When a small group of cowboy poets and folklorists gathered to swap stories in 1985, little did they know that they’d be launching one of America’s most authentic festivals, and an annual pilgrimage for Western enthusiasts from across North America.
2017 marked the 33rd year of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the town of Elko, just north of the jagged Ruby Mountains in the heart of Northern Nevada’s cowboy country. This celebration of the American West, hosted by Elko’s own Western Folklife Center, features a whole lot more than poetry (though there’s plenty of that).
Live performances, open mic sessions, workshops and craft demos, film screenings, panel discussions and evening dances number among the events that populate the six-day festival calendar. And there’s plenty to do between festival events as well.
1. Ponder cowboy poetry
The roots of the cowboy poet date back to the trail-driving days of the Civil War, when long-distance cattle drives between Texas and Kansas were common. Cowboys who found themselves with extra time on their hands blended their real life experiences and converted them into poems, often influenced by Victorian poetry, as well as the ballad traditions of the British Isles. A new art form was born.
Poetry lies at the heart of the NCPG, and some of its biggest names and rising stars, including the likes of Waddie Mitchell, Henry Real Bird and Paul Zarzyski, converge in Elko each winter to recite their work. No ranching experience is needed to appreciate these poems, though you’ll certainly walk away with a newfound appreciation for the culture and lifestyle of the modern day cowboy.
2. Listen to classic cowboy tunes
Dom Flemons & Sourdough Slim — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Cowboy poetry and music go hand in hand; in fact, many a popular cowboy tune has its roots in a poem, including the unofficial anthem of the West, “Home on the Range,” which was adapted into a song from a poem entitled “My Western Home” by Dr. Brewster M. Higley.
After that first gathering in 1985, music quickly found its place at the festival, and the musicians who perform in Elko put the Western back in country. Legends like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Don Edwards and Ian Tyson take the stage alongside up-and-comers, including Luke Bell, Andy Hedges and Corb Lund.
The music scene here is more diverse than you might think – Celtic tunes from the British Isles (Cowboy Celtic), old-time folk music heavily influenced by the blues (Dom Flemons), Western swing (Doug Moreland & the Flying Armadillos) and even cowboy Vaudeville (Sourdough Slim).
Here’s a sampling of some of the musicians and songs you might hear while at the festival:
3. Take the stage
Creative inspiration lies within every ballroom and performance space during the NCPG, and if you’re feeling a bit poetic yourself, you too can step up to the mic to share your literary or musical talents at a series of open mic events for both poetry and music. There’s also a Young Buckaroo Open Mic and Talent Show for students, as well as a Teen Poetry & Music Slam.
4. Learn a new skill
Learning to play rhythm bones — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Live demos and hands-on workshops represent some of the most popular sessions during the festival, often selling out well in advance. Participants can learn to braid rawhide, hitch horsehair, cook on a spit, play the bones or dance the two-step. Aspiring cowboy poets and musicians can learn from the masters, with classes on songwriting, guitar playing and even digital storytelling for the modern age.
5. Attend a late-night jam session
With so many talented musicians from around the world gathered in one place for a week, it’s no surprise that the gathering often yields some serious jam sessions. Hang around the Pioneer Saloon or Stockmen’s Casino after hours, and you’ll more than likely be treated to a night cap-fueled impromptu performance. Musically talented? Grab your instrument of choice and join in!
6. Step back in time to the Old West
The traditional Western way of life remains alive and well in Elko, and visitors have ample opportunity to learn all about it between festival events. The Northeastern Nevada Museum displays an eclectic collection of art and artifacts showcasing the pioneer life, the region’s Basque settlers and the Pony Express (as well as an incredible collection of taxidermy animals).
California Trail Interpretive Center — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Visit the California Trail Interpretive Center to experience what life was like in a wagon train, or check out some historic cowboy gear (and old photos of Elko) at the brand new Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum.
7. Buy some new Western threads
Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
If you’re in town for the gathering, you might as well dress the part. Both performers and many repeat gathering attendees dress to the nines in Western wear – boots, hats, neck rags, vests and accessories. If your closet is lacking in appropriate attire, don’t worry, Elko has you covered.
Everything from custom cowboy hats and hand-crafted belt buckles to silk scarves and womenswear are on sale at the gathering’s Western Mercantile. Serious shoppers should make a stop at J.M. Capriola Co., a century-old saddle shop that also sells cookware, clothing, jewelry, leather accessories and all the accoutrements of the modern cowboy.
8. Tour a working cattle ranch
Many of the performers at the NCPG are real cowboys and ranchers themselves, and while you’ll gain invaluable insight into this unique American lifestyle through their poetry and music, it’s even better to witness it firsthand with a visit to a real cattle ranch. Luckily, you don’t need any cowboy connections to plan such a visit. Cowboy John, a native Nevadan, takes visitors to local ranches, including the Glaser Land & Livestock ranch in nearby Halleck.
Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Chat with the working cowboys, watch the dogs round up the cattle, step inside a century-old tack shed, visit a calf birthing shed and learn about modern ranching inside the ranch mechanical shop.
9. Immerse yourself in Basque culture with dinner at The Star
The first Basque immigrants came to Northern Nevada during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, bringing with them their traditions of sheepherding and hearty food. Ask any festival veteran, and they’ll tell you no NCPG experience is complete without dinner at The Star. This Basque hotel and restaurant opened in 1910 as a home away from home for Basque herders during the winter months.
Today, a dinner bell still sounds nightly, and meals are still served family-style. Generous portions of lamb, steak, pork tenderloin or mountain trout are served alongside soup, salad, Basque beans, spaghetti, vegetables and some of the best french fries in town.
A favorite Basque American highball cocktail, called Picon Punch, is a potent way to wash it down. This libation is made from Amaro, soda water, grenadine, brandy and a squeeze of lemon.
10. Dance the night away
The final two days of the gathering end with three opportunities to hit the dance floor. Set to live tunes by one of the gathering’s performers, these dances – one on Friday and two on Saturday – are a perfect opportunity to practice the waltz, two-step or swing learned earlier in the week.
Don’t know how to dance? Chances are a friendly cowboy or cowgirl will happily teach you some moves, especially during the wildly popular Midnight Dance on Saturday, the festival’s closing event.
Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Now that you know what the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is all about, start making your plans to attend the 2018 event.