ELKO — Elko native Waddie Mitchell co-founded the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1984 with Hal Cannon. Since then, the annual event has grown to include such luminaries as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as keynote speaker for the gathering’s 25th anniversary in 2009.
Mitchell grew up as a buckaroo on his father’s Horseshoe Ranch near the Ruby Mountains, a lifestyle that introduced him at an early age to authentic cowboy poetry. His father's “off-grid” ranch had neither electricity nor television, so ranch hands entertained themselves by exchanging tall tales and stories recited with rhythm and rhymes.
"You find that if you have a rhyme and a meter to start that story, people will listen to it over and over again," Mitchell said.
Learning from the old cowboys around him, Mitchell began reciting poetry at age 10.
Mitchell left his father's ranch at age 16 to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy. He soon joined the U.S. Army where he worked breaking horse for the cavalry and earned the nickname “Waddie,” meaning a horseback ranch hand, or cowboy.
Mitchell returned to Elko County to manage a ranch near Jiggs, but his passion for his art led to helping organize the very first Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Because of the demanding work schedule for buckaroos, cowboys, and ranch hands, the event was scheduled for January, the least-busy time of the year.
About 40 cowboy poets showed up for the first gathering, which was also Mitchell's first public performance. With an audience of more than a thousand people, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering was a success, and it encouraged Mitchell to continue performing.
Mitchell began recording his poetry, accompanied by guitar music, for Warner Bros. Records and Western Jubilee Recording Company, to critical acclaim.
Mitchell was commissioned to write “That No Quit Attitude” for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In 2014, Nevada Tourism commissioned him to write “Dame Nevada” for the state's 150th birthday, making Mitchell the Silver State's official Sesquicentennial Poet for the yearlong event.
In 2001, Mitchell received the Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ten years later, he was inducted into the Nevada Writer's Hall of Fame, which includes former gold prospector Mark Twain.
Mitchell received the 2012 Nevada Heritage Award from The Nevada Arts Council, and the Western Music Association gave Mitchell their Award of Excellence for “One Hundred Poems,” voted the 2015 WMA Poetry Book of the Year.
In 2000, the U.S. Senate proclaimed the Elko event as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Elko's native buckaroo poet will be one of the highlights of the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering from Jan. 29 to Feb. 3 at the Elko Western Folklife Center.