The sixth annual Hole in the Ground cowboy poetry and music gathering is more than an event it's a celebration of more than a century of tradition and a reunion for old friends with deep roots in shared backgrounds.
This weekend about 25 poets and musicians from as near as Tusayan and as far as Alaska will present a series of local performances.
Many, like Payson songstress and poet Dee Johnson Johnson, AKA Buckshot Dot, and Flagstaff singer and teller of tales Tony Norris, count themselves as friends of the late Buck Schrader who established the gathering at his home at the Grand where he served as resident musician and mentor to many up and coming cowboy poets. Norris said Schrader helped him establish his Riding the Rim gathering in Flagstaff several years ago.
"I'd known Buck Schrader for a couple of years, and I was impressed with his dedication to western music and cowboy poetry," Norris said. "When he began the Hole in the Ground at the canyon, it was a labor of love and a celebration of his own family's skill and time."
Schrader died unexpectedly in 2003 and his friends have gathered in his name ever since.
"It was a shock to lose him so young," Norris said. "The community of cowboy poets and musicians is just a big family and they responded enthusiastically when the Schraders asked for help to continue the gathering."
Johnson agrees that they are a close-knit group.
"At all of these gatherings, we know each other," she said. "Everywhere I go, I meet someone new, but there are more that I do know than I don't know."
The tradition is rooted in a community spirit that dates back to the end of the Civil War, said Norris. On the range, cowboys were toting the words of Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare and at night, they would memorize and repeat the verses.
"Arbuckle Coffee came with coupons that could be redeemed for classic poetry books that were vest-pocket sized," Norris said. "The cowboys devoured them, memorized the poems and were inspired to write poems of their own. It was an underground art form and an oral tradition. If you weren't working around cowboys you probably would never hear them recite."
The first gathering was about 25 years ago in Elko, Nev., where cowboys got together to share song and poetry. Today, several hundred gatherings are held, most of them in the west. Johnson said they differ in form from a concert.
"Originally, the idea comes from getting together after the roundups and the rendezvous of mountain men," Johnson said. "We perform as much for each other as we do the audience. It's like a round robin someone does something that reminds you of something. It's really fun to play off each other."
She has been on the circuit for 12 years, appearing in more than 15 states and Canada. This will be her third appearance at this festival but her roots as a serenader of cowboys go back more than five decades when she performed for a summer at El Tovar. The wranglers from the mule barn were regulars.
"One of my songs is about a cowboy that was up there," she said. "'Old Hank Morgan's Place' is my most-requested song and it's about the cowboy I was going with at the time."
She said these kinds of themes being sweet on someone or about the everyday experiences from a simple life lived close to the earth are at the heart of cowboy poetry and song. She said its style is also almost exclusively traditional.
"Some are writing in blank verse but that's not cowboy poetry," she said. "They're not just about feeling or impression. They are stories, extremely melodramatic stories."
While she focused on romance early on the first song she wrote was called "Bootheels on my Heart" she now focuses more on humor and history. In addition to music and poetry, she has written two books on women in the wild west. For her efforts, she was named an Arizona Culture Keeper, an honor awarded to five people a year. When it ends in 2012, there will be 100 members.
Though there is now a proliferation of written and recorded material from cowboy artists, the tradition is still an oral one in which living history is passed on to the next generation. Johnson recalls growing up in the simplest of surroundings on the Hualapai Reservation with musical parents.
"We had to be in the car a lot because we were so far from everything," she said. "So we always sang. A lot of people felt sorry for us because we didn't have dancing and piano lessons. They didn't realize we got a lot of that sort of thing from our parents and that's dear to me."
For more on cowboy poetry, visit www.cowboypoetry.com.
To learn more about this weekend's event, visit www.holeintheground.org.