Come hell or partial government shutdown, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will get under way in Elko, Nevada, on Jan. 28, much as it has every year since 1985, with an independent-minded Western spirit embodied in verse, songs … and enduring federal subsidies.
Folks thought the cowboy-poetry fest was in a peck of trouble back in 2011 after Tea Party fervor swept Republicans to control of the House, and they sought to abolish its key benefactor back east, the National Endowment for the Arts. (That was a way of “reining in” the deficit, recalls one expert interviewed for this article, seemingly with tobacco chaw planted firmly in cheek.)
But Harry Reid, then Senate majority leader, headed them off at the pass. Long story short, the flinty Nevada Democrat took to the Senate floor to help save the festival in his home state from a “mean-spirited” GOP budget, inviting conservative ridicule and turning cowboy poetry into a lightning rod for conflicting views of the proper role of government.
This year the “gathering,” as it is known, shows that history not only repeats but rhymes too. With a host of frontier wordsmiths and musical acts including Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, the six-day festival endures even amid the current Washington budget impasse; sponsored by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, it is expected to draw thousands of people. The event’s website displays its support from the NEA even as the agency’s online grant registry itself lately is as inaccessible as a furloughed D.C. bureaucrat.
Exactly how much federal largesse the festival gets nowadays is bit of a head-scratcher, what with the quasi-shutdown and all. But it can’t be much, if past NEA grants to the Western Folklife Center, to the tune of mere tens of thousands of dollars, are any guide. It's been estimated that federal funding is only a "minimal" fraction — about 3 percent — of the center's total financial backing, and not all of that goes to its signature rodeo of rhymes, which gets by on ticket sales and other support.
On a national scale, this go-small approach by the NEA reflects how the agency typically operates, spreading 2,500 grants across the land from a budget of some $150 million in 2017, for example. Good bang for the cultural buck, proponents say. A ludicrous waste of taxpayer money, counter opponents -- who say the micro-funding adds up, and that it’s insidious.
The NEA makes sure it “spreads its tentacles” with arts grants across the country, says Romina Boccia, who directs federal budget studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Politicians all over see the NEA’s benefits and are more likely to support it, notes Boccia.
As the 2011 dustup showed, the poetry gathering is an especially galling example to critics. “Cowboys are supposed to stand for rugged individualism,” says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the freedom-promoting Cato Institute. “So these cowboys ought to be ashamed of themselves for taking federal taxpayer money.”
Even Waddie Mitchell (shown in performance at top), one of the event's founding directors at the Western Folklife Center, admits he once reckoned not much good could come out of “help” from Washington. “We don’t want them stepping in and telling us what to do,” the 68-year-old poet recalls thinking. But now, he says, “I find myself biting my own shirttails finding out that it’s not as bad as I thought it would be working with the government.
“People in the arts working for the government are still in the arts,” Mitchell figures.
Further, he credits federal support with helping to make tickets affordable to the people of modest means drawn to the event.
Which brings supporters to another point: Cowboy poetry is distinct from the kind of pointy-headed stuff that usually gets federal arts funding. “Poets began writing not for people, but for other poets – for their academic peers,” says Andy Wilkinson, a writer who has performed at the festival on and off for 20 years. But cowboy poetry, a tradition traced to 18th century frontier campfires, is still by and for the people, he adds.
That’s probably one of the reasons the NEA is so interested in supporting it, notes Edwards, who says the agency views the event “as a way to fund non-elitist art.”
Another factor is inertia -- the perpetuation of NEA funding year in and year out regardless of whether an endeavor could stand on its own and step aside for more deserving art projects.
“Once you’re an insider, you have an inside track for future grants,” says Edwards. “It’s less risky for them.”
Then again, maybe no D.C. functionary wants to be the one who yanks the funding for fear of inciting some hard-drinking cowboy. John Wayne, the quintessential Hollywood hero, put it succinctly while playing the title role in “McLintock!,” a 1963 western, opposite Maureen O’Hara. “I’ve got a touch of hangover, bureaucrat,” Wayne tells one government man. “Don’t push me.”