Cowboy poetry rose out of the hardscrabble existence of life in the West. It speaks of ordinary things and everyday experiences, but it is not entirely accurate to call it poetry of the common man. The farmers, ranchers and sheepherders that tamed the land, that yet live on it and love it to the bottom of their souls, are an uncommon folk. Cowboy poetry tells their story with humor, poignancy and insight.
"Cowboy poetry will make you laugh, will make you cry," says Sam Jackson, "but if you listen closely, there's a lot of Western history of the kind not written down in books. History books record the big things. We have private journals and diaries that aren't meant for the public. Cowboy poetry bridges that gap."
The simple things of everyday life are important to our understanding of life in the West, he says, and are being forgotten. "Real Western history is dying away. When many of these people die, their memories will go away like a melting snow bank."
Jackson got into cowboy poetry after he retired from a career in the missile industry and attended a program in San Antonio. He came to love the genre so much that he not only started writing poetry himself, but he began producing the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, which he sees as a way to make it better.
The rodeo is a competition, he says, "and I can't think of anything that competition doesn't improve: cars, basketball, golf. So why not poets?"
Since it was first introduced, cowboy poetry has grown in popularity, which has been both good and bad, says Jackson. "The bad news is that its popularity soon outran the talent pool, with some folks announcing themselves as 'Cowboy Poet Entertainers' a mite sooner than they should have."
And while Jackson loves the genre, "I hate bad poetry. Sadly, one bad poet can drive people away faster than 10 good ones can bring them in. Thus our slogan: Excellence Through Competition."
Now entering its 15th year, the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo started in Cedar City, then moved to Kanab, where for seven years it was part of the Western Legends Roundup. Then, it played in Hot Springs, S.D., for two years and in Montrose, Colo., for two years. Basically, says Jackson, they just wanted to give people a chance to see some other scenery.
But this year, the rodeo will be returning to Kanab, "where we will again be spicing up the Western Legends Roundup again, with riders (poets) coming in from all across the country from California to North Carolina, plus Canada, Mexico and other places, to compete for $6,000 in prize money and silver buckles."
The Western Legends Roundup takes place Aug. 18-20 in downtown Kanab, with the rodeo occurring in the Old Barn Theater at the Parry Lodge. This year, there will be more than 30 riders at the rodeo, which is also being dedicated to the memory of Utah poet Colen Sweeten, a longtime practitioner of the art form and called by many "Western America's Will Rogers."
The rodeo has several rounds of competition, which are open to the public. Each rider pays a fee to participate in any or all of the divisions: poet/serious, poet/humorous, reciter/serious and reciter/humorous (a poet performs his or her own work, a reciter performs the works of others).
Riders perform before a panel of five judges; the top-half scorers in the first round go on to the second. The top score in each category gets a silver buckle, and the rider with the highest total points gets the big money prize. Top winners are invited to perform in headliner events at the Roundup. "Not to mention, getting braggin' rights for a full 12 months," says Jackson.
The rodeo also has two divisions: Rising Stars and Silver Buckles. Rising Stars are poets who have never won first place at an event. Once a rider has won a silver buckle, he or she must then compete with other winners.
"We paraphrase something that Spencer W. Kimball used to say about making bad people good and good people better," says Jackson. "We're making the 'fair poets good' and the 'good poets better.' " And it is working, he says. "Among this year's featured performers at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, 10 have been associated with the NCPR, five of them were silver buckle winners and just about every one of them will tell you that this competition greatly enhanced their skills."
What happens, he says, "is that the poets either get better or they end up quitting. Either way, the genre gains. We look on it as making improvements by committing 'verbicide.' "
Jackson himself comes by his interest in cowboy poetry honestly. He grew up in the sheep industry. When World War II broke out, a lot of the local men were drafted into the army, and he got drafted into sheepherding, staying alone in his first sheep campwagon when he was 11.
"When I retired, I started to set some of those memories down, and I found that I liked rhyming them the most." He's also published a couple of books of his poetry (for more information, visit www.cowboypoetry.com
For Jackson, the rodeo has been a true labor of love. "In over 15 years, I haven't put one dime in my pocket because of it." But he hopes that he has helped improve the genre and helped preserve an important chapter of our history. He hopes he's helped increase appreciation for those who have and still live in the West. "I always felt that not only could cowboy poetry help keep our Western heritage alive, it could also serve as a rostrum for spreading the 'Western' message that most resident stewards of our Western lands are doing a noble job as caretakers."
Western Legends Roundup
The National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo is just one of the attractions at the Western Legends Roundup, which runs Aug. 18-20 in Kanab.
The event features a collection of all-things Western, including nonstop entertainment, a street fair, quilts, parade, junior rodeo, classic film festival, shootouts, bus tours to movie locations, lectures, food and more.
Honored guests include Clint Walker, James Drury, Neil Summers, Ed Faulkner, Wyatt McCrea, Peter Ford, James Hampton, Paul Petersen, Kathy Garver, Lynda Ford, Ruta Lee, Tommy Kirk and James Stacy.
All in all, the roundup promises a chance to "experience the Old West the way it was."
For more information, schedule of events, prices and biographies, visit www.westernlegendsroundup.com.