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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell performs at last year's Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair. He'll emcee another event this year.

Riders in the Sky have been doing it "The Cowboy Way" for 33 years now. They just completed their 6,000th appearance, have been to every state in the Union and are out "beating the bushes wherever we can," said Ranger Doug in a telephone chat from his home in Nashville.

Their purpose is to carry on the great tradition started by the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others of the cowboy music genre.

"We're trying to keep the music alive, keep the appreciation for it alive," Ranger Doug said.

Riders in the Sky will be in Salt Lake City to kick off the 16th Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair with a concert Monday night at Abravanel Hall.

The rest of the festival will take place in Heber Valley, Tuesday through Sunday, Nov. 2-7, with other top Western entertainers, including Suzy Bogguss, Ian Tyson, the Bar J Wranglers, Sons of the San Joaquin, Red Steagall, Hot Club Cowtown, R.W. Hampton and Wylie & the Wild West.

Riders in the Sky, made up of Ranger Doug (Idol of American Youth), Too Slim (A Man Aging Like Fine Cheese), Woody Paul (King of the Cowboy Fiddlers) and Joey (the Cowpolka King), will combine with the Utah Symphony for the concert, something they are excited about.

"We just finished working on an album with the Nashville Symphony, and we're looking forward to working with the Utah Symphony," Ranger Doug said.

There's something great, he said, that comes from "the marriage of the sweeping melodies of Western music and the beauty of the orchestra. It's like being in the middle of an old Western movie. You get that wonderful sound that makes it both a physical and emotional experience."

There are important values in that time and music that are still relevant to our time, said Ranger Doug. Every form of American music "has its own valid reasons for existence. Our form is perhaps not as widely known, but we are proud of the grand tradition and of keeping it alive. We feel like keepers of the flame, if you will."

And that's exactly what the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair is all about. What began 16 years ago as a one-night gathering of friends has grown into a full week of entertainment in seven venues, featuring entertainers from all over the country. It has become one of the largest and is considered by many in the field to be one of the best gatherings of its kind in the nation.

"We don't want people to forget the cowboy heritage that established not only Utah but the West," said event founder Tom Whitaker, a retired businessman who is now a rancher and farmer in the Heber Valley.

The gathering will feature 10 main concerts and shows; nonstop cowboy poetry and entertainment; more than 40 Western booths with arts, crafts and cowboy gear; a Mountain Man Camp; fiddle, guitar, harmonica and muledriving clinics; Cowboy Express Train; Buckaroo Ball; a cowboy BBQ lunch and more.

For a complete schedule, visit www.hebercitycowboypoetry.com

This year's Wild West Show will feature "Famous Outlaws of the West." It's every bit as good as, and maybe even richer than, Buffalo Bill Cody's show, said Donnette Hicks, who produces the show. Cowboys and Indians magazine called it "Broadway quality."

They will bring in 150 truckloads of dirt to make a mountain and have a live waterfall to re-enact the famous jump of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"We'll have a live herd of horses, female banditas, bank robberies, a 'hanging,' " Hicks said. "Juni Fisher will be one of our headline singers; Waddie Mitchell will emcee. Horseman Jim Hicks will ride a magnificent black Friesian horse named Rembrandt."

A cast of 80 will tell folk tales of Cole Younger, the James Brothers, Billy the Kid, Belle Starr, Pearl Hart and others.

A newcomer this year is Nashville singer/songwriter Bogguss, who broke onto the country music scene in the late 1980s and hit it big with her platinum-selling album "Aces" in 1991.

After a hiatus in the mid-1900s to raise her family, Bogguss returned to recording and performing, but in a wider range of genres.

"It's been fun getting back, and I've had all kinds of projects," she said in a telephone interview from her Nashville home.

She did a swing album with Asleep at the Wheel, worked with Chet Atkins and released a "New Yorky-James Taylorish" album. Her most recent project is an album of old folk songs with Cracker Barrel.

"These are all the songs that I remember from my fifth-grade songbook — 'Shenandoah,' 'Red River Valley,' 'Get Along Little Dogies,' " she said. "I grew up in a small town, and those were the songs that we all sang. I just love it."

She also loves doing Western festivals.

"They smack of my first days in this business," she said. "We used to travel by camper to fairs and festivals. Many evenings we'd sit around a campfire in side groups, just singing, playing, having a good time."

But she also loves what the Western festivals represent. "People come and lose themselves in a different time, a different period. There's almost a fairy-tale quality. It's a time to forget your troubles and go to a more peaceful place."

And who cares if the old cowboys weren't exactly what we made them?

"They have morphed into something that stands for goodness, and that's a beautiful thing, whether it was created, or not," Bogguss said. "There are wonderful songs. And so much humor. They found humor in everyday things, and that, too, is a beautiful thing."

As Whitaker says, "The best way to experience being a cowboy without being 'a cowboy,' is to be entertained by real cowboys. These performers live it, write it, rhyme it, sing it and perform all over the country."

If you go:

What: 16th Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair

When: Tuesday-Sunday, Nov. 2-7

Where: Heber Valley

How much: $10 per day; dinner $7-15; concerts, $14-$45; tickts are availablet the door or Day's Market Place in Heber

Phone: 435-654-2352

Web: www.hebercitycowboypoetry.com

Also …

What: Riders in the Sky with the Utah Symphony

When: Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Abravanel Hall

How much: $15-30

Phone: 801-323-6800

Web: www.utahsymphony.com

e-mail: carma@desnews.com