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They're well-versed in hard times

The federal bailouts in the current recession are fodder for cowboy poets, who can't recall any such rescue in the farm crisis of the 1980s.

March 12, 2009|Ashley Powers

ELKO, NEV. — The rancher's wife takes the stage in a white cowboy hat, a brown fringed shawl and an oversized silver belt buckle. A spotlight illuminates her hazel eyes and sly grin. Yvonne Hollenbeck, who has spent 63 years on the plains of Nebraska and South Dakota, clutches a microphone at the Elko Convention Center and shares her poem's title with hundreds of ranchers and their kids:

"The Bail-Out Plan."

The audience titters.

A "Bail Out" plan in Ag-Land is to feed the livestock hay,

and not the type of bail-out plan we hear about today.

When country folks lose money, which happens most the time,

they don't receive a handout. . . . not even one thin dime.

--

Folks nod. A few mouth "yes."

Cowboy poetry is a genre long on cattle roundups, prairie sunsets and falling in love. Now, the bards of the range are working the recession into their rhymes, and not always in a sentimental spirit. Resentment over federal bank bailouts in particular has lent an edge of class warfare to some verse.

Ranchers endured their own financial crisis two decades ago. Steep debt loads, high interest rates, and plunging prices for cattle and land pushed thousands of family farms into foreclosure. The government eventually shored up agricultural lenders and streamlined the farm bankruptcy process. But the lifeline came too late for many families.

Now Washington is opening Treasury's vaults to kick-start the economy and stabilize financial institutions. The contrast in the speed of the federal response is stirring frustration on the range and enlivening poems. As Hollenbeck says of her fellow ranchers:

"Stock Exchange" to them is to trade a horse or cow;

their market is the Sale Barn while on Wall Street it's the "Dow."

There's never been a program to bail out the livestock man;

when things get tough their motto is to "Hang on if you can!"

--

It was amid rough financial times in 1985 that a group of folklorists launched the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, a city of 17,000 in Nevada's northeastern corner. They celebrated a type of verse that harks back to at least the 1800s, when cowboys twisted sailing tunes into odes to their lives.

"We adapt and make things pertinent for our times," says Hal Cannon, founding director of the Western Folklife Center, which runs the Elko gathering where Hollenbeck performed in January. Modern cowboy poets have molded environmental debates into verse, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a few grappled with issues of patriotism and grief.

The genre has grown in recent years, with hundreds of regular gatherings in the U.S. and Canada; books, anthologies and CDs; articles in academic journals; and recognition for top cowboy poets, including Wally McRae and the late Buck Ramsey, by the National Endowment for the Arts. About 8,000 people attend the annual Elko gathering.

The poems -- shared on blogs and websites, sometimes in song -- are observational, plain-spoken and often wry takes on life on the ranch. That can include selling the homestead.

Vess Quinlan, a retired 68-year-old who lives near Alamosa, Colo., wrote "Sold Out" in 1963. The poem tells of working for a rancher losing his livelihood.

The old man turns away, hurting,

As the last cow is loaded.

I hunt words to ease his pain

But there is nothing to say.

--

Academics often interpret the poem as showing the failure of the American dream because, Quinlan says, they can't grasp the hardships of ranching life. He says the poem is actually about starting over.

"We're 'next year' people," he says, attributing the saying to his grandma. "If we weren't 'next year' people, we would have jumped off a bridge long ago."

--

Hollenbeck grew up in Nebraska -- her prairie accent turns "wash" into "warsh" -- where poems served as bedtime stories. Eventually, she began to write them as a way to recollect the day.

She brought up two daughters and two stepsons on the Hollenbeck Ranch, near Winner, S.D., where she and her husband, Glen, raise quarter horses and Angus beef cattle. She compares the life to gambling: So much is out of your control. The family regularly borrowed money for fuel, feed, equipment repairs and medical insurance. When the cattle market plummeted in the 1980s, Hollenbeck remembers interest rates as high as 22%.

She survived by spending little and running a title insurance business. But she said goodbye to many cash-strapped neighbors, as she recalls in "The Bail-Out Plan":

Remember in the '80s when the markets were so low,

and interest hit an all-time high? There was no bailout dough.

Half the farms and ranches were foreclosed on and were lost;

no bail-out plan was offered and the small towns bore the cost.

Then more were lost in '96 when blizzards swept the range

and then came several years of drought but still there was no change

in attitudes in Washington, they didn't seem to care.

I doubt they even knew there was a problem way out there.

--

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