By the time Jeneve Rose Mitchell was nearing the end of her performance at the Henry Strater Theatre, the floors were shaking as a packed house stomped their feet to the rhythm of her tune. The soft-spoken, talented musician from Crawford belted out songs about growing up a cowgirl, devotion to life on the ranch and her plans to live the cowboy way the rest of her days.
And she has many more days ahead of her. Mitchell is 13 years old.
“Right now, I’m just doing the banjo and the fiddle, but then later on, I’m doing the cello,” she said.
Mitchell also plays harp, French horn, bass, mandolin, flute and, of course, guitar. Mitchell and about 10 other young people joined the 40 other artists performing as part of this weekend’s Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
The event created a stampede of singer/songwriters, poets, artists, musicians and photographers from as far away as Canada and all across the West, yodeling, singing cowboy songs, reciting poetry and displaying artwork in venues and galleries around the downtown area.
On Saturday, the Strater Theatre hosted a Rising Western Stars show and gave the public an opportunity to see tomorrow’s talent celebrating yesterday’s cowboy history.
The gathering’s official wrangler, Karren Little, said she was excited to have such a variety of young people performing over the weekend.
“I’m always going to gatherings and looking for new talent,” said Little. “I just want to get these kids before they quit being kids.”
Little said event sponsors and grants from Durango Friends of the Arts and the Ballantine Foundation made the Youth Sessions shows possible.
“I just hope we can keep doing it, and I think these kids put on a fabulous show,” she said.
Between sets, host Kristyn Harris, 18, of McKinney, Texas, who yodeled like the day is long while she sang and played guitar, politely asked guests to move on to different venues and allow others to come in and enjoy the show.
Acting Supervisor Ronnie Toplyn said the theater was at its full capacity of 222 people almost the entire afternoon.
Naomi Bristow, 16, came from Ontario, Canada, to share her songs, including one called “God must be a Cowboy.” Singing since age 6, she said she likes storytelling.
“It’s one of the first songs my dad ever sang to me around the campfire when we were in the rodeo,” Bristow said. “It means a lot to me. It’s really close to heart.”
She also said the genre needs to be kept alive. “Us kids are trying to bring it back.”
The Lyman family came from Loa, Utah, to share their grandfather’s poems. Klace Lyman, 14, said he plans to learn guitar and put the words to music. His younger sister, Mackenzie Lyman, 9, said she likes to use expression to tell the story. Their brother Bracken Lyman, 12, said he just likes to make people laugh – and he did, to say the least.
The day kicked off with a Cowboy Parade down Main Avenue, sponsored by the Boot Barn of Durango, with third-generation Colorado ranchers Davin and Theresa Montoya as grand marshals.
The procession is the largest motorless parade in the state, said coordinator Jennifer O’Donohue. She called it a chance for the farm and ranch community to truly celebrate their heritage.
“This is a frontier town,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for the agricultural community to show off their wagons and teams.”
Slim McWilliams, of Lewis, who performed at several venues, announced the parade while carriages drawn by horses and mules trotted by, along with the La Plata County Mounted Guard and the Bayfield Belles, dressed in the height of 19th century fashion. A team of horses pulled a replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
McWilliams said he was lucky to be a cowboy in his younger days, “back before I had to get an honest job,” he said with a laugh.
He said the gathering is important to maintain the artistic expression of the culture.
“It perpetuates a lot of the cowboy culture that is dying out,” he said. “It’s telling their story.”
Mike Moutoux, Silver City, N.M.’s “Enchanted Cowboy,” said he could spend a month in and around Durango, “just to see this part of the country.”
“Quails, coyotes and rattlesnakes – it’s all about the West, mountains, deserts – but there will be a focus on cowboys, and I think that’s appropriate,” he said, describing the gathering. “Cattle drives, wild rides and wide open skies.”