“I want my kids to hear these stories and know who they are.”

1NalD.St.4 Photograph by Lezlie Sterling; from the Sacramento Bee’s coverage of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

By Matthew Fluharty

A month ago, the Western Folklife Center hosted the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and we were proud to count the Gathering as a featured event with the Year of the Rural Arts.

Eloquent reports from this year’s Gathering can be found in the The Daily Beast, The Sacramento Bee, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and Mother Jones — the latter of which begins by pairing Ian Tyson and Jessie Veeder as an opportunity to consider rural culture in the West. Then, among the Gathering’s audience, writer Alana Levinson meets many folks who embody the generational context within questions of western heritage and the future of these rural communities:

The festival’s attendees are also grappling with a changing rural landscape. Novelist Johanna Harness traveled all the way from Nampa, Idaho, to Elko to give her kids a taste of the culture. I meet her at an open discussion called “Into the Future,” held in a convention center room divided up by theme.

She and her kids had joined the Youth and Economics group. A large sheet of paper on the wall nearby bears questions scribbled in marker: “If there were no limitations, what is your vision of the West/rural you want to build? What is the story about the future you want to tell?”

Ivy, Harness’ 8-year-old, is curled up on the floor, a purple bandana around her neck, absorbed in drawing the family’s large converted red barn. Virginia, 15, takes notes while her brother Paul, 12 looks on bright-eyed, clad in a cowboy hat and sneakers. It’s the family’s second year at the fest, and Harness says she gets choked up just thinking about it. The poems and songs “are memories that my grandparents told me—and they’re gone now.”

Harness’s thoughts continue here. Folks can follow the Western Folklife Center’s Facebook page and their Expressing the Rural West Into the Future exhibit to gain more insight into the perspectives of the next generation of rural Westerners.

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THE YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS is a biennial program of events, conversations, and online features celebrating the diverse, vital ways in which rural arts and humanities contribute to American life. The Year is coordinated by Art of the Rural and organized by a collective of individuals, organizations, and communities from rural and urban locales across the nation.

The inaugural Year is a collaborative, grassroots effort designed to build steam over the course of 2014. To present a more equitable representation and a more comprehensive narrative of rural arts and humanities, all online features will be freely shared across websites and social media. For more information on the Year of the Rural Arts, visit: www.artoftherural.org.


Matthew Fluharty is the Director of Art of the Rural and a Research Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis