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Reno audience tips its hats to cowboy poets
by AnnElise Hatjakes
Oct 31, 2008 | 994 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy photo/Bill Watts - Cowboy musician Wylie Gustafson performed Tuesday as part of a preview concert for the Elko National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Jan. 24-31, 2009.
Courtesy photo/Bill Watts - Cowboy musician Wylie Gustafson performed Tuesday as part of a preview concert for the Elko National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Jan. 24-31, 2009.
Musician Wylie Gustafson and his band, the Wild West, and rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski wowed the audience Tuesday night with yodeling and cowboy poetry recitations at the Pioneer Center. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in January and Gustafson and Zarzyski came to Reno for a preview concert. Reno was the last stop on a five-day tour to get cowboy poetry lovers excited about Elko’s National Cowboy Poetry gathering to be held Jan. 24 through 31.

Zarzyski began writing poetry in 1973 and has performed at Elko’s gathering for the past 23 years. It was clear that he felt at home on the Reno stage from the moment he walked onto it. In an interview before the performance, he said, “I’ve performed all around Reno. I did a show with the Reno Philharmonic at the Hilton, up at TMCC, at the Sierra Arts event and at UNR. I like to perform in Reno. I feel very comfortable here.”

Zarzyski began the show with the poem “A Cowboy Reel.” The poem was prefaced by an apology to Norm MacLeans and any other fly fishermen in the audience. Zarzyski’s quick-paced style and enthusiasm for poetry came through during the recitation of this poem.

Zarzyski, a self-described rodeo poet, said, “I work hard making lines buck and kick across the page. Every line should be a good buckin’ horse ride.”

After reciting a line with a good amount of “kick,” Zarzyski interrupted his poem and asked the audience, “Do you know how hard I worked on that one?”

The next poem, which was entitled “Words growing wild in the woods,” took on a more solemn tone and, despite the fact that it was told in Zarzyski’s quick-paced style, the poem expressed sadness arising from the loss of his father, who was his “best friend.” The poem was beautiful in the way it intertwined Zarzyski’s relationship with his father and his relationship with language.

The performance took another turn when Zarzyski began a poem about the plight of having to explain the HBO series “The Sopranos” to someone who “just doesn’t capiche.” As an Italian himself, Zarzyski was familiar with the Italian culture. He had the audience laughing throughout the poem, especially when he broke down what “Italians are really all about.” He said that they get sad and then get mad and then glad — and then they eat.

Gustafson and his band, all suited up in Wranglers, cowboy boots and hats, then joined Zarzyski for a performance of Zarzyski’s poem “LSD,” which Zarzyski described as a “rodeo rap.” The poem was musical, which was mostly attributed to the unique rhythm it carried.

“My teacher once told me that poetry involves a constant battle between music and message, and in the best poems, you can’t discern which one wins,” Zarzyski said. “I always fail in this way, erring on the side of music. The music of my poetry is always more prominent than the message.”

This became clear during Zarzyski’s recitation of “LSD” as well as his poem “The Bucking Horse Moon.” After Zarzyski recited these poems, Gustafson and his band played the music they had written to accompany these poems.

After a poem about Butte, Mont., Wylie and the Wild West played a song that showcased Gustafson’s amazing yodeling abilities. People in the audience were tapping their feet to the syncopated beat of this song, which was called “Whip out a Yodel.”

Band members Ray Doyle, T. Scot Wilburn and Rick Bryceson also showcased their mastery of their respective instruments during this song. Doyle played the mandolin and provided harmony vocals, Wilburn played the steel guitar, fiddle and electric guitar and Bryceson was on the drums.

Gustafson and Zarzyski then took the audience on a “rodeo romance odyssey.” The poems and songs included in this portion were all favorites among the women in the audience. Gustafson ended the set with an autobiographical song entitled “Yodeling Fool,” which was about his creation of the trademark yodel for the Yahoo corporation. The audience joined Gustafson and Zarzyski for the encore, which was “Goodnight Irene.”

After a goodnight song, the performers left the stage with a heartfelt “Goodnight everyone.”
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