Celebrate, learn about western heritage at poetry & music gathering
Terry Nash’s dad sang all the old cowboy songs — the songs about cattle, horses, the range and never-ending stars over a campfire in the West.
So when Nash hears one of those songs today, the memory of his dad and his family’s farm and ranch in eastern Colorado are brought back to life for him. They speak to his heart, inspire his cowboy poetry and are among the reasons Nash became an organizer of the Western Slope Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering.
Earlier this year Nash and Western singer Peggy Malone heard that the local gathering that has been going on annually for more than 20 years was in danger of being canceled. So Malone and Nash put their heads together and fellow area cowboy poet Nona Kelley Carver jumped in, and “We said we can’t let it die,” said Malone, who has received a number of recognitions for her music over the years, most recently being named the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame Female Vocalist for 2016.
They rounded up a number of names well known in cowboy music and poetry circles and organized what they named the Western Slope Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering set for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4–5, at the Museums of Western Colorado’s Whitman Educational Center at Fourth Street and Ute Avenue.
“It’s just wonderful how the town is coming together to save this great gathering,” Malone said. “We didn’t want to lose it and made it even better.”
“Cowboy poetry is a beautiful blend of western heritage and performance art,” said Peter Booth, executive director of the Museums of Western Colorado.
While some in the audience may identify with cowboys and cattle drives, others may not as the United States has shifted toward a more urban culture — in 1900, 95 percent of those living in the West were in rural situations, whereas in 2000, 95 percent were in more urban situations, Booth said.
“There’s a lot of people who I tell them I’m a cowboy poet and they get a blank look on their face,” said Nash, who works for Mesa County (“I have to work for a living to pay for my cow habits”), lives in Loma, runs cattle on Piñon Mesa and has written cowboy poetry since the early 1980s.
For the past 10 years, Nash has been invited to perform his poetry at gatherings across the West and received several nominations for Cowboy Poet of the Year from the Western Music Association.
“It’s fun for me to perform cowboy poetry in front of a crowd who haven’t seen it before” and to watch them begin to enjoy it, Nash said, recalling how one rather cross woman’s demeanor changed as she began to enjoy, smile and then laugh during a cowboy poetry gathering.
“When I can touch somebody like that I feel like I’m doing the right thing,” Nash said.
The performances of music and poetry at a gathering are usually done from memory, which makes for more animated delivery and better storytelling and interaction with an audience, Malone said.
“You always hope that your memory will kick in when you need it to,” said Carver, who began writing poetry when she was laid up with an injury.
“It was like a gift given to me by the good Lord,” she said. “It came to me like a gift in my mind and I asked for a pad and a pencil.”
By the late 1990s, Carver was performing her poems at gatherings and up until a few years ago, she and her husband raised dairy and beef cattle on their ranch near Mesa.
Cowboy poetry and western music are “just good fun, family entertainment,” she said. There is plenty of humor and stories.
“If you don’t keep these stories alive you’re going to lose this way of life,” said Malone, who learned to sing nearly everything from classic country to pop music during her days singing in hotel lounges in Denver.
At gatherings, though, she sticks with western music, which is about cowboying and life in the West and not to be confused with country music, which is about “losing your pickup truck, dog and wife,” Nash said.
However, at last year’s local gathering Malone made an exception for the “Tennessee Waltz” just for an older woman who had come to the event with her family since her husband had died. Malone played her guitar and sang and cowboy poet Al Albrethson played his harmonica — he’s 95 and “he’s got such lungs for an older man,” Malone said — and that older woman got up and danced with her walker to the song she used to dance to with her husband.
Older and younger — 16-year-old Jeneve Rose Mitchell of American Idol fame will perform at the gathering — rural and urban, organizers are hopeful for community members from a variety of walks of life will turn out for the event to learn about and celebrate western heritage.
It’s all about “bringing people together and celebrating the life of the West,” Malone said.