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Willie Nelson told mothers not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, but he never said anything about cowgirls.

So, yippee-ki-yay, mothers.

This month's 13th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Buckaroo Fair in Heber City boasts more women performers than ever, proving that you don't have to be male to be a cowboy poet.

"It's a real masculine image," said "Ranger Doug," aka Douglas B. Green, a historian of cowboy culture and member of Riders in the Sky, who will perform in Heber City. "But [cowgirl performers] go back to the '30s and '40s. [Cowboy poets] have always welcomed women with open arms."

Whether on their own or within a group, women who call themselves cowgirls fill this year's program: Kip Calahan, Belinda Gail, Yvonne Hollenback, Valerie O'Brien, Jodi Thackeray of Saddle Strings - even 15-year-old Carin Mari, frontwoman of the band Pony Express. Groups Stampede! and Latigo, among others, feature women as yodelers, fiddlers or guitarists. All are poets through their words and music, and speak of Western life on the range.

"I'm very proud to be a cowgirl," said Gail, who grew up herding cows on a Nevada ranch.

Many of the cowgirl performers grew up in wide open spaces with families who taught them how to sing and live with spurs on their heels. Calahan's father-in-law was foreman of a ranch. Thackeray, the fiddler in Saddle Strings and a past rodeo queen, yodeled with her grandmother as a 12-year-old at Elko and is the daughter of a saddlemaker. Mari, the 2004 National Yodeling Champion who grew up in the Colorado mountains, likes to bead, knit and make custom wire jewelry and performs with her brothers, 18-year-old Colin and 13-year-old Evan.

Calahan, a veteran of the Nashville country scene since she graduated from high school, fell in love with a cowboy while visiting her mother in New Mexico and eventually married him. Next thing she knew, she was living on a 600,000-acre ranch there and began writing about her lifestyle.

"I felt like I had to prove myself at first," she said. "I tried to bring something new, different."

While she's proud of their ranching life, Calahan said she's tried in her writing to deromanticize the West and emphasize the rewards of hard living, which includes much more than just being 2 1/2 hours away from a Wal-Mart (which she is).

She attributes some of her early success to another performer who will be in Heber City.

"Starting out, Belinda [Gail] is one who really took me under her wing," she said. "All of us girls stick together."

Ranger Doug said that when Riders in the Sky began 30 years ago, not many people, of either gender, were making Western music, despite a legacy of memorable cowboys like Gene Autry and cowgirls like Patsy Montana, Dale Evans and Cindy Walker. With syrupy Nashville country and disco sweeping the nation, the only cowboy in sight would have been the guy in the Village People.

But as outlaw country, including Willie Nelson, gained momentum in the 1980s, and traditional bluegrass grew in popularity, Western music performers became widely popular for the first time since the halcyon days of cowboy music on the radio in the 1930s and '40s. Elko, Nev., started the National Cowboy Gathering 23 years ago, and though cowboys dominated stages, cowgirls began to share the spotlight.

"In the last few years, some of the women really came on strong," Hannah said.

Gail, who will be onstage alongside partner Curly Musgrave, said in a phone call from a diner in Branson, Mo., that she keeps her performance schedule clear so she can herd calves with her father on his Nevada ranch.

At concerts, she said, "my presence brings an awareness that women are out there ranching side by side with their men. It's a better representation of what the West was."

Besides, she said, if women hadn't come with the men to settle the West, the lonely men wouldn't have stayed.

"We're the glue that holds all of this together," she said.


* DAVID BURGER can be reached at or 801-257-8620. Send comments about this story to

Giddy up

* THE 13TH ANNUAL COWBOY POETRY GATHERING & BUCKAROO FAIR is Nov. 6-11 at various locations in Heber City.

* TICKET PRICES vary by event and are available at SmithsTix outlets or Day's Market (in Heber City), by calling 435-654-2352 or online at