Travel

Celebrating cowboy culture in Nevada

Inside the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual celebration of the West in words and music

  • Feb 14, 2019
  • 295 words
  • 2 minutes
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering wraps with a spirited dance starting at midnight and lasting until the early hours of the morning.
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It’s a Thursday morning in Elko, Nevada, and a gathering crowd sporting polish-slick cowboy boots and shoestring neckties are trading the chill creeping through the city for the warmth of its downtown convention centre.

Some have been in town for days. Others have just arrived from Reno, a 470-kilometre drive southwest down I-80. Or from Salt Lake City, Utah. Or Lubbock, Texas. Or Eunice, Louisiana. There’s a Canadian contingent here, too, representing the likes of Longview and Okotoks, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask. Many who have come into town have left the arduous duties at their ranches to a friend or family member — a changing of the guard reserved only for times when an exceptional occasion calls a cowboy away.  

In the four days that will follow, these and the few thousand others who have descended upon Elko for the 35th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will revel in a sonic celebration of cowboy culture. They’ll hear poems, songs and stories about star-strewn skies, silky horses and soil-stained hands, and between shows, workshops and open mic sessions, they’ll share their notions of the West with strangers and friends over cold beers.  

“Throughout the ages, the herding cultures and horse cultures worldwide have used poetry and music to express our intermingled existence with mother nature,” says Hal Cannon after the morning crowd has settled into the convention centre’s auditorium to hear the American musician and folklorist’s keynote address. “We do so to express our love of the land, the work, the animals — the world around us.”

When the stage lights finally go up, the imposing figure of an aging tree is revealed, arching over a waiting microphone. The crowd hushes to listen. The gathering has begun.

The annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering draws an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 visitors to the city of Elko each year.
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Canadian musician Ian Tyson, 85, performs before a sold-out crowd at the Western Folklife Center’s G Three Bar Theatre.
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Songwriter, musician and folklorist Hal Cannon delivers the 35th keynote address at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
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Poet KC LaCourse of Las Vegas recites an emotional piece as part of the gathering’s Anything Goes open mic series.
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A former Poet Laureate of Montana, Henry Real Bird offers a spoken glimpse into Crow Nation country as part of the Bull-Slingers, Braggarts & Blowhards show.
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Married for 23 years and divorced for 19, Dennis and Christine Bolt now travel the world together as best friends. Here they are at enjoying the Gathering’s Zydeco and Cajun Dance workshop.
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“It’s just a wonderful preservation of the West.” 15-year Gathering attendee Jack Morris of Tuscon, Arizona enjoys a coffee break between shows.
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Elko landmark Stockmen’s Casino demands to be noticed along an otherwise subdued strip of downtown.
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Doug Groves leads a lesson on rawhide braiding at the Western Folklife Center.
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“Cowboys, history and ranching.” Shaleigh Shippy, the holder of Miss Elko’s Outstanding Teen title, lists the first three words that come to mind when she thinks of Elko.
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Performing artists Sourdough Slim and Rodney Nelson take in the words of a fellow storyteller at the Bull-Slingers, Braggarts & Blowhards show.
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“What’s the difference between a Canadian cowboy and an American cowboy? One of them has a can of Copenhagen in his pocket that’s worth $6 and the other has a can of Copenhagen in his pocket that’s worth $30.” Alberta musician and spoken-word artist Ryan Fritz performs alongside his son Hoss at the gathering’s Family Ties show.
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Montana-born fiddler Jamie Fox delivers a powerful performance in traditional Métis style at the gathering’s Bridging the 49th concert.
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Canadian musician Corb Lund croons a tune for a packed house at the Elko Convention Centre.
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Canadian musicians Colter Wall, Ian Tyson and Corb Lund share the stage during the Gathering’s closing show, entitled Bridging the 49th.
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The legendary Ian Tyson waves goodbye to a standing audience after it's implied that the performance will be his last.
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The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering wraps with a spirited dance starting at midnight and lasting until the early hours of the morning.
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