Music over rhyme at Heber Valley cowboy gathering
There will be three dozen entertainers at this year's cowboy poetry gathering in Heber City but only 11 of them are poets.
The rest are Western instrumentalists and singers with impressive credentials, including award-winning country star Lynn Anderson, of "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden" fame; up-and-comers Joey+Rory, winners of the Academy of Country Music's 2010 New Vocal Duo award; and veteran Belinda Gail, a seven-time Western Music Association Female Performer of the Year.
To reflect that musical focus, organizers recently changed the name of the 19-year-old event to the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
"I don't think people know we have as much music as we do," director Ted Caldwell said of the event that runs Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 31-Nov. 3.
But the two genres fit like a cattleman's hand and glove.
"Western music is all about ballads and storytelling and that's really what cowboy poetry is," Caldwell explained. "It's a very good mix. And most people that enjoy Western music find the poetry enjoyable."
While musical performances dominate, organizers are still dedicated to the gathering's cowboy poetry roots, bringing in some of the country's top performers, including Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black.
Mitchell, a regular performer at the Heber Valley gathering since it began, helped found the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in his hometown of Elko, Nev. This working cowboy has produced seven CDs and three books and even was commissioned to write a poem for the 2002 Winter Olympics Arts Festival.
Black, a native of New Mexico, was a large-animal veterinarian before becoming a cowboy poet. He has written numerous books of fiction, poetry and commentary and is a former commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."
The gathering has come a long way since 1994, when 250 people gathered at the Midway Town Hall to listen to a handful of local cowboy poets and eat Dutch oven chili. Though small, that initial gathering sparked something in the community.
Today, the four-day event attracts more than 10,000 people and involves hundreds of local volunteers from throughout Wasatch County, Caldwell said.
This year there will be nine performance stages, from the 1,100-seat Wasatch High School auditorium to the 120-seat VIP Campfire stage inside the school's Little Theatre. New this year is the midsize stage at the old Midway Town Hall where it all began that seats more than 400. Of course, the most unusual setting is the Heber Valley Railroad, in which entertainment rolls from car to car as the train winds through the nearby canyons.
New faces • For many years, the gathering has been a good place to discover top musical acts before they make it big, Caldwell said. That's the case with singer/songwriter Joey+Rory. The husband-and-wife duo first performed at the Heber Valley gathering in 2009 and have returned every year since.
Rory Lee Feek has been a Nashville songwriter for many years, penning Blake Shelton's No. 1 hit "Some Beach" and Jimmy Wayne's 2008 single "I Will." In 2008, he joined forces with his wife, Joey, competing on "Can You Duet," a singing competition on the CMT channel. After placing third, they released their debut album, "The Life of a Song." The lead single, "Cheater, Cheater," was a top 40 hit on the Billboard country charts. The couple also are featured on a weekly television series, "The Joey+Rory Show," on rural America's RFD-TV.
Caldwell isn't sure which act on this year's bill will make a similar rise, but he is especially excited about The Sweetback Sisters, who will perform at the popular Buckaroo Ball on Friday, Nov. 1. Emily Miller and Zara Bode, who aren't blood relations, have been called a renegade retro band that mixes country, swing and honky-tonk.
Don't count out 18-year-old Kristyn Harris, of Collin County, Texas, who performs Nov. 1 with Joey+Rory at the Homestead Hoe Down. In 2012, Harris won the 2012 Western Music Association's Crescendo Award for rising musicians and Female Yodeler of the Year. This year, she is nominated for Female Performer of the Year and her CD "Let Me Ride" is nominated for Cowboy Swing Album of the Year.
Old favorites • The Heber Valley gathering also has many returning performers, including local favorites the Bar J Wranglers from Jackson, Wyo., and Sons of the San Joaquin, who will receive a special honor this year, Caldwell said.
This will be Gary Allegretto's third time attending. Best known as the "harmonica cowboy," Allegretto will perform with guitarist Ian Espinoza. The two singer-songwriters recently released "Allegretto/Espinoza," a 13-track album that captures their witty storytelling and intriguing ballads.
"Utah is one of my favorite destinations," said Allegretto, who has camped, skied, snowboarded and rafted in Utah. And, years ago, while working on an elite "hotshot" crew, he helped battle forest fires in the state.
In addition to performing, Allegretto will teach workshops on how to play the harmonica. It's something he does all over the country as part of his Harmonikids charity, which provides lessons to special-needs children.
"The harmonica is truly the people's instrument," said Allegretto during a recent telephone interview from his home in California. "It's inexpensive, it's not intimidating and it's pretty easy to carry. That alone draws people in. But the sound of the thing has a voice, a very human quality that people love."
Devon Dawson is another returning act. In the past, she performed as part of the Texas Trailhands. This year she's half of a duo with Jessie Del Robertson. Known as Miss Devon and the Outlaw, they are two-time winners of the Western Music Association's Harmony Duo competition and their debut CD, "Where in the Dickens R U?", won a New Horizons Wrangler award.
Dawson also was the singing voice of Jessie the Cowgirl on the Disney CD "Woody's Roundup Featuring Riders in the Sky." The album won a Grammy for best musical album for children. In a telephone interview, Dawson said she performs about 200 times a year.
"Western music is a niche, you have to work at it," she said. "We don't get any help from Nashville or Hollywood. But we do what we love and we do it no matter what."
Three dozen entertainers will perform during this annual Wasatch County gathering including country star Lynn Anderson, award-winning duo Joey+Rory, The Sweetback Sisters, Bar J Wranglers, Belinda Gail, Miss Devon and the Outlaw, Sons of the San Joaquin, harmonica cowboy Gary Allegretto and guitarist Ian Espinoza. Well-known cowboy poets Waddie Mitchell and Baxter Black also on the bill.
When • Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 31-Nov. 3.
Where • The majority of concerts and the Buckaroo Fair take place at Wasatch High School, 930 S. 500 East, Heber City. Other events at Midway Town Hall, 10 W. Main; Homestead Resort, 700 Homestead Drive, Midway; and Heber Valley Historic Railroad, 450 S. 600 West, Heber City.
Cost • Admission to the Buckaroo Fair with Western vendors and live music is $10. Prices for concerts, dinner shows and train ride vary from $25-$60.
Details • For a full schedule of events and prices visit hebervalleycowboypoetry.com
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