Every January thousands of cowboys, ranchers, musicians, and craftspeople journey to the high-desert town of Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
The festival features six days of poetry, music, dancing, and folk art exhibits, as well as numerous workshops on everything from storytelling and rodeo swing dancing to rawhide braiding and spit cooking. This year the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering turns thirty-five, and for many of the performers and participants who return annually, it will be a time to celebrate, reflect, and honor the past—and, as usual, to share poems and tell stories.
The first Gathering, coordinated by Elko’s Western Folklife Center, was held in 1985—though many agree that cowboys were meeting and sharing poetry long before then. “Some journalists say it’s the most honest and open-hearted festival in America. Ranchers say these few days contain the highest concentration of lies in any one place at any one time,” jokes Hal Cannon, keynote speaker for the 2019 event and founding director of the Western Folklife Center, on the event website. “The fact is, what we think of as the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko was hardly the first. The old Pioneer Hotel still echoes from a hundred years of poems, lies, and lost dreams.”
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January - February 2019