wallyjbl_091707_Wally_0074lophoto of Wallace McRae © 2015, Jessica Lifland, request permission for any use

by Wallace McRae

They contemplate their town-boot toes
As they stand around and mill.
They check the south horizon,
‘Cross the tracks above the hill.

Their suitcoats hint of mothballs,
Their Levis are clean and creased.
They speak of grass or cattle
But never the deceased.

Some have shook the Gov’ner’s hand,
And one’s been in the pen.
Crooked legs define the bronc hands,
Cropped-off thumbs the dally men.

Their spring-toothed necks are throttled up
In silky black wild rags.
Their faces scored like flower-stamps
On well-worn saddle bags.

They’ve come early to the funeral home,
Yet don’t want to go inside.
There’s no comfort in a breathless room
Or words of “eventide.”

They somehow share a secret bond
As each one recollects:
Together. Separate. Silently.
Each pays his last respects.

You’ll hear no keening to the vaulted skies,
But the good hands know when a good hand dies.

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, and has served on the National Council of the Arts.

He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

In his book, “Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems,” Wally McRae notes this poem is “Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Evan D. McRae.”

This photograph of Wally McRae is by popular photojournalist Jessica Lifland (http://jessicalifland.smugmug.comInstagram) as a part of her Cowboy Poetry Project. Her subjects to date include Waddie Mitchell, Amy and Gail Steiger , Rodney Nelson, DW Groethe, Elizabeth Ebert, Henry Real Bird, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, and others.

Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her gathering photos at her photo blog.




photo © 2015, Jessica Brandi Lifland


by Elizabeth Ebert

He talked about Montana
For he’d worked there in his youth,
And you somehow got the feeling
That most of it was truth.
Talked about the things he’d done there,
Memories from a happy past.
Talked about Montana rivers
Running cold, and deep and fast,
About pines upon a hillside
And mountains rising high,
About the endless reaches
Of a blue Montana sky.

Said he left there at the war’s start,
Went to tell his folks good-bye.
Then there was a wartime wedding
To a girl who got his eye.
Said she’d keep the home fires burning,
‘Til the war was past and won,
Wrote her love to him in letters,
Sent him pictures of their son.
And the letters and the pictures
Helped him bear the death and blood.
And he’d dream about Montana
As he slogged through foreign mud.

They would buy a little ranch there,
And he’d teach the boy to ride.
It would be a bit of heaven,
With his family at his side.
But he came home to discover
Someone else was in his place.
She had found another lover.
It was more than he could face
For he was tired of fighting,
So he merely let them go.
It was then he started drinking,
Just to ease the pain, you know.

He’d work a month cold sober,
And then he’d draw his pay,
He was headed for Montana;
But the booze got in his way,
And he never made it out of town,
‘Fore the money all was spent
And he was busted flat again,
And he didn’t know where it went.
So he’d come back asking for his job.
And he’d hope you’d understand.
And you always hired him on again
For he was a darned good hand.

And he’d talk about Montana.
And you’d get a glimmer then,
Of the cowboy that he used to be,
And the man he might have been
Before the war and wife and whiskey
Had bent him out of shape.
Now the war and wife were history
And the whiskey was escape.
But he swore that he was going back
And he’d do most anything
For Montana sure was pretty
When it greened up in the spring.

Then he finally got an offer
To tend a band of sheep.
It was just for winter wages,
Barely paid his board and keep.
But it was in Montana,
So he was on his way,
He could stand to winter woollies,
He would work for little pay,
For he’d be there in the springtime
When the sky turned clear and blue,
And he’d go back to punching cattle
When his winter job was through.

Don’t know why he left the sheep camp,
Started walking into town,
Maybe he just needed whiskey
To wash the lonely down.
Quick come Montana’s blizzards.
Deep falls Montana’s snow.
And unforgiving are the winds
When they once begin to blow.
He’d come looking for his Paradise,
He hadn’t come to die.
But he froze upon a lonely road
‘Neath a cold Montana sky.

© 1997, Elizabeth Ebert
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

South Dakota’s much-loved poet Elizabeth Ebert, who turns 93 this month, is celebrated for her powerful writing as well as her quick wit and humor.

Baxter Black has said of her (and referring to this poem): “To say that I admire Elizabeth’s writing seems meager comment on her talent. She writes from inspiration with such graceful force it’s like her pen has power steering. There are so many first class pieces in her books, most contemporary cowboy poets would covet even just one so good in their armory. If her poems were mountains and the verses peaks, this would be the eagle soaring over all: ‘Before war and wife and whiskey/ Had bent him out of shape/ Now the war and wife were history/ And the whiskey was escape.'”

Journalist Carson Vaughan wrote about her in a February, 2017 American Cowboy profile, “The Grande Dame of Cowboy Poetry.”

Find more about Elizabeth Ebert at CowboyPoetry.com.

This beautiful photograph of Elizabeth Ebert was taken in 2015 photojournalist Jessica Brandi Lifland (jessicalifland.smugmug.com; jblifon Instagram) at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find more of her gathering photos at her photo blog and see her Cowboy Poetry Project images and gathering archives here.

THE FENCE by DW Groethe


photo © Jessica Lifland; request permission for use


by DW Groethe

When it comes to vexation and ire
Nothin’ gets my dander higher
Than bein’ in the sticks
Tryin’ to fix
Hun’erd year old strands a wire.
They criss cross in jumbles an’ knots
In places God’s all but forgot
Hangin’ from posts
That gave up the ghost
Way back when Valentino was hot!

You can randomly pick any stretch
Of thirty odd feet an’ you’ll fetch
Ten distinct types of wire
Twelve knots and a choir
Of whatever the wind lets it ketch.
As a functionin’ tool—it’s a bust.
There’s no metal in here — it’s all rust
That with one careless stare
Will drop from the air
To the gumbo’s gray mud cracklin’ crust.

A tradition out here every spring,
Says you light out an’ fix the damn thing—
Tho’ any ol’ dope
Can see it’s past hope—
You still go and give ‘er a fling.
Soon you’ll hitch up two loose ends that’s fell
An’ click that ol’ stretcher until
It’s snug tight an’ fit
Ah — You know you should quit
But a little voice says—”What the hell!”—
So you give it just one tiny squeeze
The whole time yer sayin’—”Lord please—
If I can just click one more
You’ll see me Sunday for sure—
Heck!—I’m already down on my knees!”—

But a fool and his wire are soon parted
So yer settin’ right back where you started—
With a mouth full of cuss
An’ words blasphemous—
It’s no place fer them that’s weak hearted.

And rocks?—
The rocks here a thicker ‘n sin
So there’s posts that ‘r barely sunk in—
The fact that they’re there
Proves the power of prayer
Answers many a shaky Amen.
There’s willow an’ cedar an’ steel—
Stone Johnnies—But hey let’s git real
In this fencin’ game
Findin’ two posts the same
In a row—now that’s a big deal!

An’ when it comes to ranklin’ yer craw
Nothin’ beats coulees an’ draws
When it’s hot’r ‘n blazes
An’ there’s nothin’ that fazes
The bugs as they chew yer hide raw.
There’s no such a thing as just one—
They’re like clouds that blot out the sun—
Moskeeters an’ gnats
Flies—big as small cats—
That nothin’ on earth can outrun.

Eventu’ly you’ve had enuf fun
An’ you end up—back where you begun—
With fingers well crossed
You lie to the boss
“She’s like new—I got ‘er all done!”
Til next spring when it’s time to commence
This time honored ritual nonsense—
What strikes me as odd
Is that cows us an’ God
All pretend that the damn thing’s a fence!

© 2001, DW Groethe
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Eastern Montana ranch hand DW Groethe performs his poetry and music at venues small (which he really likes) and large. He’s appeared many times at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and has been invited to the the National Traditional Council for the Arts’ National Folk Festival, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Library of Congress, and other places.

Hear him recite his “Yearlin’ Heifers” poem in photographer Jessica Lifland’s slide show.

He sings his “Rodeo Sweetheart” song in a video from the 2013 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about DW Groethe and his books and recordings at CowboyPoetry.com. Follow him on Instagram.

The photograph above is by photojournalist Jessica Lifland, an official photographer for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find more of her photographs at jessicalifland.smugmug.com, including photos from the 2017 gathering. Follow her on Instagram.