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Saddle up. Poetry gathering celebrates all things cowboy

Bent while boondocking outside Alkali, the Subaru’s driveshaft was repaired just in time.

Nevada Smith is back on the road this week and headed to Elko for that remarkable roundup of purple sage writers, the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. For the past three decades, Elko’s Western Folklife Center has attracted the best cowboy poets and entertainers from a worldwide swath of range.

For the uninitiated, the gathering celebrates the life not of drugstore cowboys, rodeo professionals or the gunslingers from the silver screen, but the genuine article found on working ranches throughout rural Nevada and elsewhere. I’ve been lucky enough to attend several times and have thoroughly enjoyed the large programs and smaller readings alike.

It’s much more than a poetry reading and six-string guitars. It’s a cultural festival that annually offers programs and classes on everything from leather craft and rawhide braiding to silver smithing and Dutch-oven cooking.

The programs are as eclectic as their titles are unusual. A few of many: “Of Mules and Men,” “From the Front Porch,” “Big Harmonies” and “Woven From the Land: Women, Prairie, Culture.”

With approximately 50 poets, there’s something for every taste. I’m a big fan of classic cowboy poems and poets, but increasingly the gathering attracts a younger audience that helps keep the events and perspectives fresh. This year’s theme is “Expressing the Rural West — Into the Future!”

Still, if there’s a chance, I’ll walk a long way to hear anyone read Frank Deprez’s “Lasca.” Written in 1882, it tells the tale of the cowboy and the very tough little Mexican woman who rode with him side by side and loved him more than life itself.

I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice to say that I still tear up when I hear the words, “In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.”

And I still laugh whenever I watch Riders in the Sky on stage. The cowboy music comedians are skilled with their instruments; they’re also larger-than-life characters with a great sense of timing. (For information and to hear samples of their music, go to www.ridersinthesky.com.)

You have to get a kick out of any cowboy band that sports a motto, “Bringing Good Beef to Hungry People.” Riders plays Elko annually, and this week has scheduled four dates during the gathering.

If you can’t smile after hearing songs from albums with titles such as “Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” “Yodel the Cowboy Way,” “Cowboys in Love” and “Saddle Pals,” you are definitely suffering from a fiddle deficiency.

Just last week, Riders in the Sky turned up in Sparks for legendary Northern Nevada casino man John Ascuaga’s 89th birthday celebration. The band has been a regular feature at Ascuaga’s Nugget for many years.

If a more traditional cowboy crooner is to your liking, there’s also a concert from Ian Tyson. For me, the gathering could just as easily be called a cowboy music festival.

With Nevada celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and the poetry gathering marking its 30th, the grand commotion in Elko is a great way to get in the spirit of the sesquicentennial.

This late in the day, tickets are hard to come by and room reservations in Elko are scarce. (A tip: General admission tickets usually go on sale in October.) But the gathering is something worth planning ahead for. You won’t be disappointed, and you don’t even have to own a horse.

(To become a member of the Western Folklife Center, call Donna Engdahl at 888-880-5885. For more information on the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, go to www.westernfolklife.org.)

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com.

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