Waddie Mitchell

The buckaroo bard on the state of storytelling, cowboy poetry’s allure and the strangest place he’s ever performed

If you’ve lived a few years in Nevada, you’re likely aware of the cowboy poetry gathering held each January in Elko. The event was co-founded 27 years ago by a fella whose name you might also recognize: Waddie Mitchell.

Mitchell grew up a cowboy, working ranches and telling stories using rhyme and meter around the campfire. In his 20s, he made the leap, supporting himself and his family as a verse-slinging vaquero, and success followed success. Mitchell has recorded albums for Warner Bros., appeared on The Tonight Show and been profiled in The New York Times. On Nov. 17, he received yet another honor: induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.

To commemorate the occasion, we sat down with Mitchell, 61, to discuss the future of the West, American self-reliance and cowboy poetry, which he’ll celebrate next at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on Jan. 30-Feb. 4 (WesternFolklife.org).

Your poem “Sentence” uses the metaphor of a destroyed home to symbolize where we’re headed as a country. Does the end of the West mean the end of American self-reliance?

Well, it would depend on what you mean by the West. I use that poem to discuss the cattle and farming industries, without which will certainly spell the end of rural America. And the end of rural America means the end of us being able to feed ourselves, which will be a definite point of no return in our nation’s decline. Relying on oil from other countries is one thing, but for a country that can feed the world to have to rely on the outside is, I believe, disastrous.

Do you foresee a time when not just the U.S. but the entire world loses the art of storytelling? Does the Internet doom the human race to voyeur status?

Hey, look, everything in life ends, even storytelling as we know it, even humans, I imagine. But storytelling was the first thing we ever did. People told each other stories in grunts and gestures to help along with the hunt, because the hunt was the story at that time. Man has been a storyteller since he could communicate, so storytelling will always be around. We’ve got it now on the Internet, the TV, the movie screen, the radio.

But I do believe the art of the story is misleading in people’s minds. They think a story has to have a “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after.” That’s not a story. Story is a conversation between and among each other, and if we lose conversation then we lose everything. We lose the spark that sets us apart from other animals, the ability to bring the sights and the smells and the atmosphere of an experience to vivid life. If you ask me, from the mouth to the ear is how the story works best.

What’s the strangest, most incongruous venue in which you’ve done your cowboy poetry?

Grandval, Switzerland. I was on a bill with some hot Nashville acts at the time, and we were touring part of Europe together. Europeans have their own idea about what Western music is, and many of them came to the show wearing plastic guns, like children. They all have a working knowledge of the English language, but when I got onstage and started talking about sticking a glass tube up a bull’s ass, they started putting the cigarette lighters in the air like I was singing a stadium pop ballad.

Have you thought about becoming a university professor? Got anything you can teach today’s college kids?

Funny you ask. I was given a professorship by a school out here, and I have taught some classes, but usually just a three-day or six-day course, where I visit with young folks going on to make their living as writers, or with post-grads looking to be creative writers. The question they always ask: How does a writer go about getting published? I honestly don’t know.

What’s a poem of yours that sums up the natural and unnatural beauty of Nevada?

I don’t think I’ve written it yet, and I don’t even know if I can or ever will. Nevada is constantly evolving, and I’m looking at all its beauty through much different eyes than when I was 20, 30, 40 or 50. It always looks different. I think someone needs to look over all of Nevada’s history, its changing beauty, and present that as an evolving portrait.

What was your reaction when you first learned you were being inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame?

Wow, the first thing that came to my head was maybe I’m so old people want to give me an award to just shut me up. I don’t even feel worthy to be among that company, but I am honored. When I was growing up, we as Nevadans were trying to get away from our rural roots, trying to become more urban and urbane, like the other states, and that made me sad. The first Nevadans were a bunch of pioneers who had a lot to say about life. They instilled a work ethic in us, and if we forget about them and that work ethic then we’re going to get ourselves in trouble. I started writing about this 40 years ago, so I’m really beginning to wonder about the trouble we’re in now.

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has had a major impact on not just Nevada, but also the native poetry movements in other states, right?

Oh, man, this poetry gathering we started in Elko has opened up the [Australian] bush poetry, the [Florida] Cracker poetry, motorcycle poetry, fishermen poetry, trucker poetry, all kinds of poetry. It’s something people do whether people notice it or not.

I’m glad all forms of native poetry are getting recognized, and you know what? Isn’t it funny that the poetry that lasts is that which sustains us? The beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me something years ago: “I’m so glad this is coming around. I keep having this nagging idea that we took poetry away from the common people. That wasn’t our intention.” Cowboy poetry takes the opposite trail. We’re taking it away from the elite and toward the everyman.

What do you make of Las Vegas?

For a number of years we’d come down and open the big Western event for National Finals Rodeo, in one of those big street festivals; the Helldorado Rodeo it was called back then. Yeah, we had a great time, but other jobs started taking me places after that, but I still go down to Vegas for private functions and a few things like that. I think Las Vegas today is not the Las Vegas I knew when I was a kid. Vegas was the biggest place I’d ever got on a bucking horse in front of 150,000 people. That was in 1967. I think now I could still handle it.

Your cowboy version, or “dearrangement,” of Charles Dickens’ “A Cowboy Christmas Carol” is tons of fun. How hard was it for you to transpose the ideas of a 19th-century Victorian into a Western context?

There was nothing hard about that. I had a lot of help from the show’s director, who simply gave me cues for each chapter—“This is what happens here, Waddie. How might we change it.” If we had done it verbatim, it would’ve been harder. But we kept things loose and spontaneous.

Do you write down your poems before telling them, or do you improvise until you settle on the structure, the characters and cadence that you end up using?

Boy, that’s a very good question. The answer is: I do it all almost exactly in my mind. I structure everything up here [taps his head], and I form the story I want to tell. Then, using description or dialogue, I introduce the characters, or at least envision them in my mind and find an introduction, and that’s the real work. After that, it’s a crossword puzzle, and I just keep going until the words fit the tune, which is rhymed meter. It isn’t so much like music but it has to be figured out. If I do it on the run and try to improvise, it never works out, and I end up destroying the story itself.

So how’s the Western Folklife Center—which you’re always involved with and whose mission you’re always helping to promote—doing these days?

The center is still alive and kicking. You know the situation the country’s in: The first thing people always drop is the arts. We’ve been hurt somewhat, but the poetry gathering itself is very well.

Which is easier: Running a ranch or organizing a cowboy poetry gathering in Elko?

Ha! You know, what becomes easiest is what you’re comfortable with. I spent a full career in the cowboy trade, more than 26 years taking care of cattle, and after a while you become comfortable in that lifestyle. Cowboy poetry was new at the time that I started, and I’m still uncomfortable using that term, “cowboy poetry.” I wasn’t good at certain business things starting out, but what I eventually learned is this: Get people who are good at it to help you.

How did you come up with the idea for the Working Ranch Cowboys Association, which you founded in 1994 to create scholarships and crisis funds for cowboys and their families by running regional rodeos throughout the West?

It sprang from a desire to educate more people about cowboy doings, and what better way than a ranch rodeo? These are the guys who are the real thing, and they’re who politicians and environmentalists will lead you to believe are land barons, or land-hating opportunists who’ll throw away our future. And by-golly these young kids declare themselves environmentalists to take away land from the ranchers despite knowing nothing about it.

The reason the land was ever pristine is because ranchers took care of it in this country for 200 years. The way for a cowboy to make a living is to take better care of the land so that he can succeed. It’s not like you can get more land. I want to sit down with some of these kids and explain it to them.

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