ELKO — Adrian “Buckaroogirl” Brannan sips coffee as she relaxes in the Western Folklife Center’s Pioneer Saloon on a cold, sunny January morning. The saloon is buzzing with conversation and laughter as men and women in cowboy hats and boots gather to celebrate the 32nd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Several tall men — all sporting silver handlebar mustaches — approach the 24-year-old Brannan and greet her like a long-lost daughter.
“If you’re on a stage in Elko, it is home,” said Brannan, a prolific singer and songwriter known as “Adrian Buckaroogirl.”
“Elko’s focus is to bring in young people,” Brannan said about the Gathering. “For me, I started [performing] when I was 14,” she said.
Born in California, Brannan grew up working and living on ranches in the Nevada high desert. She also spent several years of her childhood in Scotland when her father — then a working cowboy — moved the family overseas to further his education at the University of St. Andrews. Brannan said growing up in Europe fostered within her a love for history and education.
“I love art, music, fashion and culture,” she said.
Brannan began her musical journey by learning operatic singing as a young girl.
“The opera world was harsh. It’s not as friendly as the cowboy world,” she said.
However, the rigorous training of her voice in opera lessons — which she compares to the competitive life of an athlete — is something she has adapted into her western music. She taught herself to play the guitar and has been performing for 10 years. Her songs are written from her own experiences riding horses and living on working ranches in Nevada.
“The truest form of art is by doing it. I’m singing about things I’ve done,” Brannan said.
She also speaks of a deep appreciation for the history of the West.
“I write a lot of songs about women riding broncs in the late 1800s,” she said.
Brannan is not the only woman performing at the Gathering this year who writes about her own experiences. Doris Daley, a cowboy poet from Black Diamond, Alberta, writes of life in western Canada.
“I’ve been writing poetry since I was 8. I fell in love with rhyming words,” Daley said.
For Daley, cowboy poetry honors the ordinary, day-to-day life of men and women living and working in rural, western communities.
“I love the West,” Daley said.
Yet Daley said she writes poetry that is also universal.
“Poetry is a big concept, burnt down, edited, refined. A good poem transcends boundaries,” she said.
Daley has a direct connection with the land and its history. Her great-grandfather, Jim Daley, was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and he settled in Alberta in the 1870s.
Western Canadian history differs from the western history of the United States because it was the railroad — not wagon trains — that opened up the West for immigrants, Daley said. She said the Mounties were some of the first Europeans to traverse across the vast expanse of western Canada. Daley is now the fourth generation to live on her family’s ranch in Alberta.
Daley said she believes her poetry offers a unique perspective from a female voice.
“A woman’s experience of the West is different. They faced different social hurdles,” Daley said.
“Good, bad, indifferent — I’m a woman rancher,” she said.
The blending of femininity and the cowboy lifestyle is also a prevalent theme in Brannan’s songwriting. She said her musical genre is “a male-dominated art form.” But that has not stopped her from embracing her artistic talent and making it her own.
“My parents always told us we could do anything a man could do, but we had to look like a lady while doing it,” Brannan said.
She said the juxtaposition of the feminine and masculine inspires her life and her music. She likes boots and pearls. She wears red lipstick while riding broncs. “I’m a girl,” she said, unapologetically. “You can do things with elegance.”
Western Horseman Magazine dubbed her “buckaroo’s Taylor Swift.” However, Brannan laughs at the comparison. “We’re both blond; we both play the guitar,” she said.
And while she admires Swift’s business acumen, Brannan said she prefers the great country legends Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton as role models for young women.
Brannan offers advice for young women struggling in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture. She said young women should be confident and classy. “You don’t have to be just one thing. Respect yourself,” Brannan said.
Brannan said three words describe her music: girl-power, happy and history. As a millennial, she said her music is a combination of all things new while still appreciating the rich, cultural heritage of the West.
As the cowboys gather to celebrate the music, poetry and culture of the West, the women are right beside them on the stage — singing, reciting and entertaining the fans who admire their distinctive, feminine voices.