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Good humor, great music mark cowboy poetry gathering

ELKO — Some folks mourn the loss of a favorite hunting dog. Others sigh when a big-hearted horse passes on to eternal pastures. I’ve even heard of fellows that miss their ex-mothers-in-law.

As for me, I pine on a regular basis over the departure from the accessible airwaves of Garrison Keillor’s amazing American Public Media show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which is broadcast on approximately 600 National Public Radio stations, but lately gets fuzzy reception where I travel.

For those not fond of the art of radio theater, this is about as hard to explain as jazz to an extraterrestrial. But for those who have heard the APHC crew’s rollicking skits and tapped toes to some of the best music America has to offer, the show is radio gold.

So imagine my delight after stepping out of the frosty Friday night and into the Elko Convention Center auditorium and the wonderfully warped western world of the Trail’s End Ranch Radio Show starring Stephanie Davis, Jerry Brooks, and Prairie Home’s own sound effects magician Fred Newman.

In short, it channels APHC through the creation of a fictional radio broadcast featuring music, skits, poetry and rib-tickling advertisements for some almost genuine products and services to which actual ranch folk and weekend wranglers alike can relate. The two-hour show was one of many highlights of the recent 30th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Set in a fictitious radio studio “somewhere on the American prairie” but fortunately with a signal that reached all the way to the Elko auditorium, its purpose is entertainment. But its producers have an even bigger goal in mind.

In a message from the show’s website, its producers observe, “When presenting itself to the rest of the world, the United States truly needs an ‘image make-over.’ Any country that brags that it has the strongest this, the most sophisticated that, and more billionaires tends to breed resentment among those who don’t.”

That’s one reason the touring show kicked off its long run in Europe: as a reminder that Americans share similar values with the rest of the world.

“Never before has it been so necessary for the people of the world to be able to communicate with one another, share values and priorities, face problems together that threaten the planet, and, in essence, just be more ‘friendly,’ ” they write.

That might give the impression that the show is some kind of stuffy theater exercise with a greater political purpose. It’s anything but that. It is, in fact, one helluva good time.

A half dozen musicians play western swing and acoustic ranch music — plenty of fiddle and six-string guitars — and six more actors and poets fill out the bill of fare. There are double shots of nostalgia and country values, and plenty of humorous words from the show’s “sponsors.”

There’s the “Cowboy Up Dating Service: C.U.D.” for lonesome wranglers, and a spot for every rancher’s nightmare land hustler, “Robin Steele Realty.” If “Western Brew Sarsaparilla” doesn’t wet your whistle, then you’ll surely stay awake all night after drinking a cup of “Levitation Cowboy Coffee.”

Even the dogies are courted by a commercial for the “New Moo Holistic Cow Spa.”

The abundance of good humor and great music in Elko are two of the least appreciated elements of its annual poetry gathering, which recently marked its 30th anniversary. Much of the verse reflects the self-deprecating and lighthearted side of ranch life.

And the music in general remains true to the folk traditions of a bygone era. This year’s musicians seemed especially gifted.

And a broadcast by the ropers and readers from the Trail’s End Ranch Radio Show made the trip north a fine good time.

Travel far to find a signal. It’s well worth the drive.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702 383-0295 or at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com.