Anniversary poetry gathering

Elko’s 20th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering ends Jan. 31

One of the more conspicuous things on Interstate 80 heading east as you drive through the middle of Nevada is the large, beige, metal water tank that reads, “Elko: Home of Cowboy Poetry.” Elko has been the location of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering since 1985 (although, at that time it was not national), fomenting many similar gatherings across the West.

“1985 was ripe for ranching culture to claim its own story, to find the touchstones of its culture,” said Hal Cannon, founding director of the Western Folklife Center, a non-profit organization founded in 1980 to enhance awareness of the folk arts.

Every January for the past 20 years, cowboys, ranchers and gear makers have gotten together in the coarse high Nevada desert to versify and converse. It’s a jamboree that lets working cowboys and girls express their unique lifestyle and voice through poetry and song, instead of letting other literati do it for them.

Being the 20th anniversary, WFC tried to bring back many of the cowboys from the first gathering. Some are traveling from as far away as Queensland, Australia. Typically, a jury selects from a pool of poets who submit writing samples in April, and those selected are paid to read and perform their work. Recently, WFC has been trying to put a screening process into place to weed out poets who aren’t real cowboys.

“Some of the wannabe cowboy poets, they may tell a good poem, but they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Rusty McCall explained. “One guy was talking about a maverick steed. Well, a maverick, which is wild, can’t be castrated, which means it’s a bull.”

At this year’s gathering, like those past, there will be loads of poetry, music, panels, workshops, art exhibits and plenty of food.

The American Buckaroo Orchestra performs, joined by cowboy balladeer Don Edwards and Waddie Mitchell, one of the few cowboy poets who makes a living off canto and spinning yarns. Baxter Black, one of the most famous cowboy poets, is also back.

The 2004 gathering continues its tradition of preserving traditional cowboy art forms through workshops in blacksmithing, braiding, songwriting, soap and lip balm making, dancing, photography and cowboy recipes.

Wild Women Blazing Trails, an art exhibition by a popular group of western women artists is on display. The Lingo of Our Calling: The Legacy of Cowboy Poetry is an exhibit that addresses the language cowboys use to talk about their way of life. The Mongolian Horseman focuses on the lives of Mongolian nomadic herdsmen. Workshops and panels will illuminate and discuss the similarities between Mongolian cowboys and those of the American West. Special guests from Mongolia will attend, along with Mongolian music performances.

Visit for directions and information, or call (775) 738-7508.