Heritage Festival Features Cowboy Poets



If you had to make a list of dying breeds, two things that would probably rank right up there alongside Mexican spotted owls are cowboys and poetry.

Even the Tonto Cowbelles, an organization of ranching wives who promote beef, recently hung up their spurs. And when is the last time you spent an evening curled up with a good book of poetry?

So it's interesting that these two anachronisms have teamed up to revitalize one another. I am talking about the increasingly popular art form of cowboy poetry, and the reason I bring it up is that the Rim country is about to be treated to four of the finest cowboy poets in the state.

They'll be performing together Saturday, Sept. 2, as part of the Rim Country Western Heritage Festival at Green Valley Park. The festival, which is sponsored by The Rim Review, EAC-Payson, the Rim Country Museum and Payson Concrete & Materials, is being held in conjunction with Art in the Park and the museum's outstanding Grazin' Saddles exhibit.

Of course, any mention of cowboy poetry in these parts has to include our own Buckshot Dot formerly and still occasionally known as Dee Strickland Johnson. It was Dee, who happens to be my neighbor, who first got me interested in cowboy poetry.

If you've seen her perform at various venues and sundry campgrounds around the Rim country, she probably has you hooked, too. If you haven't, let me try and convey what this stuff is all about.

Despite the romance that surrounds them, cowboys have always been a fairly humble breed. The real ones seldom owned more than a horse and what they could carry on it.

Ask anyone associated with today's rodeos, and they'll tell you rodeo cowboys are still the most polite, unassuming group of people you'd ever want to meet.

Poetry, on the other hand, has gotten a bum rap, partly because people too often associate it with the language ofShakespeare, and partly because it is the most intense form of writing there is. You have to spend more time figuring it out than many of us are willing to expend in this age of instant electronic gratification.

But poetry has been around pretty much forever, and for most of that time, it was the medium people used to pass on the stories that were important to them. Remember from your school days, for example, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Longfellow? Has that famous story ever been told any better?

So if you put cowboys and poetry together, the result is often something that speaks to "everyman," that goes straight to the soul, that vividly captures the trials and travails of a working life. Something like this excerpt from Buckshot Dot's "That Gnarly Old Cowhand I Married"...

In his rags and his tatters and old battered hat,

I've seen him get gored,

and I've seen him stomped flat.

But despite busted ribs and that tarnal bad back,

he's still hefting hay bales

and feed sacks and tack;

And he's still in the saddle

by dawn every day

(and I have to admit, Lord, I like it this way);

Yet I see in his eyes, growing dimmer with age,

flames leaping from campfires

of mesquite and sage.

(Is he hearing the coyotes'

night yappings and wails?

the applause of arenas, sad songs of the trails?)

Then I realize what I've known from the start

that I hold only half

of an old cowboy's heart;

But his glad songs are mine,

and his grin and his laugh,

and he always assures me, I hold the best half.

He's ridden carbolic for most of his life,

and I'm still mighty proud

that he's proud of his wife.

For I hear "I love you,"

(though words are unspoken).

He's sure busted upbut he'll never be broken.

Performing with Buckshot Dot, 1997 Female Cowboy Poet of the Year, will be Tony Norris, Bud Strom, and Royce Hodge.

Norris, "the best looking of 11 children," is "bigger than life and glows in the dark." Weaving together story and song, he regales audiences with tales of "bad horses and badder men and faithful dogs and faithless lovers." His best friends say, "He's a liar!"

Strom, who was orphaned and became a working cowboy at 15, fills his poetry with "the hard times, great pride, tongue-in-cheek humor, and satisfaction of living the cowboy dream."

Hodge has made his way as a cowboy for nearly 35 years. His album "A Cowboy Remembers" was recently nominated for Album of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists.

All four cowboy poets will provide a free preview of their work Saturday, Sept. 2, from noon to 2 p.m. outside the Rim Country Museum. Then, they're featured in two very special concerts at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. upstairs in the museum with the Grazin' Saddles exhibit as a dramatic backdrop.

Tickets for the evening shows are $5 and are available at the museum, the Payson Library, the Payson Roundup, and at the door. Seating is very limited, so don't wait.

With your support, cowboys and poetry might one day come off the endangered list. But as Buckshot Dot herself would put it, "That gol durn Mexican spotted owl is a whole nother story."

Chances are good that one day soon she'll tell it.

Schedule of events

Friday, Sept. 1

7pm, "The Dastard" (Western melodrama), High school auditorium, Tickets: $5

Saturday, Sept. 2

Green Valley Park (no charge)

11am, Square Dance Exhibition by the Zane Grey Twirlers

12-2pm, Cowboy Poets, Melodrama vignettes

12-3pm, Western Author's Book Signing

3:30-5pm, Eddie Armer's Bunkhouse Band

All Day, Art in the Park

2pm, "The Dastard" (Western melodrama), High school auditorium, Tickets: $5

Rim Country Museum

5pm, Cowboy Poets/Storytellers Concert, Tickets $5

8pm, Cowboy Poets/Storytellers Concert, Tickets $5

(Tickets for ticketed events can be purchased at the Payson Public Library, Rim Country Museum, Payson Roundup, and at the door of the event.)

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