If you see a lot of cowboy hats and horses roaming the streets of Durango next weekend, it’s because the annual Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering will be back in full swing.
Starting Thursday, the Gathering will host a packed schedule of musical performances, comedy, the annual cowboy parade and chuck wagon breakfast. Because the Henry Strater Theatre closed in 2020, some performances will be held at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, and others will be held in venues downtown.
This year’s premier performers are The High Country Cowboys out of Red Lodge, Montana. The three brothers who make up the band – John, Joe and Marty – have been a group since about 2014, said John Kosel (who, the sharp-eyed among you may have noticed, is also the artist behind this year’s official Cowboy Gathering poster, which is a print of his painting, “High Country Autumn”). He said the trio have their father and old Western movies and music to thank for the band.
“We grew up watching the old Roy Rogers movies, which we’re not that old, but it was something that our dad – we just watched the older movies. We were inspired by Sons of the Pioneers, which did a lot of the Roy Rogers films,” he said. “That’s where we got the inspiration for playing this kind of music. The harmonies and the yodeling and the cowboy songs is kind of what we liked about it the most. None of us ever imagined that we would ever get into doing it, but we were playing bluegrass music and guitar-picking and stuff like that growing up.”
What really put the guys over, John said, was the DVD of the Riders in the Sky’s “How to Sing Western Harmony” the brothers got for Christmas one year: “We started doing it around the house and it was terrible, and we didn’t give up on it, we just kept doing it.”
Eventually, they got good enough that their older sister signed them up as entertainment for their local community center. They agreed to the gig, but weren’t exactly thrilled because they were pretty reserved, John said, adding that they grew up in ranch country in south central Montana, a pretty isolated place.
After that initial performance, the group was asked back for more shows, and then the band began to take off.
“The local hotel, which is also a restaurant, wanted us to come play music there and give us a tryout, and said they would pay us money if we showed up, and so we did. We got halfway through our set that night, and the manager took me aside and said, ‘I’d like to have you guys here on a monthly basis.’ It was a shock to us – it wasn’t any of our plans to make music as a living – even a part-time living,” John said. “From there it kind of grew and got to the point where it was a full-time job for all three of us, traveling around, mostly around Montana. We joined the Western Music Association shortly after that hotel gig and started making contact with other people and started playing out of state as well and just kept growing.”
Not bad for brothers who basically learned to play on their own.
“As far as music goes, we learned to play by ear, mostly. We learned the chords on the guitar, but even still, I’ll be playing songs that we learned by ear and somebody will ask what chord it was that I just played, and I couldn’t tell them,” John said. “It kind of got to be a problem, that part of it, because when we went to go record in a professional studio, it was kind of a barrier because we were working with the sound engineer and the producer, and they were like, ‘What chord was that?’ it’s just the one we played (laughs).”
Apparently, they did a pretty good job learning their instruments on their own, having earned awards for their work: According to the band’s website, the Pro Cowboy Country Artist Association awarded them “Music Group of the Year” in 2017 and 2018. The PCCAA also awarded the group “Best Album of the Year” in 2018 for their album “Cowboy.” And lead singer Marty took home PCCAA “Yodeler of the Year” in 2017 and “Male Vocalist of the Year” in 2018.
And while other musicians have tried to join the band, John said it’s always just been the three siblings.
“We had a few other people who would try to get in on what we were doing, and it was kind of like, ‘You know, this is kind of a family thing for us,’ we just work really good together,” he said. “Brothers have their spats whatever, but it never did result in any fistfights or anything like that. We get along really well for brothers.”
John said the band is starting to slow down as his brothers’ families grow and traveling becomes trickier – the pandemic is partly to blame for that, too. But, he said, unless musicians continue to perform in the Western tradition, it’s a genre that could fall to the wayside.
“It’s just a kind of music, I don’t know how to explain it, it’s a really good, it’s about cowboy way of life and the Western landscape,” he said. “It’s just something I think should be continued on, and unless kids hear it, it would be too easy for it to get lost.”
Poets in the Community: All day. Special performances in schools and other venues.
Open Air Concerts: Featured cowboy musicians at an outside venue downtown. Free. Scheduled are: 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Balcony Bar and Grill, 600 Main Ave.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Four Leaves Winery, 528 Main Ave.; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Train Depot Lawn, 479 Main Ave.
Western Variety Show with a Twist, “Sounds of the West”: 6 p.m., Wild Horse Saloon, 601 East Second Ave., tickets $15, no reserved seating. Tickets and details: https://bit.ly/3lNqRPF.
Premier Performance: The High Country Cowboys: 8 p.m., VFW, 1550 Main Ave. Details and tickets: https://bit.ly/3EKHunI.
Poets in the Community: (See Thursday.)
Open Air Concerts: (See Thursday.)
Cowboy Poet Trailride: 10 a.m. A two-hour trail ride through the San Juan Mountains. After the ride, return to the stable for classic Western music along with cowboy lunch provided by Lone Spur Cafe. Space is limited, advanced reservations encouraged. Call 946-8495 or visit buckslivery.com.
Cowboy Humor, featuring Thatch Elmer, George Russell, Bonnie Kroegman, “Pikin Peggy” Malone: 6 p.m., Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive. Reserved seating. Tickets and details: https://bit.ly/3AzJT2n.
Cowboy Classic, featuring Jeff Gore, Tom Swearingen and Jan Schiferl: 8 p.m., Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive, reserved seating. Details and tickets: https://bit.ly/3EHxo7q.
Cowboy Chuck Wagon Breakfast: 7:30-10:30 a.m., corner of Fifth Street and Main Avenue (across from the train depot). Biscuits, gravy, scrambled eggs and lots of black coffee. $10 for adults, children 5 and younger free. Tickets can be purchased at the wagon. For more information, call 749-2995.
Cowboy Parade: 10 a.m. Sponsored by Lone Spur Cafe. Colorado’s largest motorless parade begins at the train depot on Main Avenue. Details: https://bit.ly/3o39kGd.
Daytime Sessions: Cowboy Poetry and Music, Storytelling and Folklore: 10:30 a.m.-4:20 p.m., free. This year’s theme is “Cowboys on Main Street.” Musicians will be at the Strater Hotel, Wild Horse Saloon, Four Leaves Winery and strolling the streets. Invited performers. Concurrent sessions change every hour in each location. Visit https://bit.ly/3u4d9Mb for list of performers. In the Open Sessions, anyone can entertain. To sign up, call Karren Little at 382-8897. For schedule: https://bit.ly/3ELl326.
Cowboy Comedy Review: 1:45-3:15 p.m., Wild Horse Saloon, 601 East Second Ave. Tickets $15, open seating.
Western Heritage Tribute: 11:30 a.m., Mahogany Grille, 699 Main Ave. Celebrate parade Grand Marshal Anne Rapp and retiring Strater Hotel owner Rod Barker. Lunch menu and cash bar, free entertainment.
Poster Session: 4:40-5-:30 p.m., Toh-Atin Gallery, 145 W. Ninth St. Invited poets and musicians will perform their interpretations of this year’s limited-edition print. Hosted by Lindy Simmons. 5:30-6:30 p.m., free reception. Autographed prints of “High Country Autumn” by artist John Kosel will be available for $30.
Cowboy Classic, featuring Jeff Gore, Tom Swearingen and Jan Schiferl: 6 p.m., Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive. Reserved seating. Details and tickets: https://bit.ly/39qG0Rg.
Cowboy Humor, featuring Thatch Elmer, George Russell, Bonnie Kroegman and “Pikin Peggy” Malone: 8 p.m., Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, 1000 Rim Drive. Reserved seating. Details and tickets: https://bit.ly/2XNOn7j.
A Cowboy and His Creator: 10 a.m., Durango Cowboy Church, 1867 Highway 172. Hosted by Sam Noble. Potluck with meat provided.
For more information, visit www.durangocowboygathering.org.