To gather. As a ranch woman, this phrase conjures up images of roundup season, sitting on top of my horse and moving our cattle together from all corners of our pastures.
It’s the throaty hum of the animals’ voices as they call to their calves or to one another or out into the world, seemingly saying, “I’m here, I’m coming. All right already.”
It’s the creak of the old cows’ bones as we let them slowly navigate themselves toward a well-worn path they know toward home. And it’s the “heya” and the “c’mon” we let out of our lungs as we follow the small sea of black backs, the quiet counting and calculations in our heads, our warm breath cooling down in the autumn air.
It’s the swing of our leg off the saddle and the swing of the gate when they’re all in and accounted for so we can take a deep breath, put our hands on our hips and say, “Well, all right then…” and move on to the sorting.
I recently participated in a different kind of gathering down in Elko, Nev. A gathering of cowboy poets, musicians, artists and fans from across the world in an event dedicated to the stories we tell about a way of life that I would say is more rough than it is romantic, except it’s the rough parts that make it so.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. That’s what they call it. And I like that they call it that, because that’s what it is.
It’s a gathering of people, ideas, stories, music, art and conversation in a small town in the dessert in the middle of winter when the cowboys and ranchers that create have time to take leave from the Plains or the mountains to connect with other artists and an audience eager to hear from them so that they might be a part of that life, too, if only for a few days under a felt hat.
That is, if they have someone at home to feed the cattle and the kids. Which is where my husband falls in the story. Because everyone wants to be a cowboy until it’s actually time to do cowboy stuff, and so he got the less-glamorous gig of wiping toddler noses and rolling out hay bales while I was shaking hands and singing under the lights.
And I couldn’t help but look out into the audience of hundreds of anonymous silhouettes sitting still and quiet and ready to nod along and feel overwhelmingly grateful that somebody thought the world needed an event like this. Because in the 20-some years that I’ve been writing music and performing, I’ve never found a better muse than the rural community, rugged landscape and ranch life in which I was raised.
But in the miles I’ve traveled up and down the Midwest, I have questioned if it ever really resonates, if there is anyone else out there who thought the world needed a song with a rhythm based on hoof beats. I’ve spent a career slowly finding those people who do, and then, three airplanes later, I found myself in a land where they’ve all congregated for us, caffeinated, fed, inspired and ready to listen.
I kept saying it to myself as I looked out in this community the Western Folklife Center created in Elko for people like me and people nothing like me at all.
What happens when we gather? Those differences become less important than the way a song about loss reminds us both of similar struggle.
Or the way we collectively clapped and laughed, the whole auditorium full of us, as he yodeled and kicked up his leg.
Or the silence none of us discussed but honored as an 85-year-old legend, with a voice worn from years of songs and stories, closed his eyes and worked through another one on a stage that afternoon.
And so I couldn’t help but feel a bit like our cattle that week down in Elko, surrounded by a sea of hats and smiles, reaching out to touch one another as we drew closer to say, “I’m here! I’m coming. All right already,” taking a familiar path toward a place that feels like home.
And I’m back at the ranch now, hands on hips, ready for the sorting…