Friday, January 19, 2007

A Night Among the Cowboy Poets

The National Western Stock Show is in town, and that means it's time for the Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering, now in its eighteenth season. Musicians and rhymesters from across the region gather to entertain locals and stock show exhibitors. Numerous men in the audience were dressed in plaid flannel shirts and blue jeans. I felt at home, for this is the standard "business casual" dress of my father, a Wyoming native.

Cowboy poetry and folk music are refreshingly free of those poisonous ironic poses beloved by certain Denverites disdainful of our cow town's past and present. The genre shuns the psychological self-absorption so common among those contemporary musicians and poets who inflict their unfulfilled and unremarkable longings upon their listeners. Cowboy poetry favors the tactile: dirt, skin, blood, and bones.

Possessing sentiment without being sentimentalist, its forays into emotion include the lamentation, the humorous, the humorous lamentation, and the embarrassingly humorous lamentation. For the Cowboy Poet the West is always lost, or being lost: the kids are moving away from the ranch, the cattle are dying, Geronimo's gone, and those damn city folk are moving in.

The Arvada Center's concerts feature five or six artists who perform two or three of their songs or poems. The Friday evening concert I attended did not start well. The first musician, an older man, was having a bad night, forgetting the lyrics to one of his songs. His musical bones clattered nervously as his memory failed, rescued at last by one of his fellow performers.

The night went up from there. Chuck Larsen regaled the crowd with a tale of a severely saddle-sore cowboy who chokes his pride and wears his wife's silk panties for relief. He also recited a poem memorializing Larsen's own "getting Saved," which involved the visit of a pastor and his spouse to an unchurched man and his proselytizing wife, and an accidental cowpie to the face of said wife during a medical examination of a bull.

Like I said, the style favors the tactile.

The poem itself is unavailable on-line, but here is a selection from another of Larsen's poems:

In performin' my Cowboy Poetry
I stick to Cowboy Gatherin's as a rule.
Until the Coffee House guru called,
Said it'd be movin', like really cool.

He said their crowd was reachin' out
In darkness, sufferin' cultural incontinence.
Asked if I'd come release a vision
Of the West, the Cowboy experience.

I showed up on the given night.
Listened to their first urban poet.
He sure had a way with words,
But when he was finished I didn't know it.

I started feelin' pretty outa place.
By the second act I was feelin' worse.
Why I even got to wishin'
I'd of written a little free verse.

On the musical side of the evening, the group Prickly Pair gave the finest performance of the night. One of their songs is environmentalist, in its way. The chorus runs:

We're all part of the big food chain,
the big food chain of life.
We eat things, and things eat us,
And it works out so nice.

We're all part of a great big stew
and someday we'll discover
We're born we live we die
and we're all food for one another.

I much prefer this song to The Lion King's reverent pean to pantheism "The Circle of Life."

The fiddler was wisecracking to his guitar-playing wife throughout their performance. While extolling the wonders of the food chain, he insisted that "vegetarian" is an old Indian word meaning "poor hunter." He also told of being asked if a bar and grill served vegetarians. His reply? "Of course! What do you think cows are?"

Prickly Pair's other songs included a song from the Australian range and a ballad of a girl and her doomed robber beau, sung with a beautiful Celtic warble. (The pair lately performed at Estes Park's Scottish/Irish Festival.) It seems the wife of the pair, Locke Hamilton, had a personal link with my family: she has a family connection to the T E Ranch near Cody, Wyoming, where my own great-grandfather and his brother once served as ranchhands for the legendary Buffalo Bill.

Skip Gorman, who has caught the attention of National Public Radio, rounded off the evening. He closed with the touching nineteenth-century ballad Utah Carroll, written for a wrangler killed while rescuing the traiboss' young daughter from a stampede.

So you ask me my kind friend
Why I am sad and still
And why my brow is darkened
Like the clouds upon the hill

Rein in your ponies closer
And I'll tell you all a tale
Of Utah Carroll, partner
And his last ride on the trail

In a grave without a headstone
Without a date or name
My partner lies there silent
In the land from which I came

Long ago we rode together
We'd ridden side by side
I loved him like a brother
And I wept when Utah died.

The evening was a reminder of a genre neglected by pop culture since the days of Gene Autry. It is welcome to know that Country/Western's better half is still getting along, following the well-worn trail of its talented trailblazers.

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