A woman with a fringe shirt on, seen from behind
A still from 'What Can't a Ranch Woman Do,' pictured here in the foreground, documents the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. | Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
A still from 'What Can't a Ranch Woman Do,' pictured here in the foreground, documents the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. | Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

In Nevada, Cowboy Poets Buck Convention with Odes to the West

Elko's annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been drawing creative ranchers to the sagebrush-scented town since 1985.

On January 26, Ismay, a.k.a. Avery Hellman, released their sophomore album, Desert Pavement. This week, they’ll perform for the second time at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Sagebrush-scented and described by Hellman as “like stepping back in time,” some buildings in Elko haven’t changed since the 1870s, when it was developed as a stop on the Transcontinental Railroad, and soon after became a base for the mining of shiny valuable things.

Which makes the town a fitting—if somewhat stereotypical—home base for the Western Folklife Center. The center occupies a building that initially sprung up as a tent in 1898 to serve as the Pioneer Saloon, which may or may not have been the first bar in town. In the 1980s, after an actual structure was built, a group of preservation-minded folklorists aided by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts established the center as a means to bottle America’s cowboy culture in a time of rural depopulation. Not Hollywood’s gunslinging, John Wayne-driven version of cowboy culture—there’s still plenty of that to go around, just turn on country music television—but the agrarian lifestyle practiced by the working ranchers that once dominated the West, and whose farms became a lifeline to the rest of the country.

a performer with a guitar on an album cover
Nonbinary Western artist Avery Hellman performs as Ismay. | Courtesy of Ismay

In 1985, the Western Folklife Center produced the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. And this January 29, you can catch six full days of the country’s best and brightest cowboy poets strutting their stuff at the event’s 39th-annual iteration.

Whatever image first comes to mind when you hear the name, it’s probably not one of nonbinary musicians fingerpicking away with ethereal prowess. At least, that’s what Hellman thought after initially applying to perform a few years ago… and not hearing anything back. “I kind of figured, oh, I'm never gonna get to play this—I'm a little too weird, too outside the norm,” they recall.

Historically speaking, the kind of cowboy poetry one might expect to see performed at an event like the Gathering, as it’s called—that humorous, performative, often rhyming verse told to the clip-clopping rhythm of horse hooves—got its start in the North Texas longhorn trail drives of the post-Civil War 1870s. At night, the cowhands would linger around the campfire regaling each other with tales. The most famous modern-day iteration of the classic cowboy poet is probably “Buckaroo Poet” Waddie Mitchell, who made multiple appearances on the Tonight Show decked out in his signature wide-brimmed hat, worn handkerchief, and waxed mustache.

“What you find in common with performers is that they love the land. They love the natural world, and are drawn to a rural way of life.”

But thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Western Folklife Center to expand the definition of a cowboy poet to include all walks of agrarian Western life, Hellman—whose writing channels their experience working on a family ranch in Sonoma—found that they fit right in when they were finally invited to join last year. Coming off a recent stint on Apple TV’s My Kind of Country, the grandchild of the founder of San Francisco’s long-running Hardly Strictly Bluegrass adds, “What you find in common with performers is that they love the land. They love the natural world, and are drawn to a rural way of life.”

Now a full-time musician, Hellman no longer lives full time on the ranch—they moved just a couple hours away—but they do have their eye on some very ranch-like design plans to keep them close to that rural way of life. “We've been fixing up a sheep wagon that I really want to turn into my writing cabin,” they say. “But for now, I’m just using my living room.”

a woman cowboy on a horse, near some cows
Amy Hale in her day job. | Photo by Gail Steiger, Courtesy of Amy Hale

About 30 seconds into our conversation, Amy M. Hale—a writer, teacher, and cowboy at Spider Ranch in Arizona’s Prescott National Forest—stops me to clarify a point. “There's nothing new about agrarian poetry,” she says. “Robert Frost was the most famous to do it, inviting us into his world of growing food and tending the land with poems like “The Pasture.” Fishermen poets also wrote from a place of bringing food to the shore.” A longtime National Cowboy Poetry Gathering participant, her point is that the concept of “cowboy poetry” is as old as farming itself. If we think otherwise, that’s Hollywood’s fault. And that sure riles her up. “It’s for those who have romanticized the American West that the idea of cowboy poetry seems to be something of a novelty,” she says.

Hale’s own cowboy poetry stems directly from lived experience. “I like sweat and weather and eating only when I am hungry,” reads her poem, “Why I Ride.” “I like how horses smell and how cows sound / I love lying down at night, truly tired, deep down in my bones, but fresh in my soul / I like cooking out of doors and sleeping without walls.”

When describing her work, she uses cowboy as a verb. And there’s no denying that cowboying—not to mention the world of cowboy poetry—is still seen as a male-dominated field. “If I were to say I’m a cowgirl, people immediately see an arena with flags flying and glitter,” she explains. “But I grow food—in this case, cows who are eating what comes up out of the ground and are turned into a healthy source of protein.” Hale spends her time tending to those cows, a term she often replaces in conversation with the more scientific “ungulates.”

a road leading to a red barn in Nevada
The landscape surrounding Elko, Nevada | Kit Leong/Shutterstock

That word swap is deliberate. Raised on a ranch and married to a fellow cowboy, Hale has been doing this for a long time, proud of both her profession and her involvement in the cowboy poetry community. And while it’s only pretty recently that more women have been rising in the ranching ranks, Hale says it’s because of these ungulates that women are actually quite well suited to cowboying. “As women, we go through the same cycles,” she says. “We ovulate, copulate, gestate, lactate. And that's what I do—I take care of ovulating, copulating, gestating, lactating animals.” In this line of work, women’s intuition is a concrete skill.

Hale often performs with her husband and boss Gail Steiger. After this next Gathering, they’ll take to the stage once again the weekend after Valentine’s Day for the Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas. While the prestigious National Cowboy Poetry Gathering brings cowboy poets in from all around the world, Alpine’s version is more relaxed. More like a family reunion. At their core, cowboy poetry gatherings are as much about the performances as they are about catching up with kinfolk.

“We do it for us as much as we do it for audiences,” Hale says. “We come together with all of those other artists and cowboys and share our story, and we find ways that we are so much alike.”

But that’s not to say it’s an amateur hour cumbaya: If you’ve come to perform, you better come correct. Adds Hale, “If you haven't been there-done that, if you don't have the dirt on your fingernails, I'm not interested in what you have to say.”

a woman with a cowboy hat behind a podium
Poet and water activist Olivia Romo | Photo courtesy of Olivia Romo

Before being asked to contribute the poem “Bendición del agua to the Western Folklife Center’s Moving Rural Verse film series, poet and water activist Olivia Romo had actually never heard of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s founding organization.

But together, they created something spectacular: a digital video portrait that was an ode to acequias, or hand-dug earthen irrigation ditches, and those that tend to them. Touching on cultural and environmental preservation efforts, images of the ditches, farmland, and old family friends—as well as a requisite lowrider—fill the screen beneath Romo’s words. (“I’ve got to keep my lowriding Chicano culture alive,” she says with a laugh.)

Born and raised in Taos, New Mexico, Romo, who now lives in Santa Fe, was drawn to slam poetry in high school, and in 2011 was crowned New Mexico State Slam Poetry Champion. But her love for storytelling started much earlier. “There was such a rich oral history in northern New Mexico,” she says. “Pulling from the Manito culture and hearing stories of my great grandfather herding sheep along the Kit Carson Trail from Taos to Wyoming meant I never really had to look far for inspiration.”

As a Chicana with Indigenous roots, Romo found the words she heard at her first Gathering in 2019 familiar. “Growing up, I remember shelling corn on the sun-setting side of the home with my dad or my cousins or my uncles, and hearing them tell riddles and jokes,” she says. “Going to the Gathering and hearing these guys with their guitars talking about working cattle and branding days took me home. Maybe they're not the same stories, but they're in the same heart space.”

Of course, the topics covered at the Gathering aren’t all romantic—poets often delve into grim realities like substance abuse, suicide, poverty, and tough occupational hardships. Despite the darkness, it’s something their audience can usually all understand.

Yet there are also opportunities to collaborate and be inspired, with workshops on writing and crafts like leatherworking. Says Romo, “Even if you don't identify as a cowboy poet, I would encourage people to attend the Gathering, because there's so much to offer everybody.”

Including, it seems, learning from each other as the Gathering continues to challenge society’s understanding of what it takes to become a cowboy poet. “Let us not forget how the cowboy was created with the Mexican vaqueros, the cattle culture of the Native American cowboy, and the Black cowboy,” she says. “The West is a very contested homeland.”

At that first Gathering in 2019, Romo wrote a poem to mark the occasion. Called “Roadrunner: The Chosen Prophet” and written through the eyes of Nevada’s state bird, it describes the clash between blue-eyed Spanish conquistadors, vaqueros, and the Native Americans whittling away from smallpox in crescendoing swells. When she finished reading, the crowd whooped in admiration.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She has a Stetson and she's not afraid to use it.