After five years as Programs Coordinator for the Western Folklife Center, and five National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings under my belt, I am cleaning out my desk and closing the door. I came to the Western Folklife Center as a folklorist who had worked on quite a few folk festivals, but I was not prepared for the community that descends on Elko once a year, in the middle of winter, to perform a unique art form, to reconnect with good friends, and to let loose a little in the Pioneer Saloon, while sharing all of that with strangers.
My first visit to the Gathering was in 2007. I was hired to help with the education programs, specifically the CowKids' Stampede. At the time, the Stampede was held in the G Three Bar Theater, so only 300 students could attend at one time. My responsibilities were to introduce the Ringling 5 and make sure they had what they needed. Well, the volunteer ushers didn't show up (or maybe they did but I didn't know who to look for), so I also ended up herding 300 students in and out of the theater three times. Basically, I'd never been to the Gathering and I had to manage 900 kids and the Ringling 5! It was tremendous fun.
When the job for Gathering Manager (actually, the title is more innocuous that that--Programs Coordinator) opened, I knew it was the job for me. Luckily, the Western Folklife Center took a chance on me. As a Midwestern city girl, I was nervous about being rejected as an outsider. But not one single person made me feel out of place—in fact, I immediately felt like a part of the family. All those festivals I’d worked before don’t hold a candle to the Gathering. I have never gotten so many hugs as I did that first January (and all the Januarys since).
The thing that always stuck with me about my first Gathering as manager was how many people told me that I was "so calm." It's natural for me to remain calm under festival pressure, but I think it was more than being calm. I was having fun, and that's what made everything seem to run so smoothly.
Five years of running the Gathering has taught me a few things. I have learned that cowboys are the nicest people on the planet. They will not only give you the shirt off their backs (like Waddie did one year after I complimented him on his sweater--Lisa was none to happy about that!) but also their undying friendship. I feel so honored to have had the wonderful pleasure of getting to know so many interesting and kind people; I may never have the chance to meet so many great people in such a short amount of time. If I’m lucky, I’ll meet as many during the rest of my lifetime.
I have also learned that every problem has a solution and that there are many people to help find that solution. One year, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie were scheduled to play the CowKids' Stampede. They all got in on Tuesday, but their luggage didn't make it until Wednesday--the day of the performance. So here it is at 9:00 am, a half an hour before the kids will be let into the auditorium and I need to find a bass guitar, an accordion and a frattoir, or washboard. Finding a guitar was easy. The accordion wasn't too hard, but where in the world was I going to find a washboard at 9 in the morning? Next door at Cowboy Joe, of course! You can read my blog post about it here.
I plan on attending the Gathering, just as an audience member, so I can finally get to see everyone perform! If the Gathering is a family, then you can just think of me as going off to college. I'll be home for the family reunion in January.
Thank you again for welcoming me into this family. I'll miss you.
Heading off into the sunset,