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Cowboy Poetry is alive and kicking

Jeff Davidson performs “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” at the story circle. He also sang “Cool Water” and “Moon River.” (Photo by Kelly Glasscock)

After the sun had finally set and the Kansas City Symphony had packed up all of its instruments, dusk coasted in on the wings of a cool breeze.

At the story circle, 200 or so symphony-goers saddled up on straw bales in a circle of lantern light to listen to cowboy songs and poetry. Sometimes irreverent, other times poignant and reflective, the program offered an experience unique to the Flint Hills.

The entire evening was building toward the introduction of the Cowboy Poetry Champions, and the emcees, Geff and Dawn Dawson, had cooked up something special.

Calling the champions, Danny McCurry, Ash Grove, Missouri, and Tim Keane, Manhattan, to the stage for the sing-along, Geff gave them specific instructions.

“As soon as you hear the word rolling,” he said, “you need to start your doo wop.”

Geff gyrated his hips a bit to show them what he meant.

“And I know you can do this because you are highly educated,” he said.

And with that, Geff, on guitar, and Dawn, on bass, busted into a cowboy version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”

To the hoots and hollers of the crowd, McCurry and Keane began to swing their hips out of time. Before long, they were dancing on top of the bales.

When the song ended, out of breath and a little embarrassed, McCurry and Keane slid into the darkness behind the stage to wait for their next performance.

Holding back a husky chuckle, Ron Wilson, chair of the Kansas Cowboy Poetry Contest and owner of Lazy T Ranch, explained that in addition to gift cards to leading western wear stores and free admission to the symphony, the best prize of all is the coveted Governor’s Buckle, fashioned after the buckles that cowboys win at rodeos. Ron Wilson invited Lt. Governor Tracey Mann on stage to present the buckles.

“I grew up in Quinter on a farm in a feed yard right on Big Creek,” Mann said. “I heard that Bob Dole said one time that ‘if you’re speaking to a crowd and they don’t have a problem with you, don’t speak long enough for that to change.’ So my intention is to stand up and speak up and shut up.”

Lanterns glow as the last bit of light fades from the sky. Once the concert is over, the Story Circle is filled with people and glowing lanterns, and local musicians and poets perform. (Photo by Katie Miller)

“Thank you very much,” McCurry, winner in the serious poem category,  said in a Missouri drawl. “It is great to be here in the Flint Hills. I really love Cowboy Country, and this is the best there is. I think that true stories make the best story, and this story happened in Southwest Kansas.”

McCurry’s poem, “The Cowboy Cellphone,” described a cowboy’s tenuous relationship with technology and detailed a conversation the speaker had with an old cowboy. The last line of the poem revealed that the old cowboy is actually McCurry’s dad. It was a big hit with the audience.

“When you hear the topic of his poem, it may explain the quality of the doo wop you saw over here a little earlier tonight,” Ron Wilson said. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your state champion in the humorous poem category, Tim Keane.”

With a smirk, Keane raised the microphone. “I’m not sure how to take that Ron,” he said. “I call this one ‘Comin’ Apart.’”

Unlike the beauty and poignancy in McCurry’s poem, Keane’s poem was all about the laugh, beginning with a confession: “Now I’m normally not one to moan and complain, but things change a bit as we age.”

“It’s a pretty darn good indication that you’re starting to fray at the seams,” Keane said, “when you can dislocate your good shoulder, while simply zipping up your jeans.”

After the show, Keane, a professor of Landscape Architecture at Kansas State, admitted that some practitioners and readers of poetry are quick to besmirch cowboy poetry.

“Cowboy poetry is not taken too well in the genres of modern poetry,” he said.

But that fact won’t stop Keane from reciting his poems on stage.

For McCurry, it’s difficult to know where the line between cowboy and poet is drawn, but he insists there is no difference. “That’s what I do for a living,” he said. “I cowboy for a living back in Missouri.”

He’s been doing both for a long time.

“I wrote my first poem after watching Baxter Black on the Johnny Carson show in 1986. And I thought, I can do that,” he said.  “And I had just built a saddle, and I sit down and wrote a poem about the saddle, and I still do that poem today.”

In the end, the activities during the Symphony in the Flint Hills are as much for the visitors as they are for the locals.

As for McCurry, he loved the experience of showing off what he does best.

“It’s pretty cool, really,” he said. “I see these people taking pictures of everyday stuff for us. It’s amazing how many people just get up out of their seats when they see a horse or a set of cows.”

— by Aaron Rodriguez