch out my arms clean out
from the Crazy Woman Folk plumb over
to the Upper Grey Bull River.
My bed tarp covers half of Texas
and all of old Mexico.
—Anonymous; as performed by Andy Hedges
COWBOY POETRY FOR A NEW GENERATION
The technology that allows Hedges to record and share the cowboy poetry of this generation may also represent a profound threat. Traditional cowboy poetry was forged in the solitude of the American West. But now, with internet access almost everywhere and nearly everyone carrying a smartphone, Hedges tells me that he worries about the mental space available for poetry.
These days, cowboy poets post on social media and maintain blogs. While those digital mediums can illuminate at least a curated version of ranch life, they might also lessen the isolation that makes such a life special, Hedges reflects.
Still, in the popular Wallace McRae poem “Reincarnation,” a cowpoke muses on the decomposition of a corpse into soil, which then gives life to a flower, which then is eaten by a horse, which then—well, to say any more would spoil the punch line. But like the death-to-life transformation in McRae’s poem, cowboy poetry itself seems reincarnated with each new generation. Just as soon as one era’s cowboy poetry has been captured and preserved, the form blossoms anew. The content and the circumstances of the narratives change, but their essential nature does not. Cowboy poetry lives on just as our fundamental need to share stories endures; we continue to possess a reverence for the sound of words delivered aloud, paired with music, and often enjoyed together.