Last weekend I attended a workshop given by teacher, raconteur, cowboy poet, rope twirler, guitar picker, yodeler and warbler extraordinaire, Ernie Sites. The event was held in downtown Boise and sponsored by Elaine Ambrose of Mill Park Publishing in Eagle, Idaho.
I like to write poetry but the cowboy poetry genre often confounds me. I’m not sure if it’s the rhyme and meter of it or something else. When I first started penning poems I guffawed at rhyme and metrical schemes as flighty and unavailable to me in terms of expressing true, angsty meaning…mine or any other poet’s. But after some time studying Shelly and Wordsworth and Yeats’ poems and cowboy poet Buck Ramsey’s masterpiece of the cowboy genre, “Anthem,” I have changed my mind. Not about writing such poems, but about rhyme and meter’s importance in the larger genre of poetry.
Rhyme and metrical schemes place restraints on the composer and like so much in life, constraints of many kinds force us to be creative. That doesn’t mean I’m going to write rhyme and meter, but it does mean I appreciate the poems more for what they say and how they say it.
I wrote a poem in that workshop and although it was metrical and had internal rhyme, I wouldn’t name it cowboy poetry. There were some good poems composed by almost everyone in the session and some of them fit the classic definition of cowboy poetry.
Along with poems and music, there were cowboy hats and boots one would expect at a celebration of something cowboys call “Cowboy Halloween.” The boots especially, bright red boots, Lucchese boots.
I really like how things cowboy keep working their way into milieus that are not western at all. I wonder if the cowboy scene is making a comeback, like it did in the mid-sixties when I was, to quote an old cowboy homily, feeling my oats. A lot of us bought boots and wanted to bronc around on wild horses and not knowing fear, threw ourselves into the world of rodeo, bull riding and calf roping and bull dogging.
Non-cowboy cowboying made another comeback with the general public in 1980 with John Travolta and Debra Winger as Bud and Sissy in Urban Cowboy. People who had never owned a set of cowboy boots or hat were now walking into their offices hoofed in Tony Lama full quill ostrich leather boots with a riding heel and widebrimmed black Stetson cowboy hats. Mammoth honky-tonks with mechanical bulls opened all over the country. Charlie Daniels and Merle Haggard and the Statler Brothers, among others, were wailing Country and Western music out of radios and boom boxes. Folks thought it was Cowboy Music. It wasn’t, but it didn’t matter to the consumers as they danced the Cotton-eyed Joe and the Texas Two Step.
I lived in Arizona at the time and they opened a big cowboy bar in Tempe called “Cowboys.” I was working in the livestock business then and had been for a number of years. I figured the joint had nothing to do with the real cowboys I hung out with and worked around. But still, it was a bar, and still, I was curious.
One of my best friends at the time was a real cowpoke named Ray Fred Kelly. Ray, who passed on to the Happy Roping Arena late last year, much to my sadness, was raised in the cattle business and could build a loop and throw a Houlihan with the best of them. At the time, Ray was managing, among other things, an animal health wholesale outfit in the Valley of the Sun. One afternoon I went up to argue bid prices on health products with him for a feedlot I was helping run. After we argued in his office, we began to argue in a local bar, and as the argument went on, we proceeded north for several hours, hitting most of the bars he knew about. Arguing all the way.
About eight in the evening we got tired of wrangling and decided to head home but before we did I said I thought we should go check out this joint called “Cowboys.” I wanted to see some cowboys in downtown Tempe.
Fred chuckled and said, “There aren’t any real cowboys in ‘Cowboys.’ Real cowboys don’t go to ‘Cowboys.'”
But I was fired up and liquored up and, since I was driving, demanded that we go to “Cowboys”. He chuckled again and I drove over there. The parking lot looked like it could serve the needs of a college football stadium and the cars were Chryslers and Fords and Camaros. As I parked my pickup in one of the only open spots, I noticed a paucity of pickups, and deep down inside I probably knew right then that real cowboys didn’t go to “Cowboys.”
At the door, two very large men stood in fancy boots and hats, western suits. They didn’t smile and they had their hands crossed in front of them like undertakers do when they are running a burying.
Ray Fred wagged his head as if we were walking into an ambush, but I stomped right up to the front door and pulled it open. The men each threw their long and massive arms up and held the door closed.
I said, “What’s the matter?”
Ray Fred stood back.
One of the bouncers barked, “No Levis.”
I said, “What? No Levis? What kind of cowboy doesn’t wear jeans?”
Both the bouncers looked at me, then one of them pointed at Ray Fred and said, “Besides, he’s wearing tennis shoes.”
I looked at my manure-caked boots and said, “What about these?”
“Nope. They are not clean.”
I snorted as Ray Fred cleared his throat. I walked up to the one who was doing the talking and wagged the index finger of my right hand right beneath his nose and said, nodding back at Ray Fred, “That man is a real hand. He can build a loop and doctor sick calves, he can sort and brand and castrate and…can you do that? And,” I said, “he can throw a Houlihan.”
The man just frowned at me. As Ray Fred cleared his throat again, I went on, “You gunsel SOBs wouldn’t know the butt end of a steer from its head. You wouldn’t know a bull from a cow and you ain’t ever sat a horse that knows how to cut and sort.”
Earlier in this essay I talked about constraints and how we are forced to adapt our actions to reflect those restraints.
When neither of those gunsel bouncers moved their arms from barring the door, nor wore any kind of expression other than no expression at all, we left, me throwing cuss words and indignities over my shoulder as Ray Fred said, “See, I told you. Real cowboys don’t go to ‘Cowboys.'”