Although I'm somewhat of a stranger in a strange land among the corral set, I find myself being quite comfortable as a sidekick to the cowpoke mindset in general. I love wide-open spaces and night-herding songs and cutting horses and dance-hall gals and, most especially, yarns spun and songs sung.
Some of it can reach the level of art. Not all of it, of course. Take cowboy poetry for example. As a genre, it has yet to completely rope me in. It's like, how do you keep 'em down on the farm once they've read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Some of it, however, grabs you pretty quick, like the way the rhyme is improvised off the backbeat, almost like jazz.
Luckily for me, all of it, from the tedious to the exhilarating, has been available for the taking each fall at the Heber Valley Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Buckaroo Fair down at Wasatch High School. And last week's edition proved to be no exception. Once again, I found myself both yawning and cheering -- oftentimes in counterpoint to the rest of the crowd.
I approached it with the same methodology I do every year -- this edition being the 18th annual. As it's basically the music that draws me in, I try as much in advance as possible to check out the program guide for acts that turn my crank and then acquire the necessary tickets.
There are two quite distinct cultural types that show up on stage each year. My taste runs more toward those who come from the folk-music tradition: Ian Tyson, Suzy Bogguss, Tom Russell, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
I must admit, however, that many of the mainstream attractions, the acts that sell out the quickest, are the ones that interest me the least. Everything they embody, from stage presence to attempts at humor to their take on what is and what is not patriotic, basically bores me to tears. I've heard it all before and had trouble staying awake the first time.
But when it comes to those whose songwriting and guitar picking raises the bar to the level of those I've mentioned, I can't believe how cool it is to have the gathering come to Hebertown every year. Besides, even those acts I find tedious are not totally without charm.
My usual complaint when it comes to the manner in which the organizers package their main-stage shows is that very, very seldom do they feature two acts from my favorites' list on the same bill. This is the state of affairs that means, in order to catch those I truly want to see, I have to shell out more bucks than I'd rather, wade through acts that don't interest me, and then, if my guy isn't the headliner, get only a 15-minute fix.
This year, among those firmly embedded in my musical wheelhouse, only Suzy Bogguss and Ramblin' Jack made the trip. And they, much to my chagrin, were scheduled to perform on two separate stages at the same time during my sole widow of opportunity.
Now, I could have caught Ramblin' Jack as one of the opening acts for a show on the big stage later on that evening and caught Suzy during her afternoon set. But, what got in the way of that was the fact that, according to the program guide, Ramblin' Jack's afternoon gig was to take place in the cozy confines of what they called the "VIP Campfire."
This is what I was looking for, seeing Jack in his natural element, more of a bunkhouse setting. So I traded the opportunity to see Suzy Bogguss, one of my very favorite live acts, to once again spend quality time with that iconic stumblin', mumblin', ropin', guitar-pickin', yarn-spinnin', truck-drivin', square-rigged sailin', cattle-ropin', long-time hero of mine, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
And it couldn't have worked out better. As I suspected, this particular VIP Campfire took place in the quite intimate setting of what appeared to be a small theater at the school, possibly used for both lectures and productions by the drama department. If what you were looking for was close contact with a favorite performer, the "VIP" shows are certainly the way to go.
Although there were a couple of other acts on the bill, Elliott's headliner portion proved to be quintessentially Ramblin' Jack. His ongoing stories, referencing either his last song or the next, continually succumbed to digressions, each served up as ham on wry. But even when it became obvious that he had totally lost the original thread, he would somehow bring it all back home.
Of course, it was his unique guitar finger-pickin' and vocal styles that provided, once again, the same thread of continuity that initially connected Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan for us "folkies" back in the day. It still gives me the shivers. Whatever it is, he's still got it in spades!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.