Why Elko and the NCPG?

Elko, Nevada

Northern Nevada may be beautiful, but it is not lush. In the winter, it is windy and cold. One might even call it “unwelcoming.”

So the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, hosted by the Western Folklife Center and held annually for the last 35 years, stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. The event is a warm, week-long, all-comers event drawing international performers and attendees for scores of performances of poetry, music, as well as eclectic offerings around the topic of rural Western life.

Here, “warm and welcoming” seems to be an attitude embraced by everyone from volunteers and restauranteurs to dedicated ranchers and far-flung attendees with no ranching roots at all.

Each year I’m challenged to substantiate why Cayuse Communications, a publication founded by a Mainer (me), would return as a NCPG sponsor and dedicate pages to this remote and eclectic event in northern Nevada.

Read about Elko Favorites here.

One of my favs, Paul Zarzyski. Photo by Kevin Martini Fuller

Here’s the scoop:

WHY – without hyperbole, the NCPG is the event to attend if you are interested in learning and appreciating cultural traditions and expressive arts of the rural West. And, as Randy Rieman noted, “Horses are at the epicenter of the cowboy culture. There’s no question about that.” Plus, it’s a really, really good time.

WHO – This year, new talent feathered in seamlessly with veteran NCPG performers. Colter Wall, a 23-year old Canadian (with a lovely baritone voice that seems to reach below the lowest note on a piano), shared the stage with Paul Zarzyski and Gail Steiger, poets who have each performed at more than 30 Gatherings.

Another young Canadian, Corb Lund, along with Mike Beck, Zaryski, Dave Stamey, and ten others gave tribute to the octogenarian performer, Ian Tyson.

Those events, and indeed, the entire week’s offerings are collaborative affairs, in which solo artists routinely and graciously share the stage and support fellow artists.

“Cowboying and working with livestock, it can be pretty remote and your connections with others can be pretty limited,” said Forrest Van Tuyl, a first-year performer and cowboy from Wallowa County in northeast Oregon. Coming to Elko was overwhelming in a good way, said Van Tuyl, who performs under the name An American Forrest. “It’s the coolest, most welcoming community – a whole bunch of cowboys who are also poets, all hanging out in the same place.”

Forrest Van Tuyl Photo by Jared Wenzelburger

WHAT & HOW – In this year’s thick, 40-page program, you’ll find over four dozen poets and musicians – men and women, mostly with ranching or rodeo backgrounds. Over six days, they participate in a wondrously dense schedule of shows. Some performances are intimate, quiet, and reverent. Others are raucous, late-night affairs. There are workshops on dancing, cooking, rawhide braiding, writing, songwriting, and hat making. There are round panel discussions on issues around life in the rural West (this year, for instance, the state of journalism in rural communities was discussed).

Nearly every year, I’ve enjoyed the keynote address and this year was no exception: after a rousing rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by the Elko High School Marching Band (complete with color guard), Hal Cannon addressed a packed auditorium to celebrate and reflect on ground covered and the path forward. Cannon founded and directed Western Folklife.

Hal Cannon. Photo by Marla Aufmuth

WHY YOU –The NCPG is where, for one fun, enlightening week, time and judgments are suspended. Locals in jeans and cowboy hats laugh and talk with Chicagoans with coifed hair and fur coats. Folks wearing Patagonia share drinks with people wearing MAGA ballcaps.

If you aren’t from the rural West, you will soak it in, viscerally and intellectually. You will learn that, contrary to widely portrayed stereotypes, “rural people are a lot more accepting than they are given credit for,” said Western Folklife director Kristin Windbigler. You might even learn about life with livestock. (Those savvy to horses, horsemanship, and ranch life may be in a shrinking minority. All the more reason to welcome newbies.)

There’s real meaning in the “Gathering” of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. There are “moments of transcendence,” noted Cannon,  between performer and attendee.

Adds Windbigler:

Kristin Windbigler Photo by Kier Atherton

“I had so many people, friends and strangers, coming to me to share stories. Here, people are moved. They come with full hearts and open hearts. I found myself getting teary-eyed with them three, four, five, six times a day.”


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