A spotlight took the place of a campfire, contoured plastic chairs replaced good sitting logs and a hardwood floor substituted for a dusty trail as cowboy poets and musicians assembled at Blue Goose Event Center in Loomis to offer attendees a view of life on the range.
Modeled after the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held annually in Elko, Nev., the Cowpoke Fall Gathering brought together a nationally known lineup of poets, storytellers and musicians that placed story over style and heart over hooks. The event – in its 19th year – concludes today with a free Cowboy Church event at 9 a.m. at the Blue Goose, 3550 Taylor Road. Including sponsorships, ticket sales and auction items, the event raises nearly $20,000 for four charities, said organizers Bert and Carol Braun.
Dozens of cowboy poetry events, chiefly in the West, are held annually around the country. The most prominent, Elko’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, began in 1985. The idea was a one-time event to celebrate the trails-end cowboy storytelling tradition.
“They really did not expect to take off the way that it did. It filled a need in the ranching community … an opportunity to share their voice,” said Darcy Minter, a spokeswoman for the Western Folklife Center, which hosts the event. As performers honed their talent and more events sprung up, some, including Waddie Mitchell, could afford to make it their full-time craft.
A healthy house – a third donning cowboy hats – laughed, swooned and emoted Friday as performers Chris Isaacs, John Kintz, Brenn Hill, Belinda Gail and Mitchell offered pieces that spoke of life on the trail, personal heroes and the sacrifices of war. But while attendance was strong and performances were top notch, the Brauns were not at peace.
“How do we get young people to the show?” Bert Braun asked the performers in the green room.
That’s the looming question for most cowboy poetry events. Mitchell, 63, has no trouble connecting with the tales he heard as a young man or the tradition of passing along oral wisdom. He grew up in rural Nevada, spent years without electricity and still travels miles to reach cellphone range.
“We didn’t have TV. We all did the strangest thing at night: we talked to each other,” Mitchell said.
The long-term question is: How do you convince a generation raised on the social-media world of Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat to embrace a communication form for which they have little connection? Looking at the audience at the Blue Goose – anyone without gray hair would qualify as young – the Brauns might settle for attracting the generation raised on “Pac Man,” “Dig Dug” and “Super Mario Bros.”
“If we can get them in the door, we can sell them,” Bert Braun said.
Gail said she had to be coerced to attend her first event. Braun said he enjoys watching reluctant husbands and children go from arms-crossed to sitting on the edge of their chairs. Many events, including the Loomis shows, include student performers. But Isaacs said event organizers should limit the bill to polished performers. One idea floated by others was to feature younger, diverse acts. Mitchell recalled one such event when he shared the stage with then full-time rapper LL Cool J.
“I didn’t have any more idea who he was than him me,” Mitchell said. He said the two mixed fine, especially after the show.
“We got pretty drunk,” Mitchell said.
While most in the audience were older, there were several children and a smattering of people still of child-rearing age. One suggestion from a younger audience member is to de-emphasize the rhyme.
“You have to think of it more as cowboy stories. I think poetry turns them off,” said David Yee, 40, of Wheatland.
Erin Harrison traveled from San Francisco to attend the event with her Granite Bay family. She said they discovered it while visiting a dude ranch.
“It just seemed like a great event to check out,” Harrison said. “It’s just so mellow and clean and happy.”