If you aren’t up for the adventure of a real cattle drive, you might opt for an alternative that’s just as authentic, but a little lower key, by attending the first Genoa Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.
The festival kicks off Thursday, April 29 and continues through the weekend, ending on May 2. Co-sponsored by the Carson Valley Arts Council and the Town of Genoa, the organizers’ mission is to “promote and preserve the unique ranching heritage [and] the culture of the Carson Valley through…visual arts, education, and exhibits, attracting visitors throughout the world.”
The festival will feature a variety of events, including more than 80 workshops ranging from blacksmithing and leather tooling to basket weaving and Dutch-oven cooking. Additionally, the festival will feature genuine cowboy food and Western artists, Chautauquas, and of course, a long list of cowboy poets: Nevada native Waddie Mitchell (see photo below), Don Edwards, Paul Zarzyski, and Richard Elloyan to name a few.
Cowboy poetry, a popular Western literary subgenre, was created by workers on cattle drives and ranches. After a strenuous day, the men would sit around the campfire and exchange entertaining tall tales and folk songs. Because illiteracy was common, a poetic structure was utilized to help them remember their stories.
This unique tradition has remained throughout the years and has inspired a variety of festivals throughout the country, namely Elko’s hugely successful National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which was initiated in 1985.
Influenced by the Elko event’s success, Theresa Chipp of the Carson Valley Arts Council and Sheryl Gonzales, Town Manager of Genoa, wanted to host a western-themed festival. “We feel that Genoa, being Nevada’s oldest [permanent] settlement, has a distinct personality and would be a perfect location for this event,” Chipp says. “We hope to preserve and promote the ranching heritage unique to this area. We want to get the [Carson] Valley back in touch with its roots.”
Chipp and Gonzales view the event as a boon to the Town of Genoa and Carson Valley. “It will be hosted right in the heart of Genoa, all up and down Main Street, and 12 venues [every Genoa business] will contribute,” Gonzales says. “Every inch of town will be used, and every hotel throughout the area is expected to fill.” They are hoping to draw at least 3,000 attendees this year and would like to see the event eventually encompass the whole valley.
Darcy Minter, external communications director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, has seen the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering blossom from its humble beginnings. In 1985, Hal Cannon, founder of the Gathering, and his cowboy poet friend, Waddie Mitchell, optimistically set up 200 chairs. To their surprise, 500 people showed up to the first festival. Minter says it was one of the most stunning experiences of her life, to be part of recognizing creative people from the ranching culture uniting for the first time to express their art. “Interestingly,” she adds, “there was an energy that came out of the cattle country, all over the West, that took hold of talented men and women from every generation and brought a representative group together.”
Nearly 150 cowboy poetry festivals have spawned throughout the Western United States. While other states are suitable headquarters for such festivals, Nevada has an edge because it truly is the Wild West. Cheryll Glotfelty, a University of Nevada, Reno literature and environment professor, and author of Nevada’s only exclusive literary anthology, Nevada in Literature, believes Nevada is a wonderful place to host cowboy poetry festivals. “Cowboy poetry has given voice to the experience and perspectives of the working cowboys and ranchers of the western frontier. Without cowboy poetry we would have only cheesy Hollywood stereotypes to represent cowboys,” Glotfelty says.
Glotfelty thinks cowboy poetry is here to stay because of its appeal. “What is great about cowboy poetry is its popularity with the general public,” she adds. “Whereas many people are intimidated by most poetry, they enjoy cowboy poetry because they can understand it, and it speaks to them. Furthermore, cowboy poetry is meant to be performed, and in this way, it keeps the tradition of live poetry readings alive.”