By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
There was a wistful country instrumental airing flawlessly on fiddle, mandolin and guitars, and a breeze wafting in from the wide, two-story-high windows in the Nara Visa Community Center’s auditorium. The silence of the listeners seemed to proclaim that it would have been hard to find a better three days than last weekend for Nara Visa’s annual Cowboy Gathering.
Moderate temperatures and the slight breeze made Saturday a great day for cowboy musicians and poets to gather and share their gentler talents. This the art they developed after long days of managing cattle, horses, fences, and equipment faded into quiet evenings in which they had to create their own fun.
Not much has changed inside or out for the auditorium since it was built as a school in 1921. The same white plaster walls surround the same dark wooden window and door frames after 92 years. Even the ornate white ceiling is the original, stained by years of weathering. On a day like last Saturday, the windows could still be opened to let in fresh air.
Performers may have had to pause once in a while as a train rumbled by just across U.S. 54, and truck traffic was background noise, but no one seemed to mind. The sound system and microphones seemed to be the only concessions to technology, but one of the speaker cabinets was adorned with a colorful saddle blanket.
Cowboy songs and poetry haven’t changed much either.
Guitars and fiddles were backdrops for the same clear twang of a cowboy song or ballad. A cowboy’s poem, sung or spoken, still talks about hard work, celebrates the sight and sounds of the plains, and pines about loneliness and yearning for a place to call home. It’s all in the plain language of people who work with their hands.
The event was the 20th since the first Cowboy Gathering at Nara Visa and the performers came from as far away as Waco, Texas.
Even the scheduled events were informal. On Friday night, the performers met to plan and organize, as much as conditions allowed. For most, Friday night is a reunion of veteran singers, sayers and players, but there were a couple of young performers who sang for the first time.
At each event, performers gathered on stage, then figured out who was going first. There was a lot of banter and friendly kidding. Since performers played together in jam sessions before and after performances, it was not uncommon for new acts to emerge from on-the-spot mixing and matching.
With a matinee performance scheduled for 2 p.m., Katie, “Rodeo Kate” to the regulars, and her husband Allen Chapman found chairs in the community center gymnasium, which was lined with vendors selling riding tack, blacksmithed pieces, goat milk soap, books of western song and lore, and CDs made by cowboy performers.
Katie pulled out a fiddle; Allen a guitar. The couple played “Red River Valley” and other familiar tunes to warm up. Soon Randy Huston appeared with a mandolin. Others brought guitars and voices. Someone started singing, “I was dancing with my darling, to the Tennessee Waltz…” and an act started brewing amid the vendors and sightseers.
Starting early in the morning, Rhett Cauble and a crew of volunteers that included, among others, his brother Brent and Darin Bell, a family friend, were cutting boiled potatoes and making peach cobbler — ranch style, that is, by hand — to feed about 100 performers, vendors, and listeners at the steak dinner that evening.
On Friday, Rhett hauled down a chuck wagon, complete with a wood stove, cast-iron Dutch ovens and grates for broiling steaks over a fire pit from the Pacheco Ranch between Clayton and the Colorado border.
At Saturday’s matinee performance, the musical acts ranged from unaccompanied singing, to a younger performer who sang to an electric guitar, to lilting instrumentals played in bluegrass mode. The music acts alternated with recitations of cowboy poetry.
Straw Berry, a regular, sang a song to the tune of “Jingle Bells” about trying to break a stubborn colt by riding him. Trying to control the colt as he trots to the barn, Berry sang “The barn door’s just a little snug, I guess I broke my arm.”
Tibb Burnett, of Benjamin, Texas, another veteran performer, recited a long poem about cowboy life. He said he knew 49 poems by memory. When asked how he could do that, he answered, without missing a beat, “I don’t remember anything else.”
Forrest Mackey, of Sedan, one of the younger performers, sang about a stampede. With his pony down, he sang, “I rise up to my knees. I know I’m gonna die in this stampede,” but then, he wakes up.
Royce Smithy, of Bottom, Texas, near Waco, sang of how the Texas longhorn, “with his rugged head and horns held high, earned a place in the Western story.”
Dennis Ditmanson of Las Vegas lectured about cowboy poet Henry Herbert Knibbs, who wrote in the early 1910s and 1920s, when the West could still be deadly. Then he read one of Knibbs’ works called “In the Shallows of the Ford” about a lawman who chases down a childhood friend turned criminal through the desert.
The friend takes the dare to cross the river, where the lawman has vowed to shoot him if he does. The lawman holds his fire, his quarry turns away, and the lawman observes:
“We broke even and he knew it; ‘twas a case of give and take
For old times. I could have killed from the brush.
Instead I let him ride his trail…”
At the Saturday evening performance, organizers, including Karen Bell, Renee Rinestine and Jiminell Cook, handed out special awards. One was the Buck Ramsey Heritage Award, which recognizes families and ranches that have done exemplary work in carrying on ranching traditions. This year the award went to Jeff and Ivy Ward of Nara Visa. The Southwest Cowboy Poetry Society Association also announced that the eastern New Mexico winner of one of its annual scholarships was Tanner Farrels of Nara Visa.
After the event, Rinestine said a lot of organization has to happen in advance to allow the event to retain its ranch-style, casual atmosphere, but the results are worth it.
“It’s like a family reunion every year,” she said.