Thirty-five years of the National Cowboy Poetry gathering proves that magic happens when creative voices gather to express the real lives of Western men and women who live and work on the land.
The landmark anniversary this year celebrates the longevity and future of the event, and organizers say they’re hoping for some gathering magic.
“Thirty-five is a pretty big anniversary,” says Kristin Windbigler, executive director of the Western Folklife Center, “and it wasn’t that long ago that people even doubted the first gathering in 1985.
“When we first did this, Waddie Mitchell loves to tell the story about how they didn’t put out enough chairs because they didn’t think anybody was going to come,” Windbigler says.
Jeff Mullins, now editor of the Elko Daily Free Press, covered the first gathering as a photographer. He remembers walking around the nearly empty rooms of the convention center and thinking, “This is a joke,” he recalls.
But then he listened to the performers and was impressed, along with the audience that returns and grows year after year.
“[It] seems kind of funny now because we have all these amazing artists,” Windbigler says. “Some of them are returning, and some of them are new voices that we found.”
The 2019 program lineup Jan. 28-Feb. 2 showcases many familiar voices of the gathering — including poets Mitchell, Paul Zarzyski and Amy Hale Auker, and musicians Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Ian Tyson.
“Everyone in our audience, the people who return to the gathering, they have their favorites,” Windbigler says.
Yet the schedule also makes way for emerging talent.
Young artists such as Colton Blankman of Utah and Sareena Murnana of Montana, and songwriter Forrest Van Tuyl of Oregon will make appearances this year.
“I think what really makes a magical event is when you have multigenerational because it’s so hard to find anymore,” Windbigler says. “You’ve got kids. You’ve got older people and everybody in between brought together by this shared love and passion for the West but also for words and artistry.”
Famed and aspiring artists will unite in the gathering.
Marinna Mori, a young local cowgirl who has performed with Elko’s Southwind Band, is slated to make a guest appearance with Mitchell and singer Trinity Seely.
“She really loves Trinity Sealy. That’s one of her idols,” Windbigler says. “There is a song that Trinity Seely does about the sound a horse makes ‘rolling cricket’, and Marinna does that [song], so I am kind of hoping there might be some kind of duet.”
Windbigler shares her hopes and dreams for what else might happen during the gathering. She drew links among Zarzyski and musician Ned LeDoux, and songwriter Colter Wall, Steiger and Elliott.
“Paul Zarzyski had this connection with Chris LaDoux,” Windbigler says, explaining they collaborated on making music in the past. “Chris LaDoux passed away, and Chris LaDoux used to come to the gathering. Now we’re bringing his son Ned.”
Wall released an album in 2018 that has a song written by Steiger’s grandfather, Windbigler says, “so there is a nice weaving together of generations that I think is exciting.
The Canadian performer is fan of Elliott, she says, and some claim you can hear that style in some of Wall’s work.
“The fact that we are going to have both of the together, I’m hoping there will be some magic there,” Windbigler says.
The gathering is also devoted to finding new talent.
“We also wanted to establish hope for the future for the event, so we spend a lot of time looking for [new voices],” Windbigler says.
In three days, the gathering offers nine poetry open mic and six open music sessions.
“They come from all over, and they are so excited to get those 15 minutes,” says Toni Milano, an Elko native, writer and gathering volunteer who has logged open mic sessions for the Western Folklife Center archives. “I have heard people say it brings them back to that old feel of the first few gatherings where anyone could just walk in and start talking.”
Continuing the storytelling tradition is especially relevant now.
“It’s so important that we tell our own stories, too, and not depend on people who aren’t familiar with what life is like here to tell our stories for us,” Windbigler says. “Often we, the West, are sort of painted by the rest of the country by one broad brush, but there is a lot of diversity and variety in our experiences.”
That’s why the invited artists are those who “live the life,” Windbigler says. “This isn’t a country music festival. This is based in real voices, people who know the authentic life. They’re singing about their own lives.”
To reflect the wide range of experiences and expressions, the gathering features more than singing and poetry. The full slate of events includes workshops, a farm tour, an interactive walking tour, dances and dance lessons, films, panel discussions and art exhibitions.
“There is a total of 90 minutes that the stages aren’t being used over the three days,” says Brad McMullen, programs and gathering manager. “That’s it. That’s all the free time there is. There is pretty much literally always something going on.”
The 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is anchored by a keynote address to be delivered by Hal Cannon, founding director.
He will take the stage, “talking about the gathering and the impact it’s had,” McMullen says. His presentation includes excerpts from the Western Folklife Center’s archives and interviews with past cowboy poets about “what it’s meant to them to be involved for all those years and the impact it’s had on them.”
After all, thirty-five years is an anniversary worth celebrating.
“It’s really remarkable that a poetry festival — let alone cowboy poetry — has survived this long and has such passionate devotees, people who return year after year to celebrate,” Windbigler says, “and to celebrate one another also.”
“I think what really makes a magical event is when you have multigenerational because it’s so hard to find anymore. You’ve got kids. You’ve got older people and everybody in between brought together by this shared love and passion for the West but also for words and artistry.” Kristin Windbigler
Executive director, Western Folklife Center