ELKO — The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is more of a who than a what.

And she just celebrated her 35th birthday.

For the occasion, founding director Hal Cannon addressed her in his keynote Jan. 31 as though the event were a person he’d known half his life: “All these years, working for you, it’s always been about wonder and surprise. It’s personal. You’re family.”

The family bond encompasses the returning audience members and extends a welcome to newcomers. That’s because the people — performers and observers alike — are what give the gathering life.

Kicking off the keynote and serving as a symbol was the lively Elko High School marching band. Red and silver sequins and brass glittered on the Elko Convention Center stage as the ensemble performed “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

“It’s the combination of so many talented people coming together to express themselves as one but still with their own personal flare,” said Kristin Windbigler, executive director of the Western Folklife Center, “the amount of time each person puts into practicing and coordinating with the others and the resulting beauty that comes from it.”

Collaboration, individuality and artistic expression is what the gathering celebrates.

“It seemed like a nice metaphor for gathering as we have to celebrate the joy of creativity and our freedoms of self-expression and our love of this Western way of life,” Windbigler said.

Cowboy poets and singers also help preserve traditions, and remind listeners of shared work and heritage. Organizers past and present place emphasis on keeping the gathering — and what she represents — alive for years to come.

“Will these poems, these stories, this wisdom speak to the generations coming up? We couch it as cowboy, but the best is universal,” Cannon said after sharing a video clip of Buck Ramsey reciting his poem, “Anthem,” which mourns greed on the range. “Buck Ramsey’s poem is not about some random old punchers from the past. It’s literature for the ages.”

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