Jon Chandler didn’t grow up on a ranch, but the seventh-generation Coloradan feels the mountains and the plains of his native state in his bones.
As he stood in a hat and boots on stage on Jan. 20 at the annual Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Golden, Chandler invoked the beauty of his native state as a crowd of a few hundred listened.
“I found the only peace I know beneath the Spanish Peaks,” he sang in his deep baritone as his partner played the mandolin.
Even as the former cowtowns of the Front Range evolved into an urban metropolis, cowboy poetry will find a way to adapt and tell stories about the West’s history and the lifestyle, performers and organizers at the gathering said. The art form — born of cowpokes sitting around a campfire trading stories and songs — is part songwriting, part poetry and part oral history.
“It’s not country Western music,” said Marcie Miller, who sits on the board of the nonprofit. “It’s an unexpected genre.”
For 30 years, the Colorado Cowboy Poetry Gathering has brought artists and writers together to celebrate the art. On Jan. 20, poetry topics ranged from horse theft to the challenges of driving on busy city roads to a funeral gone horribly wrong. The songs and poems prompted laughter and tears.
Miller had little experience with cowboy poetry until one of the gathering’s organizers approached her about finding a venue for the gathering while she was serving on Golden’s city council. She attended and the city manager attended a few performances to learn more.
“We both fell in love with the genre,” she said. “It’s funny, it’s poignant.”
Chandler has spent his professional career writing advertising and reports for companies, but has always made time for his poetry and music. The Commerce City resident has produced eight albums and a novel. Each song he writes is a mini Western, he said, each tune encapsulating an entire story.
“The West is in my blood,” he said.
While many of the attendees on Jan. 20 were older, young people also are taking up cowboy poetry and keeping the tradition alive, Miller said.
“There seem to be people who are carrying it forward,” Miller said. “They’re not 60 (years old). They’re 25 and 30.”
Kristyn Harris, 24, is one of those young folk. Raised in McKinney, Texas, Harris grew up trick riding horses — dangling sideways off a saddle as her steed runs full speed — on her family’s small farm. She discovered classic Western movies at 14 and found inspiration for her music there.
When she auditioned for American Idol, she played guitar, sang an old Western song and yodeled.
The judges passed her to the next level of auditions, but the competition didn’t pan out.
Harris continues to sing and write her own songs about horses, farm life and the land.
“I have a song called ‘Acres of Nowhere,’ because that’s where my heart really is,” she said.
Although she is often one of the younger performers at cowboy poetry gatherings, she continues to travel the country to attend them. The community feels like family, she said.
“I’m going to try to keep it alive,” she said. “There’s so much to it.”