Cowboy poetry is a 150-year-old tradition. Will it survive in the 21st century?

As ranchers grow steadily older, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is looking to attract a younger, more diverse crowd.

On a January morning in northern Nevada, cowgirl Marinna Mori stood in a snow covered corral beckoning her horse Hollywood with a bucket of grain. At age 10, Mori is the fourth generation to live on the Mori Ranch, located in the foothills of the Independence Mountains. The horse plodded over, obliging the offer by lowering its head so Mori could tie a rope halter around its neck. Thirty minutes later she was riding with her father, Michael Mori, across a cow pasture where sunlight glinted off the snow like fools gold.

Moments like these inspire the young cowgirl to write about her life on the ranch. Last year, on opening night of the 35th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, she performed her song “Country Cowgirl” for a sold-out audience in Elko, Nevada. (Here's how to attend the gathering.)

Now my horse is tired, from a long hard day,
Out gathering cattle, though they want to stay.
My rope is tan with dust, and my saddle, too.
Now I’m headed home, sky’s turning dark blue

I’m a country cowgirl, free as the wind.
I don’t mind the hard work, as long as I’m not penned.
I’m a country cowgirl, my horse is my best friend.
We go to work at sun-up, work cows until it’s dark again.

The audience of 300 people gave Mori a standing ovation, as much for the rarity she represented at the event—a youngster in a crowd of aging ranch folks—as for her performance.

This week, as cowboys and ranchers convened in Elko for the 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, there’s cause for concern that time is running out for American ranching. According to the latest (2017) U.S. Census of Agriculture, the median age of a primary ranch operator is 57.5 years. You have to look back to the 1970s to find a time when the majority of ranchers were in their 40s. At this rate the median age will near retirement in 2025. (Related: "American farmers are growing old, with spiraling costs keeping out young.")

Cowboys and ranchers aren’t the same thing—one works for the other—but their fates are bound. I went to the 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to find out what cowboy poets, as chroniclers of the American West going on 150 years, think about this looming question: Is ranching, and the cowboy way of life, in danger of disappearing?

The cowboys wrote away

Cowboys have written poetry for as long as there has been a need to herd cattle in the American West—which, folklorist Hal Cannon says, dates to the overland cattle drives of the 1870s.

“The trail was like a petri dish for growing a new culture,” Cannon says. “It brought together diverse strains of life: former slaves, Civil War veterans, Mexican vaqueros, Indian cowboys. They spoke in verse about the harrowing experiences they shared.”

The oldest known poetry anthology is the two-volume Songs of the Cowboys, published in 1907 and 1921. The collection was compiled by the New Mexico rancher Jack Thorpe who’d seen the arrival of barbed wire and the closing of the American frontier. Thorpe had worried the cowboy’s way of life wouldn’t survive the 20th century and wanted to document the poetry and verse he’d heard on the range. Many of these poems have become standards for poets performing in Elko, such as “The Campfire Has Gone Out,” an ode to the eroding forces modernization has had on cowboy culture:

Through the progress of the railroad our occupation's gone;
So we put ideas into words, our words into a song.
First comes the cowboy; he is pointed for the west;
Of all the pioneers I claim the cowboys are the best;
You will miss him on the round-up; it's gone, his merry shout,—
The cowboy has left the country and the camp-fire has gone out.

“It has been a slow dying process,” Cannon says. “At the time of the American Revolution, 90 percent of Americans made their living in agriculture. By the turn of the 20th century, around 40 percent did. Now it’s probably under two percent, and there are far fewer cattle on public and private land than in the history of the American West.”

Fast forward to the 1980s and cowboy culture as Thorpe would have recognized it was relegated to the remotest corners of the West, such as in the Great Basin. A team of folklorists supported by the National Endowment for the Arts searched for what remained of cowboy poetry in the West. The folk genre was still going strong, albeit without anyone publishing anthologies or poetry collections. The folklorists discovered cowboy poems printed in agricultural magazines, on feed store calendars, even on menus in greasy spoon diners. They tracked down the poets and offered to put on a cowboy poetry competition in Elko, Nevada.

(Related: "This is the loneliest road in America.")

The cowboy poets balked at the idea.

“A poetry competition didn’t sound as fun as simply getting together to share poems,” said Wally McRae, a rancher and poet from Montana who has attended the event for three decades. “There’d be only one winner. Why couldn’t we all be winners?”

He and the others suggested calling the event a cowboy poetry “gathering.” That started an annual migration of cowboys traveling by the pickup truck full to Elko, Nevada every year during the last week in January. The idea of cowboys writing and reciting poetry caught national attention, with several poets becoming repeat guests on the Johnny Carson Show. Two cowboy poets, Buck Ramsey and Joel Nelson, would be named National Heritage Fellows.

But by the dawning of the 21st century there were signs that maybe it was finally happening: With the average age of ranchers at historic highs, the cowboy life was dying out. And with it, the cultural institution of cowboy poetry.

Gray hairs and empty chairs

“You didn't have to study rocket science to look around at all the gray hair and think: Wow, where’s our future?” says Gail Steiger, an Arizona rancher, filmmaker, and cowboy poet. He sits on the board of directors for the Western Folklife Center, an Elko-based nonprofit that runs the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Ticket sales had plummeted so low we didn’t know if we could keep this thing going.”

To correct course, the board in 2017 hired a new executive director, Kristin Windbigler, who’d previously worked for TED in New York and WIRED magazine in San Francisco. Windbigler had some cowgirl cred, growing up in a ranching community in northern California. In her view, cowboy poetry could appeal to urban as well as rural America.

“I’ve spent a lot of time crossing back and forth between those two worlds,” Windbigler says. “The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering can bridge the gap.”

Windbigler borrowed from the TED playbook to grow the event’s social media following by releasing videos of historic cowboy poetry performances. One of the first video—of cowboy poet Sunny Hancock performing in 1994—went viral, with 4.3 million views and 93,000 shares on Facebook. Windbigler also worked to rejuvenate the Gathering’s lineup of cowboy poets and musicians.

“When we curate each year’s shows,” Windbigler says, “we want performers that reflect the Gathering's roots, but also those who can chart a course for the future by bringing in new voices.”

That has meant broadening the definition of what counts as cowboy poetry. In the past, the Gathering mixed things up by showcasing the poetry traditions of kindred cowboy cultures around the world, including the gauchos of Argentina, the nomads of Mongolia, and the camargue horsemen of southern France. (Related: "Camargue: The French Wild West.")

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak,” says Steiger, who traveled abroad to find international poets to invite to the Gathering. “If you make your living on a horse, we’ve got a lot more in common than things that separate us.”

This year’s Gathering honors the black cowboy, a theme whose time is long overdue given the role African Americans played throughout the history of the West. Historians estimate that one-quarter of the cowboys who rode up the overland trails was African American.

“Black cowboys were a vibrant part of the community,” says Dom Flemons, a folk singer whose album “Black Cowboys” was a finalist at the 2019 Grammys. He started attending the Gathering in 2015, while doing research for the album, and he and his wife Vania Kinard served as consultants for this year’s show.

“When I walked in the door at Elko, people started telling me every bit of information they could about black cowboys,” Flemons said. For example, the song “Home on the Range” was based on a folklorist’s field recording in 1908 of a retired black cowboy who’d once ridden the Chisholm Trail. And the Lone Ranger was based on the exploits of Bass Reeves, the first African American to become a U.S. Marshal.

The list went on. But can cowboy poetry attract a younger, more diverse demographic into ranching?

“There are two kinds of West,” Flemons says, “the literal West, and the West of the imagination. If movies, songs, and poems about ranching continue to go out into the world, it will bring people in. It may take time to manifest into workers, but there’s already a big back-to-the-land movement in the African-American community, especially in the south.”

Born again cowboy poetry

For every ranch kid born into the cowboy lifestyle, there’s a self-made cowboy determined to find their way in the rural West. Forrest VanTuyl, the recipient of an emerging talent scholarship, was a touring Americana musician when he quit the road to become a cowboy. Not that making such a career transition was easy.

“It’s pretty hard to get an entry level job,” VanTuyl says, “especially when you’re in your mid-twenties and don’t have any real experience. Horse work isn’t something you can just apply for with a resume.”

VanTuyl now works as a horse packer in the Hell’s Canyon Wilderness Area on the border between Idaho and Oregon. He says the cowboy arts—poetry, music, literature—were his unofficial manual for learning the trade. VanTuyl’s own cowboy verse trends towards ballads celebrating the wildlife and public lands of the American West.

“We're one of the richest countries in the world,” he says. “We can spare a few bucks to keep endangered species from going extinct.”

Other newcomers to the Gathering don’t attempt to qualify as cowboys at all. Olivia Romo is a farmer, poet, and water rights activist from Taos, New Mexico. She comes from a multigenerational corn farming family that relies on water from one of New Mexico’s “acequias” (community-owned water ditches) to irrigate their crops. She wrote of the hardships they face in the poem “Bendición del Agua” (A Prayer for Water):

dividing waters where they are scarce
breaking boundaries, breaking backs,
financial stabilities collapse
crops welt
calves curl their tongues
around political tumbleweeds
there is little substance after the drought!
After city dwellers and corporations
cut into our streams
draining culture
una sangria
slicing our veins!

Romo has watched the farmers around her grow old, slow to be replenished by younger generations.

“When I go to community water planning meetings, I’m the youngest person in the room – by a lot,” says Romo, age 25. “But I’m seeing the start of an awakening as millennials realize we have to come back to the land to feed our children. Our elders need to trust us to take up the shovels. It's our turn now.”

Where the cowboys went

On my last night at the Gathering I was walking in downtown Elko when I heard the droning of a bass guitar and the thumping of drums. A crowd spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the Star Hotel, which also has a bar and restaurant. I squeezed through a side door into a dining room that had been converted into an impromptu concert hall. A three-piece band played “Folsom Prison Blues,” by Johnny Cash, and the dance floor was a blur of swing dancers.

I didn’t conduct a census, but it wasn’t hard to tell this was a younger generation of cowboys than what I’d seen at the convention center. They looked fresh off the ranch, their hat brims soiled with sweat, boots caked with mud, and jeans pockets faded with the geometric shapes of snus cans and buck knives. Their frenzied aura spoke of people for whom social outings are scarce. (See what cowboys looked like nearly 100 years ago.)

The Star hosts a variety show called The Outside Circle Show. The name draws on a routine ranch chore where a cowboy rides the perimeter, or outside circle, of a large pasture to gather stray cattle.

“This is how the poetry gathering used to be,” said the show’s organizer, Justin Reichert, a fifth-generation cowboy from Kansas. Reichert first visited Elko as a teenager in 1992, and he enjoyed the Gathering so much he took a hiatus from the family ranch in Kansas to work as cowboy in the Great Basin. Over the years, Reichert says the Gathering lost touch with the cowboy culture it was founded to celebrate.

“You go into those shows now and the folklorists stand around watching the cowboys like they’re Jane Goodall observing a bunch of chimpanzees,” Reichert says. “While they’re reciting 100-year-old poems, we’re here talking about the real issues facing cowboys today. Like the number of cowboys who commit suicide or drink themselves to death. Or those who serve in the military and come home so scarred from PTSD they burn their uniforms. To hell with the whole idea of ‘God and country.’ Or how difficult it is to find a wife willing to live with you in the middle of nowhere.”

As for the premise of the disappearing cowboy? “It’s a romantic idea that helps to sell tickets,” Reichert says. From the view inside his social circle, cowboys can endure so long as people believe in them. “If we keep portraying the cowboy as a dying breed, pretty soon we will be. A lot of people already think the cowboy is a myth. When I go to town dressed the way I do, they think I’m a reenactor wearing a costume. I have to tell them, ‘No, I live on a ranch. I’m just here buying my groceries.’”

This article has been updated with corrections.
Ryan T. Bell, a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow, performed at the 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He worked in the ranching and outfitting industries for a decade before becoming a full-time writer and photographer.

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