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The 5, one of LA's notorious freeways - runs south to San Diego and north...where each weekend it funnels drivers out of the city's urban haze up into the brighter canyon light and what much of urban southern California used to look like. This past weekend, many of those drivers drove north on 5 and then inland, on the Antelope Valley freeway. They parked their cars, lined up for tickets, lined up for shuttle buses, walked past rows of porta-potties, and ended up here...at the Melody Ranch, and the annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival. This is a journey back in the hills...and back in time.

Feature: Cowboy Poets

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McCord: "So I took off my hat as the horses passed by...my curiousity straining to burst. so I asked who died to the man in the crowd. He said i think its the one in the hearse..."
Dallas McCord works in the parts department of the city bus company in Eugene Oregon...but he has the thick grizzly beard and the big belly of a cattle drive cook. In his own words, every chance he's had over the last 30 years - he does the cowboy thing.
McCord: The cowboy is a mystique, you know the cowboy to most people is a mystery now... and a lot of people think they were born 150 years too late, you know, me being one and they see anything that has to do with cowboy and it draws and interest there you know, what's this cowboy thing - people love that you know they love to see people go out and do stuff that you saw when you watched TV...I'm not sure if its going to be passing fancy - already been around for 150 years.
Now I should put some of my own cards on the table. I’m not sure what to expect at a cowboy poetry and music Festival, but I’m suspicious…any event that promises street Performers and fun for the kids has me wary of the usual trinket hucksters and over-priced cotton candy. Performers who step offstage, light a smoke – look at their watch and think about when they have to get up and do it all over again.

But these performers are part of the audience - they smile, and nod and listen along to the same songs and the same poems they’ve probably heard a thousand times. It's like you can’t tell the tourists from the locals. Dallas McCord would tell you that most people here are more likely to use the word ranch, when they ask for the salad dressing...but that’s okay he says, they get it...and when they don't, they like to figure it out.

McCord: "After they hear it a little bit they start hearing words like kack and tack and gear and horse droppings and things that you don't know what theses things are and you can learn."
Karen Dowdy: "I don't know what the tack stuff is - i see all these things for sale, I have no clue - its either a marital aide or it has something to do with a horse, don't know which."
Karen Dowdy runs a law firm. Her husband John is a private investigator. They live in the city...but they are hooked on this cowboy thing.
Karen Dowdy: "Somehow its familiar - even though the world outside no longer bears a resemblance to many things they talk about - you know that it exists somewhere."
John Dowdy: "I just got back from a long road trip, a couple of days road trip, and I know the feeling that when you're just by yourself and your mind wanders and you clear your head out and I imagine that that they're really out these and just coming up with some very deep things even though outwardly they're these rough tumble type guys but inwardly their souls are probably in touch with their soul than other people are."
  There's something else bugging me though.

The Melody Ranch is itself, a trip back - back to the dust and the wooden boardwalks of the old west...someone said they filmed the main street shootout of High Noon right here. Why, Gene Autrey himself owned this place...

But its not real. The whole thing's fake. Melody Ranch is a film lot...it's always been, just a movie set. Look behind the weathered facade of the street, and its all just held up with scaffolding.

Look closer at the genuine hand-painted signs which point to the saloon, the sheriff's office, the undertaker, and you'll see one directing people to the ATM machine.

Irwin Jackson is another one of the performers here. You can't help but notice him.

He has the perfect tilt to his hat, those creased and weathered eyes of the prairie...and that sort of short neat moustache which marks him as a sheriff...or at least, one of the good guys.

Turns out he's an electronics engineer who, in his years at Teledyne, helped design power packs for lunar spaceships...pioneer work for sure, but when I suggest to him that its about as far from the saddle as you can get...he just gives me one of those knowing patient smiles, cowboys reserve for us dudes.

Jackson: "I like to put on my cowboy jacket and my cowboy boots and everything and get out and play cowboy on the weekend and if you look around that’s what everybody's doing. there's no real cowboys anymore  well not so to speak, and everybody likes to do the cowboy thing on the weekend and that’s what we here for...you know we enjoy it - its a great thing..."
Gordon: "You said in many ways the whole cowboy thing is dead - its something of the past..."
Jackson: "You know we're trying to keep it alive. That’s the reason this thing is going on right now and yeah the west as we know it, as we see it in the movies., that’s gone, we'll never see that era again, but uh, I like to kinda keep it alive...50-60 years ago we used to watch our heroes like Gene Autrey and John Wayne, and all on the silver screen - and I used to spend my ten cents every Saturday going to see these people and we're trying to keep that alive because we really enjoy it..."
This journey back, in time and place is starting to make sense. The poems and the songs do celebrate the old west, but its OUR old west, everybody’s old west. If we’re honest with ourselves…the icons and the images are those from the movies,  they’re the cattle drives and the posses and the shootouts we all experienced in the popcorn smell of those fold-down seats, in the darkened caverns of childhood cinemas.
McCord: "You can ask them about their exploits, And the outlaws that gave them their best, or you can read all the names up on Boot Hill where the outlaws headstones face west."
Martens: "It takes me back to my youth of you know being with horses and the tack and the dress and I love the poetry."
Rod Martens is one of the visitors here who actually did spend time on a working ranch. He's now a writer in San Francisco. His partner Shelley Winstead brought him to the Melody Ranch so he could Figure out why - cowboy poetry works.
Martens: "I guess it's the homespun quality, it's barebones, lot of feeling, I enjoy listening to it."
Gordon: "I have one question that I'd like you to help me with, because as homespun and genuine as it all is..you guys know, and I know that we're standing on a western street that’s fake...like if we looked on the other sides of the walls its just 2x4's a lot of these cowboys are engineers and the people who come out on the weekends and do this - does that take any of the lustre or...charm of the event for you?"
Martens: "You're right, it is somewhat contrived, but um you know what isn't - it is what you make of it."
Winstead: "I think its great that people come out and celebrate their traditions and their interest or whatever - wonderful to watch people enjoy - whether it's real or not - if they're having fun with it then that’s what’s important."
Martens: "That’s the definition of nostalgia - you keep the good stuff and forget the bad stuff..."
So where did I end up on this journey to the Melody Ranch I came to hear the cowboy poets, expecting to be an observer – an outsider, to be excluded because I’m not a rootin’tootin’ six-gun shootin’ anything. And I was wrong...I mean cowboy poetry is a language for Insiders…the people who ride and punch and brand and herd… But we’re all included in that simply by virtue of our shared cultural History.  The Duke,   Hoss Cartwright, Wild Bill….and what it means is that you’ll find something genuinely welcoming where That line between tourist and performer gets blurred like that. I didn't buy one of the Melody Ranch Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival T-shirts.

I wouldn’t wear it, ‘cause the people who’d see it, would be people who haven’t heard what cowboy poetry’s all about – and they wouldn’t get it - would they?    

Savvy Resources:

Find out more about the Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival at their official website: http://www.ci.santa-clarita.ca.us/cp/main.asp.

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