Next January is a turning point for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. This Nevada treasure is celebrating its 25th anniversary, the silver anniversary in the Silver State. And its goal is to try to get more 25-year-olds to attend, or at least to get a younger crowd.
“I was the average age of those attending when it started, and I’m the average age now,” said one of the gathering’s founding members, Hal Cannon, now 59.
This past Saturday night, under the stars with the wind breezing by and the tree leaves clapping, two cowboy poets and one cowboy band presented a taste of cowboy poetry, from the raunchy to the raucous, from the silly to the somber.
The venue was a Las Vegas launch party in Leslie and Ron Parraguirre’s backyard before 110 people. Now usually he’s called Justice Parraguirre because of his day job on the Nevada Supreme Court, but that night he was just Ron, who has taken his wife to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering for 14 of the 16 years they’ve been married.
“We wanted to do this to help preserve something that’s a dying art,” said Leslie, a decorator who laughingly describes her own eclectic home as “Cowboy French.”
To raise awareness of the poetry gathering, similar events are planned for New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, said Greg Ferraro, whose firm represents the gathering and the Western Folklife Center, which celebrates cowboys and rural life. “We want to preserve a very special art form that’s unequaled,” Ferraro said. “And we want to bridge the generation gap.”
Two of the best were featured last weekend — poet Paul Zarzyski and cowboy band “Wylie & the Wild West.” The event raised $35,000 for the Western Folklife Center to promote the poetry gathering.
Zarzyski said cowboy poets “have fun with the sounds of words,” and then he went on to prove it with the poem “Purt Near” and his paean to pie, naming the pies he loves, ending with “tangerine boomerang gooseberry,” words that slid off his tongue much like the pie itself would slither down.
Every word is pronounced with precision in an accent straight from … Wisconsin. But he’s an authentic cowboy, a retired bareback bronc rider now from Montana.
You may not be familiar with Wylie Gustafson’s name, but you would have heard his yodel in the Yahoo ad. I bet you hear it now in your head. I’ve heard it all week.
In April he appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and sang his hit “Yodel Boogie.” Just one more opportunity to reach that desirable younger audience.
When Gustafson isn’t teaching Conan O’Brien to yodel, he’s raising cutting horses in Dusty, Wash. Population: 11.
Because they are real cowboys and not just performers, it gives the poetry gathering an authenticity that draws 8,000 people to Elko for a week looking for reality in our often unreal world.
Wimpy Las Vegans are discouraged from going to Elko at the end of January because of the potential of bad weather and bad roads and the dreaded cold waiting at the end of the 450-mile drive. But the founders were more interested in finding a convenient time for cowboys and ranchers, and the end of January worked best for them. Oddly, although over the years the gathering has gained an international reputation, turnout from Las Vegas is light.
Part of that may be because of the misconception that if you wanted to go, you had to get tickets and make room reservations months in advance. Once true, but no longer, Cannon said. Last-minute Las Vegans can find a place to sleep in Elko, and tickets are easier to obtain.
For more information about the gathering, which starts Jan. 24 and ends Jan. 31, check out www.westernfolklife.org or call (775)738-7508.
Ever since I heard Zarzyski’s “The Bucking Horse Moon,” I see that bucking horse, even in my Las Vegas moon, because his words are more vivid when heard. I’ll share one verse:
We knew sweet youth’s no easy keeper.
It’s spent like winnings, all too soon.
So we’d revel every minute
In the music of our Buick
Running smooth, two rodeoin’ lovers
Cruising to another —
Beneath Montana’s blue roan
Bucking horse moon.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.