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2:07 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Annual cowboy gathering 'still doin' business'<BR><I>Unique form of art special to area returns to Prescott for 17th year</I>

For 17 years they have been coming to Prescott to put the cowboy way of life into words, poetry and song.

For a few days each August, cowboys and cowboy traditions still dominate the area through the 17th annual Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering.

To those in Arizona's cattle culture, the gathering offers renewal through familiar, traditional and beloved art forms.

For city slickers, the gathering offers entertainment and eye-opening education as well as the chance to experience the cowboy's way of life through their own words, songs, art and dress.

Cowboy singer-musician, Jesse Ballantyne gets the gathering started at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Yavapai College Performance Hall with a special evening show of music and poetry.

It's the first Arizona Cowboy Poets appearance for the Sheridan, Wyo., resident who will be playing selections from his highly acclaimed "Cowboy Serenade" CD along with other contemporary cowboy music on his six-string acoustic-electric guitar.

Ballantyne, a veteran cowboy, horse trainer and rodeo performer, writes his own material but credits The Eagles, Kris Kristofferson and Ian Tyson as influences.

"It's (the gathering) a good mix of singers, poets and performers," Ballantyne said. "It's part of our heritage and good wholesome family fun."

The presentation of the Gail Gardner Award for a Working Cowboy Poet will also be made on Thursday night.

The recipient of the 2004 award is Ross Knox, a veteran of the gathering who is the head mule packer at Grand Canyon National Park. where he has logged more than 40,000 miles, mostly carrying supplies to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor.

Knox, who said he was shocked to hear that he had won the award, was a Gardner fan at an early age.

"The first poem I ever learned was by Gail Gardner. He was a phenomenal gentleman and a great writer," Knox said.

"I was fortunate enough to do a couple shows with him."

Knox said he hoped to read a new poem, "Memories," at the award ceremony, a poem he said he is extremely happy with and looking forward to sharing with the audience.

Gardner's grandson, Gail Steiger, is a past recipient of the award and a regular performer at the gathering.

"It's like one big family reunion," said Audrey Hankins of Congress, one of the gathering's 14 featured poets.

Hankins and her husband were ranchers in the Wickenburg area from 1971-1988.

"We (the poets and performers) have gotten to know each other over the years," said Hankins, "but we also get to know the audience.

"I think the most important part of it, for me, is being with friends."

Hankins said that Gardner was one of her favorites too, when she was finishing high school in Prescott.

I'll tell you a sad, sad story,

Of how a cowboy fell from grace.

Now really this is something awful,

There never was so sad a case.

One time I had me a pardner,

I never knowed one so good;

We throwed our outfits together,

And lived the way that cowboys should.

(From "The Dude Wrangler," by Gail Gardner, 1924)

Now she's helping to preserve the cowboy poetry Gardner helped start. Of course, the cowboy gathering includes cowgirls and Hankins gives the female perspective in poems like "Hollyhocks."

Hollyhocks and old ranch wives.

Both thrive on so little care.

Bringing beauty to barren places

Enduring year after year.

They're at it again, the old men,

Reliving their glory days

Cattle they caught, horses they made,

Cowboy pride, cowboy ways.

An old wife moves among them,

Invisible but for coffee pot

They don't see her leave, or care that she goes

To smile and tend her holly hocks.

"I think it (cowboy poetry) will continue," said Hankins. "I didn't used to think the public would stay with it, but now I do.

"It's a link to a set of values and a way of life that people long to return to, an era of honesty and integrity and hard work.

"Plus they're enthralled with all the decoration," she added.

Hankins has a new poem called "First Light" gathering goers can look forward to.

"Still Doin' Business" is the theme of this year's gathering and it describes the plight of the modern-day cowboy and rancher trying to find ways to preserve their heritage and the way of life they love so much.