Good, clean nostalgia at cowboy poetry and music fest
Being the mayor of Paradise seems like a pretty fun job. I wonder when the last time Chico Mayor Ann Schwab found it appropriate to attend a public event dressed like a member of the chorus line from Paint Your Wagon.
This is exactly what Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton did last Saturday (Nov. 10) to introduce the second annual Paradise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering. It’s just part of the job description, one might guess, in a town that so cherishes its Old West heritage.
The gathering, held at the Paradise Performing Arts Center, brought together three acts dedicated to keeping these traditions—or at least a nostalgic, theatrical representation of them—alive: cowboy poet Dick Warwick, all-around showman Sourdough Slim and musical ensemble the Old West Trio. Each act performed two 15- to 20-minute sets separated by an intermission in which the performers mingled with the audience. And, the event was a benefit for the town’s Gold Nugget Museum.
Warwick kicked off the night with a humorous poem about a cowboy getting stuck in a mucky corral, setting the tone and establishing a motif for the evening. Most of his poems tended toward the lighter side of cowboy life, and quite a few contained at least passing references to dung. This is no reflection on the quality of the verse, but worth noting as it says something about the G-rated quality of the genre, or at least the brand on display in Paradise that night, where the raciest references were reserved for cow paddies and a rodeo rider who loses his chaps after gluing himself to a saddle.
Warwick, who hails from Washington, came about his love of cowboy poetry via a circuitous route. In the ‘80s, he was introduced to the Down Under-equivalent of the form while working on a ranch in Australia, and came home excited to explore poetry of the American West. As homage to these beginnings, he also shared a handful of Australian poems.
For his final poem, Warwick sidestepped the humor, saying he felt the heart of cowboy poetry lies in the more serious works. He recited an original poem called “The Old Meeting Hall"—referencing crumbling meeting places reminiscent of simpler times—that elicited “Awws” from the audience.
Bookending performances by Sourdough Slim was the Old West Trio, a three-piece from Garden Valley composed of stand-up bassist Leslie Ide and guitarists Steve Ide and Steve Johnson, all of whom share vocal duties. The trio not only dressed the part, but the two male members also sport facial hair that indicates this cowboy thing is no passing fancy: Johnson favors the classic gunfighter ‘stache-beard combo, while Ide bears an uncanny resemblance to President Teddy Roosevelt in his roughrider days.
The trio blessed a number of new and old Western songs with their spot-on musicianship and three-part harmonies. Highlights included three classics played back to back—"Don’t Fence Me In,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Back in the Saddle Again.” They also played what they called (and many would agree) “the greatest cowboy ballad ever written,” Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”
The biggest thrills of the evening were undoubtedly courtesy of Paradise’s own Sourdough Slim, whose schedule of high-profile national festival gigs makes local appearances few and far between. Slim is a consummate showman whose act includes music, comedy and musicianship hearkening back to the days of Vaudeville.
Armed with an accordion, Slim fired through originals like “Ride that Bronco Buckaroo,” “I’m Casting My Lasso Towards the Sky” and older songs like 1915’s “Hesitation Blues.” He also set the accordion aside for some six-string action on some songs, including a haunting rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Slim finished up with a self-proclaimed “death-defying” finale, eliciting laughs when he alluded to the dangers he faces every day. “If you don’t think strolling the streets in this country, in this day and age, dressed up in an outfit like this with an accordion strapped to your chest is death defying, then you’ve got another thing coming.”
He then proceeded to spin a lariat while playing accordion, yodeling and dancing a jig. That 30 seconds alone was well worth the price of admission.