Ah Nevada, “the enigma in disguise” where people “will prosper and live well” if they only pay attention to the Native American wisdom to “live within her wishes.”
That is the essence of Elko County cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell’s “Dame Nevada,” the poem he delivered in Elko for all of Nevada during the national Cowboy Poetry Gathering on Monday night.
Mitchell was hired by the state Sesquicentennial Commission a month ago to deliver an official state 150th anniversary poem. He again delivered poetry as he has over the past 30 years in a career that taken him away from the ranch, but brought him wealth and journeys around the world.
It’s a poem about a tough, proud state and people who won’t compromise their values but remain open-minded about the beliefs of others and are “liberal with their love.”
Anyone who has lived here for decades would have to agree. This was the place where people came to find work and fulfill their dreams, while not only tolerating but welcoming newcomers. The past five years of the Great Recession, unemployment and drought have been a tragedy, but the hope and the spirit of Nevadans remain.
Mitchell captures that in “Dame Nevada.” To accomplish that goal, he says: “Pard, it wasn’t easy.”
“I was doing shows in Colorado when my manager called and said they wanted a poem and they want it by the gathering,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview. “I said, ‘I will do my best.’ ”
When he returned home to his ranch near the Ruby Mountains, Mitchell stayed up nights and “worked my tail off.” Eventually it came together after he cut 20 verses and rewrote and rewrote.
“I am not a naturally gifted writer. I am more a philosopher or watcher of life,” he said. “I have stories running around my head for a year. It’s like working a crossword puzzle. And the idea is to get it as close to language that people understand.”
“Writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent editing,” he quipped.
He doesn’t use big words that one needs a dictionary to understand. He dropped out of high school at 16 but marvels that he once was hired by the University of Wyoming to teach creative writing to graduate students.
To the unfamiliar, Bruce Mitchell, 63, was born on a ranch in Jiggs, a forgotten spot south of Elko. He liked to rhyme and to listen to the stories of cowhands, who in an earlier time were called “waddies.”
With a big buckaroo hat and a handlebar mustache, he was a natural to appear in a TV documentary about cowboys in the early 1980s. Then he helped organize the first cowboy poetry gathering in 1985.
“Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson was a cowboy poetry fan and invited Mitchell to appear on his show. Mitchell, who then lived in a home without TV, first hesitated, but later consented. He would appear several times with Carson and quickly become the most famous cowboy poet in America.
Mitchell is to Nevada what “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor is to Minnesota.
He still is on the road 200 days a year. During Las Vegas’ centennial year in 2005, Mitchell was the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s advertising and centennial face.
Mitchell, the father of five grown children and eight grandchildren, lives in a 5,000-square-foot home on a ranch with a good view of the Ruby Mountains. His wife, Lisa, is the daughter of the late comedian Buddy Hackett.
His goal from the beginning was to acquire his own ranch. He accomplished that dream, but now is on the road so much that he leases his land to a neighbor. He also got rid of his horse and cattle but aims to acquire a new horse soon.
He brags that one of his granddaughters was “second in the world” last year in all-round cowgirl riding competition.
“I have the best of both worlds. When you hit 40, you know there are a lot of bumps and bruises that come with buckarooing,” he said. “I get to go to lots of places with cowboy elements, and I come home without aches and pain. And I come home to a place without other human beings around and get to look at the Rubies.”
If Mitchell has any competition for Nevada’s best-known poet, then it is from “Earl.” He is the grandfather character in “Pickles,” the comic strip drawn by Sparks resident Brian Crane. In recent scrips, Earl has been trying his hand at cowboy poetry, with funny results. Crane has given a lot of attention to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which ends Saturday.
Even more than the poems, Mitchell knows it is his buckaroo look and Western drawl that draw people to his performances and to buy his CDs and books.
“I couldn’t make a living as a poet,” he said.
Western drawls, he added, are vanishing from folks in Elko County.
“Elko is not so much a little old cowtown, but a mining town,” he said. “We have Wal-Mart and Kmart and fast food. Most people come from somewhere else.”
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901. Follow him on Twitter @edisonvogel.