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25 Apr 2017

Master of the Mustang Tent: Renowned Cowboy Poet Waddie Mitchell Returns to Stagecoach—to Emcee, Not Perform

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Waddie Mitchell. Waddie Mitchell. Tom Cruze

A poet at Stagecoach? Yes, indeed.

Renowned cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell will be returning to Stagecoach to serve as the Mustang Tent’s emcee for the entire weekend, April 28-30. Mitchell, who has recorded eight albums, is known for his poems such as “Story With a Moral,” “The Bristlecone Pine,” “The Rawhide Braider,” and “Night Before Christmas on the West Texas Plains.”

During a recent phone interview, he discussed his love for poetry that goes back to his childhood in Elko County, Nev.

“It was just always there for me,” Mitchell said. “I grew up on a ranch that was really remote. We were 60 miles from town and about 30 miles from a dirt road. We were 14 miles away from the nearest neighbor. We didn’t even have electricity, and we did the strangest things at night: We sat around and talked to each other. People have forgotten this, but it was very common practice when people would come to visit for (hosts) to be playing a musical instrument, singing a song or reciting poetry. I got into kind of the last of that, I think.

“Some of the old cowboys my dad hired would actually recite a poem or two. If you want to get a kid’s interest, give him a rhyme and a meter. Look at Dr. Seuss. That was something special when they would just tell me the story of ‘Casey at the Bat’ or ‘Cremation of Sam McGee,’ and all those things just resonated and became part of my life. I started reciting early, and by the time I was in high school, I was changing very nice and pleasant lyrics in songs of the day to silly, lewd kid stuff. I found I could write in rhyme and meter if I thought about it.”

Mitchell explained what his poetry is all about.

“It covers life; it covers who I am; it covers what’s around me, and hopefully people realize that cowboys are semi-human, so we have a lot of the same concerns,” Mitchell said. “There are only so many experiences humans can have, and they can get them from a wide variety of situations. … Each story has been told millions of times. What I try to do is make it interesting in the words of the language and try to make it part yours.

“We can all watch a Steven Spielberg movie … but we’re all voyeurs in that. We are watching. If you watch little kids watch movies like that, they get a dumb kind of look on their face and don’t react. But if you read kids stories, you’ll see physical reactions, because it takes them away from being a voyeur and puts them more into: ‘This is what’s happening right now to me.’”

I mentioned to Mitchell that poetry seems to be, frankly, a dead or dying art form.

“I think that it’s died more than once,” he responded. “I think human nature and human experience is like history repeating itself. I think one time, I premiered a book at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which is owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He and I got to sit down for a long time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of the great beat poets of the time. We visited, and he said to me, ‘I’m really glad you guys are coming along and giving poetry back to the American people. I’m afraid I was part of a movement that actually removed poetry from the common person.’ Many people who love beat poetry are going to argue about that. If you think about it, the few surviving poets of that time were the Robert Frost-type of poet. Robert Frost was asked about this free-verse poetry, and his answer was great. He said: ‘Very interesting, isn’t it? It’s like playing tennis with the net down.’ I thought: That is part of poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to make you feel sorry for the poet or sorry for yourself, or let you know how bad the world or humankind is. It doesn’t have to do that. It can bring joy and comedy, and can touch all facets of life. We need poetry to tell us the politics of the day and remind us of feelings.”

Mitchell made one additional point about the state of human communication today.

“We don’t even rely on newspapers anymore,” he said. “We still rely on storytelling, no matter what media. No matter what media you go to … you have to go back to basic human communication. Music, arts and poetry are needed media staples in our life.”

Mitchell said he has enjoyed the wide variety of acts he’s encountered in the past at Stagecoach.

“For a guy who completely dreads crowds, and for a guy who is fairly uneducated as to who’s the newest big shot in Nashville, I still love it,” he said. “I still think that the people who put it on are good at what they’re doing—very good. They make it very comfortable for people to be there and make it very comfortable for you to find the type of entertainment you want. You can have the biggest of the modern Nasvhille stars on one stage, and the greats of yesteryear on another stage. Then you can come to my stage and have everything from the greats of bluegrass to the upcoming types of music that are bluegrass and the old-Americana type. But we’ve had Garrison Keillor up there, too.”

If you’re expecting a full cowboy poetry set from Mitchell this year … sorry, but you’re out of luck.

“It’s a funny thing: This year, they are bringing me in strictly to emcee the stage, just because they’re good people,” he said. “They didn’t want to leave me out and had filled the roster. They realized that my name wasn’t on it, and they hired me to come and be the host of the stage. I generally know the artists and get to introduce them in a way that the people who are there are actually introduced to them.” 

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