Cowboys are, at their hearts, storytellers.

Forget gunfights at dawn; the true spirit of the American cowboy persists on the Elko stage of the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering every winter. Here, bards and balladeers rattle off tales of love, loss, and crucially, the love and loss of horses. Cowboy storytelling roots run deep, says programs manager Brad McMullen. “When you’re out there working, what do you have to entertain yourselves but stories?”

As a stop on I-80 in northern Nevada, about halfway between Salt Lake City and Reno, Elko is decidedly not a Disneyfied Western town; casino marquees tout dollar drafts and motels boast a weekly rate. But every January the place fills with cowboy poets for an event that mirrors the annual FisherPoets assembly on the Oregon Coast.

A full quarter of America’s cowboys were African American.

Past annual themes have highlighted Mongolian, Italian, and Irish cowboys, but the 2020 installment, its 36th, focused on a broader, forgotten segment, the Black cowboy. A full quarter of America’s cowboys were African American (and just as many were Mexican), enduring manual labor that took more grit than Hollywood bravado. The theme, McMullen notes, was picked even before Lil Nas X’s rap-country hybrid “Old Town Road” hit the charts.

The arts of the Old West aren’t limited to the literary; across the street from the Gathering’s Western Folklife Center home, the Cowboy Arts and Gear Museum displays historic crafted saddles and bits, real pieces of ranch-worn tackle trimmed with delicate engraving, crimped edges, and floral swirls burned into leather.

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering celebrates art of all kinds.

A few doors down, western wear shop J.M. Capriola Co. still has saddle making on its second floor, as it has since the 1920s, tucked behind a wall of looped lariat rope. Here there’s no line between gear meant for mud and pieces decked with rococo flourishes.

McMullen sees no end to Elko’s celebration of the West’s artsy side; the latest assemblage included more than 100 programs, and a recent mural project just livened up walls around town. “Here it’s about keeping people’s use of words front and center,” he says. “Here words matter.”

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