Every January, for the last 21 years in a row, a whole bunch of people converge in Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. You might think this is a strange thing to have happen, but cowboys like poetry too, and there is a whole scene that has risen up around this genre. It now brings musicians and performance artists as well as cowboy and cowgirl poets, and hangers-on and rural hipsters and craft merchants and any number of people who think that there is no contradiction between western life and poetic expression.
Elko! A Cowboy’s Gathering is a double-CD release of the greatest hits of last January’s Elko gathering, which marked the 20th anniversary of it. If anyone is going to like this record at all, it’s me; I have voluntarily attended many poetry readings and slams in many states, and I love western swing and country music. And I do, in fact, like this album. But the fact that I’m not completely doing backflips over it means something—sadly, it means that anyone who’s not me, or a cowboy poet him- or herself, will not like it very much at all.
There is brilliant stuff here. Some of the poems are free but most are rhymey, and many of them are entertaining and interesting. The funny stuff largely works, from Rodney Nelson’s “The Elevator Scale” (a simple and gently misogynistic piece about using farm equipment to weigh his wife) to Sourdough Slim’s “Big Bad Bill” (a simple and gently self-mocking piece about how men are only tough when women aren’t around). [I guess it should be taken as a given that if you can’t stomach the idea of someone named Sourdough Slim doing a poem called “Big Bad Bill,” you should stay the hell away from this disc like it was pinkeye.]
The more serious poems here tend to vary more wildly, but some of these poets and storytellers know how to mine the true Zen wisdom of farm life. Randy Rieman’s “The Hooves of the Horses” sounds like something written on the plaque of a beautiful statue, and Walt LaRue’s rambling rodeo story about a bull named “Square-Head” is funny and strange, a transmission from a world most of us will never visit. But some of this stuff is just way too sentimentalized: Janine Haig’s “Not Gone” might have killed live but sounds overdramatic and shrill on disc. And J.B. Allen manages to swallow all his good lines on “Habitat”, making it sound pretentious instead of cool.
The music is mostly pretty okay, especially when we’re talking about the Hot Club of Cowtown getting wild on “Ragtime Annie” and Red Steagall’s pretty “Red River Rose”. But, again, some of this stuff is just out of control. “Born to Be a Cowboy”, a folk song intoned by R.W. Hampton, manages to work in just about every cliché one can think of, and its 5:47 running time brings Disc Two to a screeching halt, even though there are still nine more tracks to go.
This collection might have worked better with the poetry on one disc and the music on the other, rather than all jumbled up the way it is. It also might have worked better to have more explanation in the liner notes; why, for example, are the Tibetan dudes all over the inside pictures, and referred to by other performers, if they are not going to be included on the album?
There’s something missing for me, and I’m about as sympathetic a listener as you’re ever going to find. I really wanted this to kick ass, so I could give it a great review and stick it to those damned city-folks, to those poetry- and country-music haters, to everyone who would rather sit in a dank club listening to middle-class white kids sing about their problems than get their boots muddy trying to tear the old stump out of the back forty.
Again, it’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just not as much fun to listen to as I had hoped. Maybe the main problem here is that Elko doesn’t translate as well to outsiders, or on disc, or something. What it boils down to is that Elko is probably better experienced live than by proxy. If you’re interested in this scene, don’t sit on your ass listening to a year-old recording of it; start making your plans for next January.