Cowboy Poet Joel Nelson Charms the Blanton

As cowboy poet Joel Nelson began to read in that deep gravelly voice of his, I jotted down a few notes: “Looks like a slim Wilford Brimley.”

At the time, I was simply writing down a physical description of the man as I saw him in the most economic way possible. After all, “looks like a slim Wilford Brimley” is a lot shorter than “carries himself with a West Texas swagger and casual physicality, sporting a handlebar mustache as white as sun-bleached limestone,” although a bit less poetic.

But it turns out that it was just my reporter’s instinct keying me into the Brimley vibe. Over the course of the reading Nelson let slip that not only did he actually know Brimley, but the pair would routinely go on long horse rides together where they would recite poetry for hours on end.

Nelson began his reading at the Blanton Museum of Art with a quote from poet Stanley Kunitz: “If we want to know what it felt like to live in any time in the history of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.” This quote captured the essence of the evening, but not in the way you might expect. Most of the poems Nelson read were written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after the star of the western frontier had already started to fade and the growing commercialization of ranch land had fenced in much of the open range.

And that, paradoxically, is what most of the evening was about: not the West in its heyday, but the act of missing the West in its heyday—a eulogy of sorts for the death of a free existence made impossible by modern life.

Of course, if anyone alive can speak authentically about the cowboy life it’s Joel Nelson, who spent decades working on “cow/calf outfits” for some of the nation’s biggest ranches, breaking horses in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Hawaii. But though a longing for the Old West played a big part in Nelson’s work, his own repertoire ranged widely, covering everything from the indignities of old age to the Chinese zodiac and the history of the horse.

With his measured speech coming through a thick Texan drawl, Joel Nelson’s poetry was the perfect acoustic accompaniment to the Blanton’s current exhibit, Go West! Representations of the American Frontier. Closing my eyes during the reading, it was easy to imagine the works of Charles Russell, Henry Farny, Maynard Dixon, and the like. So small wonder Nelson’s CD The Breaker in the Pen is the only work of cowboy poetry ever nominated for a Grammy.

Jay-Z never complemented a visual representation of the American zeitgeist half so well.

Photo by Matt Valentine


Tags: , , ,



Post a Comment