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Communicating Western Rural Culture Through The Arts

Jerry Brooks recites poetry during the National Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV.
Jeri L. Dobrowski

Morning on the desert, and the wind is blowin' free, 
And it's ours jest for the breathin', so let's fill up, you an' me.

At the National Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, the arts in all of its forms take center stage. Western rural artists understand how music, poetry and storytelling seem to communicate more intimately than by any other means. Artists such as Utah-born Jerry Brooks use this to their advantage to share both the charms and the challenges of rural living.

No more stuffy cities where you have to pay to breathe— 
Where the helpless, human creatures, strive, move, throng and seethe.

John Allen, a rural sociologist and Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University, grew up on a cattle ranch in Baker, Oregon. His unique perspective combines academic research with real-life experience to create a different take on what it means today to be a rural American.

“In a rural area you wave to everyone and you say hello, whether you like them or not you just go ahead and do that," Allen said. "In an urban area you’d look down and you don’t make eye contact. I think of once it was really stressed to me, I was in an elevator one day and there are all these people and they’re touching you! And you're supposed to ignore them! I can’t even drive down the street in a rural area and not say hello, but to have you leaning on me? There’s a real difference between how we look at interaction in a rural area vs. an urban area. There is a personalization in a rural area that you don’t necessarily get.”

He said one of the biggest concerns for rural Americans is youth-out migration. Our modern society, both urban and rural, has become increasingly dependent on technology. So, in order to participate in the Information Age, we’ve had to have technology in our lives, increasing the costs of living. However, rural income has not necessarily increased at the same rate, so many youth now face a tough decision: find a way to increase their income or move away.

“We get roles differently in rural areas," Allen said. "In sociological terms, it’s an ascribed process. If your mom did that for the church board you did it. Not necessarily because you knew how to do it, but just because they passed it down along those lines.
"In urban areas you get a degree and that is how you get your role. I see young people leaving rural communities, get their degree, come back and say ‘I have a master’s degree. I should be boss,’ and they go ‘No, I don’t think so. Have you been an EMT? Were you part of a volunteer fire department?’ and they’re going ‘No, but I have this degree!’ So it’s really a different way of looking at how people get roles in society. I found that fascinating, but that is just part of the differences between rural and urban areas,” Allen said.

In addition to learning about and celebrating the traditions of the West, many who attend poetry gatherings such as the one in Elko come away realizing that, in fact, we have many more similarities than differences.

“I think it is really important to humanize,” Allen said. “I think part of what I‘m seeing right now, whether it’s urban-rural, red-blue, political party to political party, is that we’ve dehumanized. I used to do mediations on reservations and somebody said that ‘It’s harder to kill somebody if you’ve eaten with them.’ What that really means is, once I know you as a human being, those stereotypes we’ve created about each other disappear. Children, income, tensions in our lives, goals, dreams … that reaches across urban and rural. So if we don’t have this discourse, then we allow those stereotypes to be enhanced.
"I think it’s important to have a conversation that about the humanness of who we are that allows me now to value you,” said Allen.

He said it is this "human-ness" that we crave in a society that is constantly overloaded with the latest new methods of communication.  Singer-songwriter Brenn Hill will share his life experiences through his music at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Hill said poetry and music still stand out as one of the most genuine and organic ways to reach one another.

God saved some lucky men to be cowboys,

No ordinary man can wear the name. ...

“Art speaks right to the heart and gets to the heart of the matter," said Hill. "Music is a universal language. It can get someone out of their element for a minute and move them to the perspective of the artist. I was told one time that the difference between somebody who becomes a star and somebody who is always a starving artist is that the star wants to be seen by many eyes, and the starving artist wants many eyes to see the world through their own.
“If you go to the gathering, and you listen to the poetry and music there, you will see the rural West through the eyes of horsemen, ranchers, and the artists who basically make their living out of the land. That is what Elko offers and that is a very unique experience. Art in its best form can change someone’s perspective immediately,” he said.

... And your daddy calls you a drifter,

I call you 'Cowboy.'