Tackling the Cowpoke Woodstock

By Sarah Pridgeon

(Courtesy photo) Pat Frolander performing her poetry at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
(Courtesy photo) Pat Frolander performing her poetry at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Pat Frolander returned to Sundance last week, fresh from performing her poetry on stage at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The festival, which featured 50 poets, musicians and artists from across the U.S. and Canada, was a “bucket list” item for Frolander and an experience she says she will never forget.

“So many of those musicians and poets I have admired for a long time, so standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people with them on each shoulder was unbelievable,” she says.

“This is an affirmation of the true cowboy and his life, what he’s about. You heard a lot of poetry about caring for the livestock and the land, the love of both and of man for his horse and his stock dog.”

The gathering celebrates what it means to be connected to the American West and brings together people from all over the country to honor the cowboy way of life. Cowboy poet Wally McCrae of Montana calls it the “Cowpoke Woodstock”.

“You must apply to appear. I prepared an audio tape of a couple of poems and sent them with copies of my two books and then you fill out a couple-page questionnaire,” she says.

Not having been selected for the 2013 season, Frolander says that performing at the festival became a bucket list item for her. When a friend encouraged her to try again, she capitulated – and was invited to perform four times, including on the main stage on the Friday night in a performance called “The Northern Home Ranch Today”.

She performed that night alongside 15-year-old yodeler, fiddler and poet Brigid Reedy; fourth-generation Montanan Stephanie Davis; guitarist Ryan Fritz; native Crow Indian rancher and former Montana poet laureate Henry Real Bird; and well-known cowboy poet and singer DW Groethe.

“I could just tell you so many fabulous names,” she exclaims of her fellow artists at the show.

“I kept pinching myself.”

The cowboy poetry scene started as a male-dominated art, drawn from cowboy experience, Frolander says, but women are increasingly featuring on the writing and performing end. John Dofflemeyer of Dry Crik Press in particular has encouraged this, she continues.

“I think I brought 40 poems and I think I probably did about 32 to 34 of them. It’s interesting, because you’re performing with someone and they do a poem and it stimulates a thought about a poem that you’ve written – so I might have changed horses a little bit and done a different poem,” she laughs.

“Fortunately, many of those poems were in my book so I had them right at hand.”

Alongside the poetry and music, the gathering featured crafting from quilting to leatherworking and classes were held on such things as hat making and Basque cooking.

“Truly craftsmanship across the gamut of the cowboy life,” Frolander says.

The event also gave her the chance to meet old friends in person for the first time, including C.J. Hadley, editor of Range magazine, and Margo Metegrano of cowboypoetry.com.

“I did learn something about myself: I’m a writer, but I’m not sure I’m a performer. I enjoyed it, and it was great to have that experience, but I’m not sure that’s my real strength,” she says.

On the other hand, meeting the audience that had travelled from far and wide to experience the gathering was an aspect she truly appreciated.

“They were so enthusiastic and so into the creativity of the artists,” she says, adding that she met one couple who had been attending for three decades and audience members from all across the United States.

“I couldn’t say enough good things about [the gathering] – I was just blown away.”