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Young Guns

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Thursday, January 31, 2013

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Last night's "young" guns came to the G Three Bar Stage with guns blazing, each entertaining the crowd with sharp lyrics and an array of stories. Andy Hedges and Brenn Hill had the crowd moved with poetry and song, each weaving life and music together seamlessly.

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Its great to have performers step onto the stage and immediately captivate the audience with smiles and fun. If you were looking to find spunk and heaps of heart on a National Cowboy Poetry Gathering stage then you had better seek out another show with Adrian. She certainly brought the lady fire last night and let us know that buckerettes are a tough group of gals.

Written by Mike Gamm

Photos by Charlie Eckburg

Cowboy Philosophy

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Thursday, January 31, 2013

In this session, Jess Howard and Georgie Sicking shared their stories about the simpler parts of the western lifestyle, while Keith Ward intrigued us with what it meant to be a cowboy as we grew up watching great American heroes. Together, they remind us that being a cowboy is not all work and strife; that it's made up of plenty of laughs and fun. Most of all, they reveal that each day is special as long as we strive to be our own cowboy.

Kristyn Harris and the Quebe Sisters Band

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
January 31, 2013

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Kristyn Harris wowed performance-goers in the open mic music sessions at last year's Gathering, and as a result, she came back this year with a variety of fun songs.  She's a talented singer/songwriter with plenty of extra skills in her tool box.  Her smooth talk and yodeling kept the room engaged, and once again Kristyn didn't fail to impress the audience, proving that fresh talent is always welcome at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Wow this girl can yodel!

Yodeling Fever with 18-year-old Kristyn Harris. 

Click here for a video.

The Quebe Sisters Band took the stage once again this afternoon, showing what it means to be a powerhouse trio.  It will get you all warm and fuzzy inside hearing these girls singing and playing.  Everyone on stage is a champion of their craft, and they'll show what it means to be the best.

A Changing West

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
January 31, 2013

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Today's session "A Changing West" presented great stories and songs by John Dofflemyer, Henry Real Bird and Gail Steiger. Each painting beautiful pictures of the West. Although lament for the western way may have been the topic, these poets painted pictures not just about the changing West, but also how the West is still out there for all of us to explore. John Dofflemyer revealed that poetry can describe so much more than a something we see. Gail Steiger asked us to take a look at the West that remains as we visit Elko, and Henry Real Bird reminded us that the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is a place to explore some of these lost (but needed to be rediscovered) places and traditions. By the end, they showed us that the West can be found in the poetry that it keeps it in our hands and in our hearts, proposing that the changing West is only the whitening of our hair.

Written by Mike Gamm

Photo by Jessica Lifland

Beautiful Day in Elko

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Thursday, January 31, 2013

The rousing performances by the Quebe Sisters Band and Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs may have kept people up late last night, but as the city awoke in shuffles, smiles could be seen as the Gathering moved into full swing today. This morning appears to be another beautiful day in Elko, Nevada, as blue skies push the white away.

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The Quebe Sisters Band have stopped in Elko before flying off to Zurich, Switzerland. From the beginning of last night's performance the Quebe Sisters were all smiles and talent. They did no less than allow our hearts and minds to fly away as quick hands and sweet voices lulled our senses. The balance between vocal power and fiddle rhythm kept feet moving.

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When Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs stepped out from the curtain it was clear that the party was starting. The energy within the group showed a strong love with stage and audience, and simply stated they we're a fun group of guys. Their music leaves us wondering if it's always a good time in Texas.

Each of these groups will be performing over the next few days, so don't miss your chance to see them.

Written by Mike Gamm

Photo by Jessica Lifland

Keith Ward, All Smiles

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Thursday, January 31, 2013

CPG2009 Artist Photos
CPG2009 Artist Photos

Poet Keith Ward was all smiles as I spoke with him outside the Western Folklife Center last night.  He reminisced about the year he came across the Gathering, as well as the time and effort spent traveling across long stretches of country in search of an open mic.  For Keith, his first year at the Gathering had been eye-opening and invigorating.  It had been the first time he had been on a plane, the first time that he signed up for an open mic session and the first time that he had found a group of people that shared his love for poetry.

He explained that the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is not just about poetry and music, "it's about the people."  It has been five years since Keith first attended the Gathering and after a good amount of pressure and prodding, Keith submitted an application to be on this year's performance roster.  2013 will prove to be another year of firsts as Keith takes the Gathering stage this afternoon as a bona fide poet.  Being included in this year's list of performers has proven that all of his efforts have paid off, and it will be great to see  him up on stage doing what he loves.

Keith will be performing today at 2:45 pm in the Gold Room of the Elko Convention Center.

Written by Mike Gamm

Photo Courtesy Western Folklife Center

Rawhide Braiding with Doug Groves

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I have been told that if you really want to experience what the Gathering has to offer with regards to culture and tradition then you need to visit Doug Groves in the rawhide workshop. You can seek Doug out in a small room of the convention center, where a community gathers to work their projects, share ideas and help friends.

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Doug Groves has been sharing his knowledge and skills with anyone that wants to delve deep into the art or simply learn the basics.  I watched form and function come together beautifully as Doug braided strings of rawhide into strong rope, all while explaining technique and theory to an engaged and involved audience.  The display of work around the room by artisans and students alike humbled me as I walked about, but Doug's easy and informative lessons helped ground the entire experience.

I asked Doug to provide a short history about the use of rawhide and he made it clear that there isn't a 'short history' when it comes to rawhide.  Its use dates beyond recorded history as humans learned that strength increases when single strings are woven into a unified rope.  Since then rawhide traditions have grown and moved across vast distances, changing along the way.  Doug explained that today rawhide remains the best choice when working with horses because it provides the rider with the response needed from hand to horse to clearly convey the rider's intent.  It is still an important part of western tradition.

If you didn't make it this year don't miss out on a chance to learn the ancient tradition—be sure to put it onto your calendar for next year.

Submitted by Michael Gamm

Teen Poetry Workshop

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poetry Out Loud gets teens from across the country reading and writing, and this morning poets Paul Zarzyski and Randy Rieman lead a workshop to get local teens up on stage sharing their talents with the spoken word.  Rieman worked with Poetry Out Loud in Montana and thought that promoting youth poetry would be a great addition to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He also stresses the importance of community support for youth programs like this one.

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Recitations by Cody Bates, Anna Wheeler, Mikayla Bates and Mikayla Dimick showed that there is much talent to be found in young poets, and that their voices breathe life into the words that are otherwise read.  Though the list of names appears short, the array of talent was invigorating.  It is great to see the next generation of poets unafraid of stage and audience.  These teens could be the authors of the next set of great poetry, but it takes a strong community to give opportunities to talented kids like these.  Don't miss the chance to see other up and coming talent over the rest of the week.

Written by Mike Gamm

Photos by Charlie Eckburg

Max Baca and Los Texmaniacs Rock the House for Hundreds of Elko Schoolkids

29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Wednesday
January 30, 2013

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NCPG13 - Los_Texmaniacs_CDcover_121511 from artists_sm

Today droves of local school children poured from busses and filed into the convention center to enjoy the vitality of Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs.  The children could hardly sit before the concert began and as music filled the hall, sitting became impossible.  Max Baca's jokes and antics kept the excitement of the crowd roaring while the band's flare and fun music kept bodies moving.  Waves of laughter, screams and jumping continued even after the last note was played.  We wish good luck to the teachers as they take energy rich students back to the classroom. Here's a taste of what it was like inside the Auditorium!

http://youtu.be/ucR9zBrtXQA

Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs will be playing tonight in the Elko Convention Center at 7 pm.  Be warned that you may be unable to keep your body from moving to the explosion of Texas blended music.

Submitted by Michael Gamm

Evento Italiano

It is interesting how much there is to be shown even in the 29th year of the. Gathering. Natalia Estrada and Drew Mischianti introduced us to our Italian guests in the G3Bar Theater on a classic Elko evening.

Drew acted as MC and interpreter as he and Natalia set the scene about ranch life and history in their region between Rome and Naples. They laughed about how the region of Maremma historically was like Nevada. Throughout its early history it was a land nobody wanted or was discounted as a bad territory to travel through. They spoke lovingly of cow camps, beautiful vistas and food garnered from the land. The music definitely had the feel of an earlier time, yet the singing of Gianluca Zammarelli had the smooth, clear character that Americans recognize from 20th century popular song. The ancient guitar, traditional pipes and accordion were explained in their historical context, most notably that, the bagpipe came from the Greeks and Romans and eventually to the regional cultures of Europe.

It was a much anticipated evening and people were very taken with the enthusiasm and passion that the Italians have for their life, their land and their ranch based culture. The program was a good start for what I think will be a continuing theme throughout this week: that our cultural story is very incomplete without understanding the central role that Italian culture plays in the livestock cultures that exist today.

Youth events at the Western Folklife Center

I'm Jan Petersen, Youth Education Coordinator for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. My able assistant, Deb Howard, and I just completed the2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Youth Festival, a week of kids programs at the Western Folklife Center. This isn't anything new—the Western Folklife Center has hosted this event the week before Cowboy Poetry for over 20 years. Over 650 students and home-schoolers from Elko County joined in the fun. The kids, mostly 3rd and 4th graders, climbed on big yellow school buses and traveled down to the Western Folklife Center located in the middle of historic downtown Elko, Nevada. All were pretty excited as they came in the door as this has become quite a tradition in the schools. The kids knew from their teachers, older siblings and older students that a good time was in store. We divided into three groups and... .they were off!  All rotated through three stations.

Station 1 was stamping leather with Karla Chapin. She is a master leather craftswoman, long on patience. After a short instruction time, the kids—4 or 5 to a table—were turned loose with their very own leather round and a table full of stamping tools. The noise is deafening (our volunteers wear earplugs or...take out their hearing aids). Twenty minutes later, "voila!" — a masterpiece was created and ready to take home (I still have a stamped leather piece one of my kids made oh so long ago. Now they are big kids with kids of their own.).

Station 2 was touring the exhibit with Jackie Jonas, a retired social studies teacher. She told them a bit about the exhibit, reminded them of museum manners, and gave them a scavenger hunt questionnaire to fill out. Again, a volunteer helped the kids find the answers, not to mention sneaking in a little learning along the way. This year some of our Italian guests were there to talk to the kids. This was really exciting to meet a "real" Italian!

Station 3 took place at the historic Pioneer Hotel Bar. Here, accomplished horsewoman Carla Wilson Leff told all about different types of saddles. The kids sat with rapt attention learning about the horn, latigos and even side saddles! For many years, Wrangler has donated bright-colored bandannas to the Youth Festival. Each kid got to choose a color and learned to tie the scarf. THEN all moved to the bar - 2 to a stool - and sipped their very own cup of sarsaparilla. It was all very exciting.

Ninety minutes later, the big yellow school bus pulled up and the kids returned to school all a twitter with their new scarves, carefully crafted leather pieces and a bit of learning about a far away country with cowboys who work cows and horses in some ways that are different yet the same as our cowboy life here in northeastern Nevada.

And another bus pulls up with more kids and the crew begins again.

It's a lot of work and time to set up this program and worth every minute. We couldn't do this without our volunteers. Every year our faithful helpers come back to help kids stamp leather, bar-tend and pour sarsaparilla, and tour the kids. This program couldn't exist without kid-friendly volunteers.

And....a good time was had by all!

A Tribute to George Gund III

George Gund, III May 7, 1937 - January 15, 2013

By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director

CPG2006 General Scenes
CPG2006 General Scenes

George Gund III, friend and longtime supporter of the Western Folklife Center, passed away January 15 in Palm Springs, California, where he had been suffering from stomach cancer. He will be missed.

George was a great friend to many of us and it is fair to say that without his support there would not be a Western Folklife Center today. In 2013 the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is such a well-known and beloved event that it seems as it if it has always been here. Things were different in 1984 when we were out trying to raise funds to start it. We approached many of the corporate sponsors behind rodeo and other cowboy events and virtually all of them laughed us out of the room at the idea of cowboys reciting poetry. Individual supporters were no easier to find. George came forward as the only individual contributor that first year and wrote a check. He saw the promise of the idea and was willing to take a chance.

He joined our Board of Trustees in 1986, making him the longest-tenured board member in the organization. In recent years his son, George Gund IV (Crunchy), joined the board as well. For many years George hosted legendary board retreats at his ranch in Lee, Nevada, or at one of his homes in Palm Springs and on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands. When the Western Folklife Center had the opportunity to purchase the old Pioneer Hotel out of bankruptcy, George bought the building on our behalf. In recognition of all he did to create a home for the organization, we named the G Three Bar Theater after his brand.

Today, there have been articles published about George all over the country. In Cleveland, his hometown, he is being remembered as former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and as a patron of the arts. In the Bay Area, his adopted home, he is being remembered as a founder of the San Francisco Film Festival and the professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks. In most articles people talk about his world-class eyebrows, his unconventional ways, his Bohemian nature. But what all these various articles prove is how wide his interests were, how many friends he had, and how generously he supported the things and the people he loved.

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PCD001-072_CPG2001_Sue_Rosoff_1 4x6 copy

George helped several cities become better places. Here in Elko we know yet another aspect of George that few of his urban friends had the chance to experience. He was an avid rancher and attended the Nevada Cattlemen’s meetings each year. He was always interested in cowboy traditions but he also wanted to know the latest about breeds and new ways of grazing. George was a horticulturalist. He loved taking people to his gardens in Palm Springs and picking exotic citrus fruits as they strolled the grounds. He had an extraordinary eye for art. His collections of Asian arts, Northwest Indian wood carvings, and western drawings and paintings are all unique. He did not buy art for investment. He collected art that he loved.

George loved ordinary people from bellhops to hockey-playing kids to young filmmakers. He was deferential to everyone. Often people had no idea of his wealth. He did not put on airs. He loved cowboys and ranch people and was involved from the beginning in the Folklife Center’s attempts at ”grass roots diplomacy” through international cultural exchanges with ranching people around the world. He not only funded some of these efforts but acted as photographer and friend during fieldwork documenting Australian drovers and South American gauchos.

It seems that most people who knew George have at least a few stories about him. Every time you were with him, the occasion turned into an adventure. Usually he didn’t initiate the adventure so much as bring it out of those who are adventurous at heart. I’d like to tell a couple of personal stories about George. The first is mine; the second is from my dear wife Teresa who now serves as a Trustee of the Western Folklife Center.

When I was traveling to Australia to find bush poets to bring to the Gathering, George offered to take me Down Under on his plane. Just getting off the ground was an adventure but finally we got underway.

After a long day of flying over the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see, George told the pilots we would land at the Marshall Islands for a night of rest and refueling. We landed on the atoll island of Majuro, and the next morning, on our way back to the airfield from our hotel, we made a quick visit to the village museum. We got to talking with the woman at the desk who had lived on the Islands for many years and learned that she was originally from my hometown of Salt Lake City. She grew up in a neighborhood where I had gone to a yard sale just the day before. When I told her that, she looked at me point blank and asked, “Did you buy my cowboy piano?” Sure enough I had. I was stunned to think the world could be so small. I glanced at George to read his reaction but he didn’t even twitch one of his voluminous eyebrows. Later I asked him why he didn’t seem surprised. I realized in his answer that George was constantly running into people he knew all over the world. This coincidence didn’t seem out of the ordinary. George’s world was a small world. By the way, that cowboy piano that I purchased those many years ago has been donated to the Western Folklife Center and can be heard every year at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the Pioneer Saloon under the great care of pianist Dave Bourne.

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This from Teresa: “For our honeymoon, George offered Hal and me his cabin on Stuart Island. He met us at Dutch Harbor to take us over to Stuart on his needle-nose yacht, the Lambada. It was the day of the Russian coup and the San Jose Sharks had just brought a player over. The player's family was still in Russia and George was terribly worried that they would not be able to get out. As we headed back to Stuart Island, George was talking on his satellite phone to Russia, but being George, he was also fishing, and he caught a big salmon. I remember him on the nose of the Lambada, trying to juggle the phone and the fish and the international conversation… Oh, there are so many more stories, and all of them, at their heart, revolve around his great spirit and generosity and concern for others. I just can't imagine the world without him.”

George was one of the most original people Teresa and I have ever met. We feel a great sense of loss at his passing. Our hearts go out to his family and our love to all those who loved George.

Please share your own stories and memories of George in the comment section of this blog.

Read George Gund’s obituary in the Elko Daily Free Press.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of several charities, including the Western Folklife Center. To facilitate such contributions we have established the George Gund III Memorial Fund. If you wish to make a memorial donation in George’s honor, please send it to: George Gund III Memorial Fund, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad Street, Elko, NV 89801, or call Linda Carter at 775 738-7508, ext. 222.

Changing Pastures

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.

Ringling 5 and Me
Ringling 5 and Me

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.

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Heading off into the sunset,

Tamara

Cooking Ravioli Cowboy-Style

Yesterday, at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Luc Gerber of Luciano's restaurant in Elko taught about 15 men and women the secrets of ravioli-making from start to finish. The dough: flour flew as the group went about mixing and rolling the dough. Then it was left to set. A layer of flour thicker than the current snowfall in Elko settled on everyone in the kitchen.

Meanwhile the group created two types of fillings—a crab filling and a sausage and mushroom filling—both with a ricotta cheese base. Garlic was smashed and herbs chopped and added to their respective bowls.

The Sauce: tomatoes were cut and basil chopped. More garlic was smashed. The group cooked up two sauces, one from fresh tomatoes and one from canned stewed whole tomatoes.

The assemblage: the real fun of putting together the ravioli was assembling the parts. More flour flew, but alas, the group was short of rolling pins. In fact there was only one. So they improvised, rolling with bottles of 7-up, hot sauce, beer and even an empty carafe. They each took a turn on the pasta maker, which presses the dough thin through a cranking system much like an old-fashioned bed sheet press. Scoops of filling were spooned onto the rolled dough. Some had more success topping off, sealing and cutting the raviolis than others.

The boil: fresh pasta does not need to boil for very long. About 3 minutes after the pasta hits the water, it floats to the top, ready to eat. But not quite...first it needs some tomato sauce.

The salad: the meal was rounded off with a caesar salad made with romaine lettuce and a dressing consisting of ingredients such as olive oil, mayonnaise, garlic, vinegar, some artichoke hearts and seasoning.

The meal: gulp...not a single boiled ravioli left uneaten.

Posted by Jessica Lifland

Words of Wisdom

As the manager of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it is rare that I get a chance to have extended conversations with any of the poets or musicians during the Gathering.  I am always getting called away to put out one fire or another.  Today I got lucky and had a chance to sit with Vess Quinlan for a while. Vess was talking with Keith Ward, a poet from North Carolina who participates in the Gathering's open mic sessions.  Keith is still somewhat new to the world of cowboy poetry, and he's eager to learn from an "old hand" like Vess.   Keith and I listened attentively to Vess as he described his writing process and what he's observed from other, more academic poets.  Vess talked about learning to move his rhymes into the body of the poem, rather than leaving them all at the end, and how the meaning of the poem is more important than forcing a rhyme.  He talked about how some poets (not cowboy poets) are forced into a certain form or style because of the institutions they work in or the positions they want to hold.

Keith told Vess that since he's started coming to the Gathering and sharing his work, he has been trying to figure out the rules himself.  Vess told him that the beauty of cowboy poetry, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in particular, is that the poets are allowed to take risks.  Each and every poet who performs at the Gathering supports every other poet.  They don't compete with one another, and that's why Elko is good.  If Jerry Brooks (who joined the conversation at this point) does a poem that has a sad mood, then Vess will adapt his plan to do a poem that brings the  mood back up.  If Vess does a long poem, then Jerry will do a short poem.  Vess says that is what sets cowboy poetry apart: there are no rules and everyone supports one another.

Vess also mentioned the audience, and Jerry agreed that the audience in Elko is sophisticated.  They allow those risks and make it possible for the poets to break the barriers between the performers on stage and the audience.

I can't wait for the sessions to start on Thursday.  Sure, now is the chance when I can sit for a minute and listen to some great stories, or even spend most of an evening performance in my seat, but I love the end of the week best.  Vess Quinlan and Jerry Brooks are performing each day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; check the schedule for times and locations.  Also, take a moment to listen to the open mic sessions in the Cedar Room.  You might get to hear what Keith Ward learned today.

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Braiding Rawhide

The first act of the 28th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering started today (though the event officially kicks off tomorrow, Jan. 30) with a workshop in rawhide braiding. Doug Groves, a highly respected braider in the Great Basin, who won the 2009 Nevada Governor's Arts Award, is teaching the class as he has for the last several years at the Gathering. In this workshop students are learning all aspects of rawhide braiding from the harvest of a suitable cowhide through the string-making process, to the finished product—a set of rawhide hobbles. Doug is being assisted by accomplished braiders Grant Groves and Charly Liesen along with other guest artists.

If you are in Elko, you should stop by the Convention Center the next few days and see how these braiders are progressing in their work. The class lasts four days. Other workshops this week include hatmaking, leather carving, fiddling, blogging, Southwest cooking, Italian cooking, and dancing. There are still spots available in most of these workshops so come join us!

Barre Toelken is one of my great heroes.

By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director

Barre Toelken is one of my great heroes. It’s more than the fact that he’s an esteemed folklorist who younger folklorists look up to. It’s more than his wonderful books on folklore, or the hundreds of songs he knows. It’s really the way he conducts his life with courage and individuality that makes him a hero.

We had been friendly and sung together, mostly at the yearly Fife Folklore Conference at Utah State University. When I began working in radio I asked to interview him. We ended up having a good conversation and over the years I’ve gone back to him several times for interviews on a variety of subjects.

A few years ago he asked me if I wanted to travel to Navajo country to visit his family.  I began to see another side of Barre as I watched the way he worked with the Yellowman’s, helping them plow through the bureaucracy to make claims for the deaths of their men from cancer after working in uranium mines in southeastern Utah in the 50s.

barre
barre

As he conversed in Navajo I realized he was not just a folklorist, curious about exotic traditions that were far from what he grew up with.  With time, he had become a trusted keeper of the family history, a respected elder. As a non-Indian who married into a large extended Navajo family it was not an easy position to be in.  However, from my vantage he has always acted in the best interests of his kin. For instance he made a courageous choice to return recordings of their stories when he could not be assured the tape would not be used in ways that went against Navajo spiritual codes. With this decision he took heat from archivists and other scholars.

By the end of that trip to the Navajo Nation, Barre and I became true friends. In subsequent visits I have learned a lot about this man that goes way beyond teacher and scholar. Besides speaking Navajo, Barre is a scholar of German folklore. During the Cold War, I learned Barre was part of a group who helped dissident scholars escape eastern block countries.  This was not all letter writing and meetings,  it included midnight boat rides and escapades as thrilling as any spy novel.

When Barre suffered a massive stroke in 2002 he was hospitalized two blocks away from my home in Salt Lake City. His home is 90 miles away in Logan,  and I was close by.  Over those weeks I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with Barre as he began to discover what had gone wrong in the stroke, and started the long and arduous road back to a useful life. It was apparent from the beginning that he’d lost the use of his right arm.  I remember, when he began feeling better I brought a guitar to his room, and while he made the chords with his left hand I strummed with my right.  He remembered all the chords and we got a good laugh out of our coordinated effort. Shortly after that day,  a group of his Logan friends came to visit and cajoled him into singing. It was a tough moment since so many words were tangled up in his brain; however,  it proved to be good exercise as he began to find new routes in his brain for lost words.

BToalken_sm
BToalken_sm

I had no idea at the time that a group was forming that would stick with Barre to help bring back his songs. Some of the faces have changed  over the years but those sessions of singing old folk songs and sea shanties still goes on in Barre and Miko’s living room.  For everyone involved it has been an incredibly rewarding  ten years of a grounding in music, each week, rain or shine.

LISTEN to Barre's singing group.

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/btoalken-song.mp3]

This past summer I visited Barre to interview him specifically about the experience of his stroke. I returned and recorded a session of music with the group a few weeks later. The short "What's in a Song" feature Taki Telonidis and I produced for  NPR represents a small amount of the material collected. I hope to continue to interview Barre, and even though he is getting older and his rehabilitation is slowing, his mind and heart are still strong as ever. I value Barre Toelken’s friendship.

LISTEN to Barre's story on What's in a Song

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/btoelken_wintro.mp3]

Interview with The Gillette Brothers

Gillette Brothers by Kevin Martini-Fuller

Gillette Brothers by Kevin Martini-Fuller

The Gillette Brothers, Guy and Pipp, play music that is rooted in the history of the West.  Tamara talks to them about Texas, playing music and running a business with one’s brother, and the many types of music that they play.

TK: Most of what I know about you is related to the music you play.  Tell us a little bit about the family ranch and how you ended up back in Texas to run it.

GB: Our Grandfather V.H. Porter started the ranch in 1912, and 2012 marks the 100th anniversary. We spent our summer vacations working with him and have been interested in ranching ever since. The ranch had been leased since our Grandfather’s retirement and we had been playing music up and down the East coast. In 1983 the lease expired and we decided to combine our music with our desire to get involved with ranching. We continue to run a commercial cow/calf operation, much the same as our Grandfather.

TK:  What led you to playing music?  Did you have any musical relatives?

GB: Our paternal Grandfather, Merlyn Gillette, was a singer and piano player, and our mother played piano. The biggest influence, however, were the records our parents played for us as kids which included many cowboy songs by Cisco Houston, Hermes Nye, Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.

TK:  What is it like to play with your brother?  You also work together.   How do you keep your relationship friendly and collaborative?

GB: We share similar interests and have always enjoyed being and working together, so it's GREAT!!!

LISTEN to Jingle Up the Horses

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/gillette-brothers-1-jingle-up-the-horses.mp3]

TK: Your music represents many different styles, from Celtic music to minstrel music.  How do the different styles connect to make the music cowboy music?

GB: These were among the popular musical influences of the original cowboy period and came together on the cattle trails when Irish/English/Scottish cowboys worked side by side with recently freed African American cowboys.

TK: Many of your songs are prefaced by stories, some of which are about your family history, some about the history of the song.  What is the importance of history to the songs you play?

GB: It brings the songs to life by putting them in an historical context and illustrates lessons that are still viable. Our Grandfather Porter was a wonderful storyteller and has left us a lot of material.

LISTEN to You Give Me Your Love

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/gillette-brothers-2-you-give-me-your-love.mp3]

2009 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

2009 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

TK: Like Sourdough Slim, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, you play more instruments than the standard guitar.  How is expanding your talents beyond the guitar important to making music?  How do you decide which instrument to play when you are arranging a tune or creating a new song?

GB: The instruments are ones that were popular at the time the songs came into being and are another element that helps to recreate the period. The variety also makes the presentation more interesting for us and, we hope, the audience.

2009 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

2009 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

TK: Some of the instruments you play are whimsical or unique.  How do the bones or a harmonica enhance the songs?

GB: The harmonica was cheap and portable and a cowboy staple. The bones have a long and interesting history, in spite of the fact that most folks are not familiar with them today. They were extremely popular in the 19th century. These instruments add spice and diversity.

LISTEN to Brazos River Song

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/gillette-brothers-3-brazos-river-song.mp3]

TK: Besides music and running the family ranch, you make bones (a rhythm instrument made out of animal ribs), and host concerts at the Camp Street Café, which you renovated into a theater.  Is there anything you don’t do?

GB: Haha!!

TK: Is there anything I missed?  Anything else you want people to know about you?

GB: Pipp carves wooden decoys in a time honored tradition and makes whimsical masks made of paper-mache.

TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

GB: Tamara...Our pleasure and we're looking forward to another great gathering!!

Meet the Gillette Brothers at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  You can learn more about the brothers and Camp Street Café at www.campstreetcafe.com.

Interview with Mike Beck

Mike Beck by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Mike Beck by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Mike Beck regularly performs his solo show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and with his band at the Stray Dog in Elko. Tamara talks to him about singing ballads, training horses, and his connection to all the places he’s lived. TK: You play both as a solo musician and with your band, The Bohemian Saints. Some musicians play the same thing solo or with accompaniment, but you have different styles when you’re playing with the band than when you’re playing solo. Why do you play differently with the band?

MB: My acoustic solo shows are more intimate. They allow me to reach right into the folk tradition and be more of a storyteller. As a young boy I got to see a few folk acts that really put an impression on me, Pete Seeger for one. He made you feel like he was in your living room, took you someplace. Arlo Guthrie, too—his Alice’s Restaurant was, in my humble opinion, a direct link to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. That style of storytelling . . . it just moved me.

I’ve added that element to the band too, maybe a different flavor, but it’s there. Fronting a band is kinda the same—you should be taking the audience somewhere—that’s your job. Otis Redding—he could take the audience somewhere. I try to learn from the greats. The Bohemian Saints are really a west coast band. There’s a lot of freedom, musically speaking, in our sound. We all grew up there, so it’s in our DNA.

TK: Your solo work is a lot of ballads, and you often tell anecdotes and stories to set up the songs. How are stories important to your songwriting and to your performances?

MB: I have always liked a good story and a good storyteller. It’s an art. When I cowboyed for a living, a good storyteller was a plus on the crew, and I heard some good ones, and that affected me I’m sure. The bottom line in a great song to me is how it affected the listener. Did it move you . . . did it take you someplace? Same with a story.

TK: Many of your songs are about people, and “Patrick” is about a horse. What inspires you about a certain person or a particular animal?

MB: In the case of “Patrick” it was a way for me to tell a bit of Bill Dorrance’s life by saying things about Patrick , a horse he owned. A way to tell a story really about Bill. In songwriting, there are no rules, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it!

LISTEN to Patrick

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/mike-beck-patrick.mp3]

TK: Your music with the Bohemian Saints has been described as being influenced by the Byrds, as well as other rock bands like the Rolling Stones. Do you put on a different persona when you are playing more rock-influenced music?

MB: Not so much. But I do try my best to get my head in that space and just let it breathe . . . just let it create its own place, see where it takes us. That’s the big adventure!

Bemused Mike Beck by JBL
Bemused Mike Beck by JBL

TK: Where is the line between rock music and cowboy music? How do they connect for you?

MB: Is there a line? Not really. I grew up in California. I loved music, and I still do. I cowboyed for a living, and still do a lot of work with horses, so my sound has evolved from all that influence. I did not grow up in Texas listening to Bob Wills (which I love by the way); it was CS&N, Jackson Browne, Byrds, Buck Owens, the Brit bands, The Who, Traffic—the list goes on and on. Of course all that moved me, influenced me. Naturally you become a product of all that.

TK: You got your first horse in third grade, and you were inspired to play music at 13. Like many cowboy musicians you spent some time as a cowboy. Growing up in Monterey, California, you could have found inspiration from many places, like the mountains or the sea. Why did you choose to become a cowboy and a cowboy singer, rather than, say, a sailor?

MB: Well it was almost the sea that took me—came close. But Nevada, the Sagebrush Sea, it got me good!!

TK: You don’t live in Monterey anymore, but you return regularly to play there. Why do you make the trip to Monterey so often? What is the draw?

MB:. Monterey will always be home. I have family there, friends. The Bohemian Saints, we have a following there. It’s beautiful, the coast line, the weather—I can never stay away too long!

TK: You lived a short while in Elko, and you play at the local bar, The Stray Dog, every January during the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Why do you come to Elko every winter, even when you aren’t playing at the Gathering?

MB: The Stray Dog is where we’ve played as a band for a while during the Gathering. If you have to ask why we come back there and play every year, well, all I can say is get yourself in there when The Bohemian Saints are smashed together on that tiny stage and find out for yourself. It can be magic!

TK: You’ve lived in Montana for quite some time now, returning there after your stint in Elko. How has each of these places influenced your music? What is it about these places that you can’t shake?

MB: Montana is just a nice place to live. Everything gets more complicated when you leave Montana. You gotta look out for Moose on the road, though, on your way back from late night gigs!!

LISTEN to Don't Hurt My Heart

[audio http://westernfolklifecenter.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/cd2585-02-mike-beck-dont-hurt-my-heart.mp3]

TK: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

MB: Tamara, it’s been my pleasure. See ya in Elko at The Gathering!!

You can learn more about Mike and his band at www.mikebeck.com, or meet him at the Gathering. Mike Beck and the Bohemian Saints will be performing at the 2012 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 – February 4.

Cowboy Confessional: An Interview with Poet Paul Zarzyski

Paul Zarzyski0018_sm
Paul Zarzyski0018_sm

Poet Paul Zarzyski's unconventional style has no-doubt influenced the trajectory of cowboy poetry. Before his first performance at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1987, cowboy poetry rhymed. These days, poets are just as likely to write in free verse as they are to employ the traditional rhyme and meter. Paul has continued to push the envelope over the years with his subject matter, his recordings of poetry backed by jazz music, and the lyrics he has written for and with his musician friends. Now he has done it again with his new book 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview. Darcy Minter, Western Folklife Center Communications Director, recently interviewed Paul about his book.

DM:I’m a little intimidated to interview you since you’ve already asked yourself all the questions you always wanted to be asked. You didn’t leave much for the rest of us! As someone who has wrangled you into participating in many bad interviews with the news media, I will apologize in advance for my questions… Let’s start with the unusual format of this book. You’ve published a book that doesn’t fit neatly in any category on any bookstore shelf. It’s poetry, it’s song lyrics and it’s memoir (sort of). We’ve learned to expect the unusual from you. Were you trying to push the envelope with this format?

PZ: I honestly don’t recall that as my primary intention. I realized early-on, obviously, that the format is somewhat of an anomaly and I must’ve considered for an instant that it might present difficulties for readers who prefer their freezer fowl traditionally packaged and labeled: 1 Turkey, 1 Duck, 1 Chicken, as opposed to 1 Turducken. I guess I saw the poetry/lyric/prose interactions between the same covers as an artistic challenge I was itching to encounter. It cost me my first publisher, a dear friend of purt-near 40 years, who stuck with me through a number of permutations and/or edits until the prose, the Self-Interview, began to drift further and further toward memoir, which he deemed way off kilter from the original conception, which, if I remember correctly, focused almost entirely on my personal approach to the page, on the writing process. The “divorce” broke my heart, and almost broke my spirit, to boot. I seriously thought about shit-canning the project altogether. At one point, my friend suggested we drop the lyrics and interview and “simply” publish the poems. It made sense—too much sense. That’s when the enigmatic, anarchistic, iconoclastic, pugnacious, EYE-talian cells of my tenacious make-up kicked-in and thus I decided to bring my vision to fruition, publisher or no frickin’ publisher, audience or no frickin’ audience. IfI was trying to push the envelope, it was the envelope addressed solely to Paul Leonard Zarzyski. I was on the fight— “doing roadwork in the boneyard, shadow boxing my own stone—my epitaph reads DoOr Die, either way, I’m on my own,” to summon up a metaphor from one of the lyrics in 51. I’d already lost my Dad and my dear poet-friend Quinton Duval, and was on the brink of also losing Mom and another dear poet-friend Trish Pedroia. I was devastated and pissed-off, both— looking for a pushing match with the envelope, with myself. All to say, “it” was a lot more complicated and/or convoluted than simply deciding to foist an unorthodox format onto the reading public. Maybe you can recommend a good shrink to help sort this all out?

book covers 2
book covers 2

DM:I am going to concentrate many of my questions on your self-interview if that’s okay with you. Can you talk about the experience of writing prose after focusing for so many years on poetry?

PZ: I suppose it was a bit akin to guitar maestros Eric Clapton or Rich O’Brien deciding in their late fifties to take up the accordion? Not, mind you, that I’m anointing myself the Clapton of Poetry. Rather, merely to suggest the difficulties I encountered. I mean, paragraphs are nowhere near jagged enough on the right, you know? On the flip side, if someone parsed my poems, I’m bettin’ they’d discover that most are written in complete subject-predicate sentences. I vaguely recall teaching, between rodeos, technical writing to forestry students back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think a few of the rules of good prosemanship resurfaced out of the muck and mire of my classroom gray matter past. I refused, for better or worse, however, to let go of the impasto, musical diction I am so fond of when coaxing my poems to sing, to roar, to wail, to howl, to make a lot of “noise,” as my mentor Dick Hugo once referred to his own affections for the ring and ricochet of lingo, the symphonics of the English language. My ultimate editor for 51, Allen Jones of Bangtail Press, did his best to hot-shot me away from my poetic addictions in the Self-Interview— thank goodness, with at least a modicum of success, in spite of my fighting him every syllable of the way. If readers appreciate my prose in this collection, they have not me, but Allen, to thank for it. He deserves some major editorial award for the efforts he invested into bringing 51out of the shadows and into the light. Hell, he likely could teach Clapton to play the accordion!

DM: Why the aversion to paragraph breaks?

PZ: Because the pauses screw with my belief that the strongest, most honest, interview responses are derived via stream-of-consciousness approaches to an answer, which, in turn, allows the interviewee to eventually discover and then to address the question that the interviewer should’ve asked in the first place, but could not, because he or she seldom, if ever, knows enough about the interviewee’s psyche to even begin to scratch the surface, when indeed the mission of such exchanges, in my opinion, is to “mine”—with dynamite if need be—the heart and mind and maybe even the very soul of said interviewee. Otherwise, why even bother? Ninety-nine per cent of the interviews you read are insipid drivel, filled with vapid self-aggrandizing pap, in no small part because the questions posed are so inane, likely a repercussion of—and I’m going to be gracious here—assignment and deadline constraints, not to even mention the need to spoon-feed a more-often-than-not lazy readership (there goes my graciousness up in smoke, ‘ey?). Nobody understands this better than Bob Dylan, who’s well-known for his emasculations of journalists. Simply, I use words like timbers and ropes and stones from which I build the bridges over bottomless crevasses, across flaming, seething molten lavas flows, so I can explore and discover what’s on the other side, what’s outthere. Paragraph breaks—in this case, anyway— compromised the architectural soundness of the structures facilitating my journeys of “crossing over.”

51.6
51.6

DM:Did you choose to interview yourself because you wanted to be more direct than you could be in a poem?

PZ: Very good question. So now I suppose you’ll expect me to first admit here that you might be one of those rare interviewers who can bust through, who can frack the hardpan? Okay, maybe you are. Some of my poems, especially in 51 are pretty damn direct. I believe the Self-Interview allowed me to pose questions that, for whatever reasons, I’ve never—at least, not to date—grappled with in my poetry. I’m guessing that the prose did not, however, prompt me toward a greater “directness” than have my poems. Most definitely different conflicts, different “destinations of resolution.” As well as different “bridge trajectories”—paths of both least, and most, resistance—leading to those answers or epiphanies or revelations on the other side? That mind-doctor you recommended earlier? What was her name and phone number again?

DM:You say that writing song lyrics expanded your creative vistas. What about writing prose?

PZ: I compliment you and then what do you go and do—get redundant on me. Just kidding. The accordion can take you to Carnival Cruise places that the guitar would be embarrassed to include on its exotic galactic tour. Nevertheless, most all fresh landscapes and skyscapes are purt-near equally welcomed in the pursuit of new creative vistas. I reveled immensely in the varying cadences inherent in prose. You got your paragraph (I did construct a few of the boogers, contrary to your observations), you got your stanza, you got your verse, chorus, bridge. They all dance a little differently to their own unique music, which, once you get tapped off, expands your writerly maps, or atlases, or star charts of the ol’ Cowpoke Cosmos, where, as I say in 51, “creativity rhymes with Infinity.” Oh, and by the way, I’m half Polish and half Italian. My very first music was likely a polka. I love the accordion. So much so that I keep a Horner case, filled with Guinness and expensive top-shelf microbrew porters, in my brewski refrigerator—it’s the only sure-bet way I can keep visiting musician friends, David Wilkie in particular, from locating and drinking all my “barley soup.” Dave wouldn’t be caught dead exhibiting curiosity for the contents of an accordion case.

DM:Your self interview exposes your feelings on so many issues: racism, homophobia, politics, religion, spirituality, art, writing, music, war, friendship, animals…and the list goes on. It has a confessional quality and as I read it I felt like you were purging yourself in some way. Do you feel relieved that you have said your peace? Did a feeling of being misunderstood prompt you to write it?

PZ: Wasn’t that the refrain of an Eric Burton and The Animals hit? “Oh Lord, don’t let me be mis-under-stood…?” Yes, I think I do feel a sense of relief to have laid my hole-cards face-up on the felt, so to speak. And, since you allude to that ridiculous catholic sacrament I once partook in, maybe the Self-Interview offers a bit of a between-the-lines flashback : “bless me father for I have sinned, it’s been 38 years and 51 days since my last confession….” More to the point of your inquiry, after a performance in Monterey years ago, an elderly rancher approached me and, in the midst of touting recent Alaska legislation allowing wolves to be shot from planes, said “I really liked your poem “Wolf Traps on the Welcome Mat,” the title piece to one of my poetry books, which is actually titled “Wolf Tracks on the Welcome Mat.” The poem—if it’s working as I believe it works—offers an open-ended view of the extremely contentious issue of wolf reintroduction in the ranching west. I talk a bit about audience in 51—how they often see and hear what they expect and need to see and hear, how they so often need to believe that you think and act exactly as they do. Why else would you dress pretty much exactly the same as they do—hat, boots, jeans, etc. when we’re talking the cowboy poetry and music genre? In bucking all stereotypical perceptions and expectations, I’d much prefer to be regarded as not only an iconoclast, but an extraterrestrial iconoclast. E.T. in a beaver lid. Don’t take me wrong—it’s an honor of immense proportions to be thought worthy of inclusion in what Buck Ramsey dubbed The Cowboy Tribe. I truly doubt, however, that Buck would have ever considered conformity as an attribute, a membership prerequisite. 51 is the most honest book I could ever write, and honesty is a cowboy virtue of utmost magnitude. I can live and die with that declaration in my head and heart. No retractions, no regrets. Although I realize full well that many of my philosophies are counter to what many consider “the cowboy code.”

DM:What role did the death of your father play in your need to write all this down? Had you finished the book before your Mom passed away? Did she have a chance to read it?

pz_boy_dad
pz_boy_dad

PZ: Without a doubt, Dad’s death provided the bulk of the impetus behind my frantic need to flesh out the Self-Interview. At times, my feelings of vulnerability, of mortality, were so prominent, minute-to-minute, breath-to-breath, that I feared leaving the daily work on the book here at home in order to attend festivals, to do gigs. (What if I didn’t make it back?) I remember 12-hour shifts at the desk. I remember total emotional and physical and spiritual exhaustion. In my younger years, a friend and I skidded 35-foot house logs down mountainsides steep as a cow’s face with a magnificent Clydesdale named Tom, then loaded and unloaded them by hand on a trailer. John Henry with his spike hammer against the steam-drivin’ machine. Sweat and muscle imbued with the sinew of youth, dawn to dusk. Mere child’s play compared to the shifts I put in hammering out those Self-Interview stories. All in honor of, in tribute to, Dad’s blue-collar passions. (“Once you start a job, always finish it; if you’re going to do a job, do it right or don’t do it at all.”)

I remember breaking down often into tears I had a hell of a time stanching. Was doing a lot of the editing on the computer rather than with the Smith-Corona and couldn’t read the screen during many of the most poignant episodes I so furiously was trying to flesh out. I remember moments during which I felt possessed. And then, in the torment and toil of it all, Mom died—August 22, 2010. I had been flying and driving back and forth to my home ground in Hurley, Wisconsin to monitor her caretaking activities by a troupe of angelic women I dubbed Team Delia. The mission was to keep her in her home, despite her affliction with mild dementia. We’d spent a magnificent 10-12 days together in early July—lots of stories, lots of laughter. She died as a result of a massive stroke, just 3 months shy of her 90th birthday. My friend, Quinton Duval, had passed in May, and then Trish Pedroia in November. I felt under siege. It occurs to me right this instant that I actually might’ve been using the writing, the vow to finish 51, as a life buoy. I’d written the dedication shortly after Dad’s passing. It begins, “In loving memory of Leonard John Zarzyski—November 20, 1925 to October 10, 2008…." I was already so deeply steeped in my mother’s well-being—she’d been together with Dad in the same house for over 61 years—that I subconsciously wrote the date of her birth, November 20th, instead of my dad’s, November 5th. It remained undetected through multiple edits. Serendipitously, dear friend, Buzzy Vick, caught the “error” 5 months after the book came out. Buzzy’s birthday is November 20th, and during a conversation she remarked, “I didn’t know I shared a birthday with both your Mom and your Dad.” I hope I’ve answered the first two facets of your question. As for the last, no, Mom didn’t live long enough to see the printed book. Allen, my editor, and I decided it would alter the tenor of a good portion of the Self-Interview to include mention of Mom’s death, that it would dictate a major rewriting effort, especially in light of our publication deadline goal. I did read finished manuscript passages to her at the kitchen table during my July visit prior to her death. She was fascinated by the storytelling. I can picture her sitting in her chair on the front porch smiling for hours at the photos of her on the front and back covers. Oh, Darcy, now look what you’ve gone and done—here go the waterworks again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DM:Just scratchin’—or maybe diggin’ is a better word—at the surface Paul…You include many of your favorite quotes in the interview. For example, you quote African American poet Lucille Clifton: “I’m not here to comfort the afflicted, but rather to afflict the comfortable.” Why have you taken on this role?

PZ chutes 1_sm
PZ chutes 1_sm

PZ: Because to have shirked taking on the role—to quote one of my favorite cowboy performers, Ranger Doug of Riders In The Sky— “might’ve been the easy way, but it would not have been THE COWBOY WAY!” In all seriousness, I honestly do not know the answer to your difficult observation. Are you certain I have embraced the role? If so, it wasn’t calculated, or even welcomed. Moreover, I choose to believe that I am not the only so-called cowboy poet or musician who fulfills the role of “afflicter.” You know who they are. I’m not going to name names here and risk loss of friendship or downright litigation or the likelihood that I’ll be slipped a Mickey Finn at the Pioneer in Elko this coming February. When I rodeo’d, I seldom, if ever, turned a horse out because I was too frightened to get on him or, in the case of Kesler’s notorious mare Three Bars, her. I might not have spurred many of the good ones to the 8-second tooter, but I forked most everything I drew. “Ladies and Gentleman, out of chute number 6, the Maverick Hat chute, Paul Zarzyski on the triple-rank bronc, Afflict-The-Comfortable.”

DM:You say you deplore artistic complacency -- playing it safe for an audience. Do you think your popularity with cowboy poetry audiences is because you don’t play it safe, or somehow in spite of it?

Paladin_sm
Paladin_sm

PZ: I’d like to believe it’s the former. Most of the rodeo roughstock twisters who I idolized, as well as most of the writers whose work and lives I admire, dance the dance of reckless abandon. As difficult as it’s become in these conservative, theocratic cowboy-west times, I’d still like to think there’s a few kindred spirits out there in audienceville who’d rather hang with Paladin than with, say, Gene Autry. I hope that’s not an unfair metaphor—and certainly not one intended to disrespect Mr. Autry, who I watched religiously as a kid in the ‘50s. To couch it in similar terms, whoever wrote the scripts, and/or short stories or novels informing the scripts to the HBO series Deadwood, or No Country for Old Men, or The Unforgiven, or PatGarrett and Billy the Kid, or Hud, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or The Grey Fox, or The Last Picture Show, or Lonely Are The Brave, or Junior Bonner, or The Wild Bunch, or ( yes, damn it) Brokeback Mountain, or J.W. Coop, or RanchoDeluxe or The Missouri Breaks or…well, you get the picture—these are the writers who subscribe to the same cowboy-west sensibilities I embrace. Nothing “safe” about the wild-west characters, fictitious or not, in those stories, the key modifier here being “wild,” not “tamed” or “domesticated” or “fenced-in and broke.” I’ll take a Sam Peckinpah-directed film anyday over most any other western. And Paladin was my kind of Mafioso-hitman “cowboy poet.” In fact, Paladin had to be Italian.

DM:This book also feels like a tribute to the people in your life who have influenced you and enriched your life personally and professionally. Was that a conscious decision or did it just bubble up through the process?

PZ: A little of both. A number of years ago, in a piece I wrote for the Big Sky Journal, I took the liberty to revise that old saw, “you are what you eat,” to “you are who you meet.” I’ve been fortunate to know this truth for decades, and more fortunate yet to have met and have been befriended by hundreds of genuine-article, magnanimous beings from so many diverse species aboard this glorious orb. Both editor-friends of 51—the one who abandoned me and the one who stuck with me—admonished me for the excessive mentioning of names that would disinterest the average reader. I ignored the advice altogether. I only wish that I’d have insisted on the inclusion of several additional pages inside the back cover, upon which I could have more fully completed the list of all my soulful coaches, gurus, cheerleaders, mentors, friends—my parents, as I emphasize over and over in the book, the most soulful influences of all. Without all these “wilderness guides” through 60 years of life in this dimension, I’m little more than a 5-foot 10-inch high pile of flesh and blood and bone.

DM:This seems like the ultimate cowboy book to me. Not in its subject matter, but in its bravado, its grit and passion and brutal honesty. It’s real and it’s authentic. -- cowboy qualities that we value. You’ve already alluded to this but I think it bears repeating (I'm being redundant again, but I'm the interviewer here.). Can you elaborate?

PZ: I appreciate your vote of confidence. Unfortunately, I think both of us could name dozens of cowboy poetry and music aficionados who’d burn 51 and not because they’re in need of the BTUs, either. Thanks also for agreeing with my earlier take on “honesty.” Brutal honesty, indeed—perfect modifier, Darcy. As to this book being worthy of the trees killed to provide the paper it’s printed on, that’s the readers call, not mine, and I haven’t heard a whole lot of response since the book was released back in March. That longstanding adage or aphorism, “silence can be deafening (to a writer)” still holds true. On the flip side, I found this message on my October 19th voice mail:

“Paul, this is your old buddy that used to fix your boots, your old Packer buddy. I just finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in my life. And I want to congratulate you and thank you very much.”

I had to look at the caller I.D. to finally figure out who he was—hadn’t seen him in a long while and never knew his last name, in fact. Just Larry, who worked as a boot repairman years back at Broken Arrow Saddlery here in Great Falls. A fellow Green Bay Packer fan. I’d have never pegged him as a reader of anything other than, say, “Western Horseman Magazine.” I returned his call:

“Larry—Paul Zarzyski. Whose book did you read? I’ll pick up a copy and read it, too.”

Yours!51,” he replied.

“How’d you find out about it? Not even the CIA knows it’s in print.”

“I saw a little mention of it in Montana Magazine,” he said. “So I drove over to Hastings, but they’d never heard of you. So I tried Barnes & Noble and sure enough, they could order it for me. They called me when it came in, but by the time I went to pick it up that afternoon, some new clerk had already sold it to another customer who spied it behind the counter, and so they had to order me another copy.”

“I didn’t figure you for a poetry fan,” I said, although I was far more curious how he rolled with the punches of the somewhat ethereal—at times, perhaps, esoteric—philosophical stances of the Self-Interview.

“Oh, yes,’ Larry responded, ‘poetry’s damn important in this world.”

I’d have bet my beloved Smith-Corona Silent-Super, my riggin’ sack, my ‘71 viper-red Monte Carlo, my vintage cowboy necktie collection—my most prized possessions—that my long-lost boot repairman friend, Larry, would not have made it through 8 of the 250+ pages of 51, let alone have read the entire book and then have responded as he so graciously did. Believe me when I tell you, Darcy, that Larry’s phone message, along with our follow-up conversation means more to me than a 5-star review in some high-falutin literary publication. What a critical reminder of the paramount importance of a single keen-hearted reader. Give me 7 more—on second thought, make it 50?—just like him and you can keep your Pulitzer Prize. Moreover, what a well-timed lesson in humility—I’m just as guilty of the sin of stereotyping others as those audience members I indicted earlier in this interview. Speaking of which, thanks (I think?) for the opportunity, the privilege, of addressing your savvy questions. But now we’ll have to close, so I can continue on my eternal journey of repentance.

Paul Zarzyski will perform in his 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30 to February 4, 2012. His book, 51: 30 poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview, is available at the Western Folklife Center Gift Shop. Paul's website is www.paulzarzyski.com.