By Dan Bergan
When singer Trinity Seely takes the stage August 10 at the newly re-named Jim and Linda Lee Performing Arts Center on the campus of Yavapai College, her footsteps echo 35 years of one of Prescott’s most popular and long-standing traditions—the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering.
The roots of these Gatherings can be traced to post-Civil War cattle drives when drovers, many foreign born, filled time by composing poems and songs following the narrative English ballad format learned at their mothers’ knees or from their own rudimentary education.
The popularity of both the poetry and the poets grew in the West at neighborhood and family “get togethers,” at roundup camps and in bunkhouses, with the writers and singers growing in demand as the decades passed.
By the 1970s, the idea of a cowboy poetry gathering took root, helped by a National Endowment for the Arts grant to locate cowboy poets nationwide, leading eventually, in 1985, to the first formal Cowboy Poet Gathering in Elko, Nevada. It was a resounding success
That success led directly to Prescott’s first official Gathering in September, 1988 when Sharlot Hall Museum curator Warren Miller—intrigued by the enthusiasm he had witnessed at Elko—formed a committee. The Sheraton Resort graciously offered to host the event, and soon some 40 invited regional cowboy musicians, poets and storytellers descended on Prescott for a celebration “that far exceeded expectations” in attendance and enthusiasm.
But after two successful years, in 1990, the Gathering found itself without a home when the Prescott Resort could no longer support the celebration. Small local venues scattered around Prescott tried to fill the void as performance sites, including two sold out evenings at the Elks Theater. But a more stable situation needed to be found.
In August of 1991, the Gathering found a more permanent sponsor at the Sharlot Hall Museum, thanks largely to the work of Warren Miller. The Gathering flourished, with invited performers numbering over 80 and sold out performances the norm. The Museum and staff became crucial to the production; but it became obvious by the 20th anniversary in 2007 that a larger venue had to be found to accommodate the hundreds of attendees who filled the Museum grounds and crowded the limited seating for the evening performances.
So early in 2008, longtime Gathering volunteer Jim Buchanan incorporated the Gathering as a non-profit 501(c) (5) public charity and persuaded other volunteers to take on the myriad and challenging tasks of producing the Gathering. With that, a year-long commitment and work schedule unfolded for all involved.
Yavapai College, which had at times hosted the Gathering’s evening shows, was approached to commit to becoming the permanent home of the Gathering, including using classrooms scattered across campus for daytime sessions and the Performance Center Theater for evening shows .
The Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering still holds true to its roots, notes chairman Buchanan, by only inviting “men and women who are now or have been in the past part of the working cowboys’ environment and workplace.” The culture of the real American cowboy lives on stage, making the Prescott Gathering respected by performers as one of the best in the country.
If you are interested in learning more about the Arizona Cowboy Poets, they are holding their 2023 Gathering on August 10, 11, 12 at Yavapai College.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests.Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering