As fully packed as the tourism calendar may be this summer, it would be difficult find an event that captures the essence of Montana and Western history better than the 33rd annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous in Lewistown (August 16-19, 2018).
Montana’s event happens to be the second longest-running cowboy poetry gathering in the country—only one year younger than the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev.—and this year the line up in Lewistown will give Elko a run for its money.
Karen Kuhlmann, the executive director of the event, or the “trail boss,” as she prefers to be called, explained that in the 1870s and ‘80s, cattle owners from Texas and Oklahoma would drive their immense herds north in the summertime to fatten them on the unfenced ranges of Montana, which were then mostly wilderness.
“Their beef as sold in Texas was worth only $4 a head,” she said, “but after a summer in Montana, that cow could earn more than $14 shipped back east on the trains.”
To look after the herds, ranchers often hired young men at loose ends who knew how to work horses and keep cows from straying off. At night, Kuhlmann explained, “the cowboys would sing to the herds to keep them calm. It really has a striking effect on the cattle. Sometimes they’d recite poetry or sing verses to old songs they made up with more of a cowboy theme, and that is really how this tradition got its start.”
It’s especially fitting that the promotional materials for the 33rd annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Lewistown this year pay tribute to C.M. Russell, since he embodied the spirit of the cowboy era and its connection to poetry and music.
Like most modern cowboy poets and cowboy singers, Charlie himself put in plenty of time in the saddle, working for a couple of the best-known outfits of the authentic cowboy era in Judith Basin country.
Less well-known is that Charlie himself was not above penning a few lines of verse along the way, and he had a little musical talent, playing guitar and banjo in the early days.
That is why, in addition to recitations by some of the country’s premiere cowboy poets, those who attend the 33rd Annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Lewistown will also be treated to the chart-topping country songs of Suzy Bogguss, who is this year’s headliner for the event. Past headliners include some of the most prominent names in both Cowboy Poetry (Baxter Black and Red Steagall, for example) and Western Music (Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphey, and Riders in the Sky).
Cowboy Poetry gatherings emphasize the “Western” part of the “Country & Western” genre and so provide a mini-history lesson: one of the central tributaries flowing into the stream of modern country music happens to trace its headwaters way up on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Canada, at the edge of the Great Plains.
“The eastern side of the Rocky Mountains were some of the last areas to be settled,” Kuhlmann summarized, “as the cowboy era came after all the mining and so forth in the mountains and on the western side.”
In fact, the mission statement of the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering (a 501 [c]  nonprofit) is “to preserve and celebrate the history, heritage, and values of the American cowboy in the upper Rocky Mountain west.”
According to Kuhlmann, the event got its start when a “handful of Montana ranchers and poets went down together for the first Elko event in 1985 and came back thinking that Montana should put on its own event. So in 1986, the first Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Big Timber, under the direction of Gwen Peterson, and then in 1991 moved to Lewistown, mainly because it had become so popular.”
Over the course of the four-day event, attendees will be treated to dozens of musical performances and poetry readings. It will be impossible to take it all in because multiple events take place on different stages simultaneously.
Some of the highlights will include the Friday night “Jam ‘n’ Dance,” and the traditional Sunday morning “Cowboy Church Service.” All told, the event offers more than 50 hours of family-friendly entertainment showcasing some 70 performers.
The performers themselves are the heart of the spectacle.
“These poets and musicians are the real deal,” said Kuhlmann. “Many of them actually work on ranches and speak authentically to the subject matter. They are oral historians of an important cultural heritage in Montana and the West.”
Cowboy Poetry has become, in fact, a respected subgenre of Western literature, and Kuhlmann noted Montana schoolteachers can actually earn six credits of continuing education (OPI) through the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous. Not only that, the Gathering has earned numerous literary and arts awards and grants, including a book award this year from Humanities Montana for “encouragement of the written word in poetry.”
Academic credentials aside, Cowboy Poetry events often feature some of the most entertaining and engaging performances you are ever likely to see, and the 33rd Annual Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous in Lewistown is the state’s signature expression of the art, and one of its premiere national showcases. The celebrated Rosebud County, Mont., cowboy poet Wally McRae nailed the spirit of the Gathering in his poem, “Roundup’s Over:”
I been mashin’ them critters and brandin’ them calves
Since the wagon pulled out, back in May.
But I rolled out of my bed for the last time this year.
Work’s done. Boys, it’s time now to play.