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Stories set the scene in the Flint Hills

Jeff Davidson performs at the story circle event. “We look at this every day,” Davidson said. “I’m trying to put the feeling of the Flint Hills in my music.” (Photo by Jess Craft)

When the sun sets on the symphony in the Flint Hills, cool-blue lamps take over as Geff Dawson, the “cowboy poet,” takes the grassy stage.

“I’m gonna tell you all a story about a cowboy named Joe,” he started. “He couldn’t get out of bed without stubbin’ his toe.”

The introduction flowed into Dawson’s parody of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Before playing, Dawson recounted the time he asked Cash about doing the parody.

“He said, ‘Now what did you say your name was?’ and I said, ‘I’m Geff Dawson. I’m a cowboy poet from Alma, Kansas.’”

Cash said he would charge Dawson 4 cents in royalties for each CD sold.

Dawson did the math and figured if he sold 1,000 CDs, he would owe Cash $40.

“Don’t quit your day job,” Dawson said to Cash.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cowboy Poet,” Cash replied. “I wasn’t planning on quitting my day job.”

Surrounded by hay-bale seats and the ever-present Kansas wind, Dawson, his wife, Dawn and other musicians and storytellers entertained the group while the dusty country roads cleared.

Musician Annie Wilson tunes her guitar in preparation for the story circle event. (Photo by Jess Craft)

“We love this venue — started out with a great little crowd there,” Geff said.

The wind drove many away earlier than usual, but there were still more than 100 people. Dawn said there have been larger crowds in the past, recalling 2012 in particular.

“When the concert got over, you should’ve seen the crowd run to the story circle to try to get a seat. It was just a little overwhelming to these guys ‘cuz it was packed.”

Josh and Lisa Umbehr, from Wichita, were in this year’s crowd. It was their first symphony experience.

Josh said they went so his kids could experience the rural landscape he grew up in.

“We grew up in a rural area and could go outside and do this whenever,” he said. “Our kids don’t get this.”

Dawson writes all of his own songs and has won competitions for his cowboy stories and poetry.

“Most of them are true,” Dawn, said of her husband’s stories. “He amazes me with what he writes.”

With storytelling the backbone of the Dawson’s music, Dawn is quick to set their style apart from today’s country music.

“It’s more storytelling — what country used to be, long ago, but not anymore,” she said.

The Dawsons started coming to the Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006 and have been to every one since.

“When I went to the first one, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Geff said. “It was the kind of haze where you could stare at the sun and it didn’t matter…I just had chills go down my back.”Geff and Dawn have been ranching in Alma for 30 years and now manage a second ranch in the area. Since they are ranchers from the Flint Hills, the Dawsons saw the first event as more of a city-folk get-together.

Jeff Davidson, another musician and storyteller, said the diverse gathering is what he likes about the symphony.

He said the event is a “fusion of city and country folks,” which helps him appreciate what he has as a rancher.

“We look at this every day,” Davidson said, looking out at the expanse of prairie. “I’m trying to put the feeling of the Flint Hills in my music.”

As the moon got higher, the crowd got thinner until volunteers turned off the cool-blue lamps.

— Jake Trease