R.P. Smith: Cowboy Poet
By Eric Melvin Reed
This month, Eric Melvin Reed, editor of Saddle Up Nebraska, interviewed R.P. Smith to give us a look at the man behind the poetry.
Some kids know they are going to be a writer before they grow up; R.P. Smith had no idea.
These days, Smith, who is from Broken Bow, Neb., is billed as Nebraska’s “homegrown” humorist and cowboy poet, travelling from Texas to Canada, Florida to Montana and a dozen states in between to perform his brand of country commentary and cowboy poetry.
However, to hear Smith describe it, his whole rise came about practically by accident.
In fact, it kind of happened overnight.
The discovery-that Smith could write poetry, and maybe even write it well-came in 1987, the day before a friend’s wedding. The friend, who was living in western Nebraska at the time, worked as a cow buyer for a packing plant. That day Smith just happened to have a bad experience with a cow buyer.
“I sold a fence-crawling cow, and she went where she needed to-to the packing plant. But she sold by the head, and I thought I came out a little short on the deal-not an uncommon feeling in this line of work,” Smith says.
That night, Smith’s wife, Beth, woke him up to watch a couple of cowboy poets appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
“I had seen Baxter Black once a few years earlier, but for some reason that night he and Waddie Mitchell really clicked with me. I enjoyed what they had done so much that I couldn’t get back to sleep. I finally got up and wrote a poem about getting taken on the cow sale. I gave it to my friend as part of his wedding present, figuring he was guilty by association and that he might get a kick out of it.”
Smith was 27 when he wrote “Ballad of 148,” and it was as if a switch had been thrown and a new gift brought to light.
When he decided to start performing, it was mostly at community gatherings-wedding showers, Grange meetings, churches, and family get-togethers-where he could try out some of his early material. “I was always a little nervous because these were the folks that were most important to me, and you care a lot about how they respond,” he says.
Smith performed for a group he was unfamiliar with for the first time at the first Old West Days, a cowboy poetry gathering in Valentine, Neb. Since then, he has missed only one Old West Days in the last nineteen years. He says the people he continues to meet through that event are a huge encouragement for him.
Smith’s radio program came later. His father was a director for the farmer-rancher owned radio station KRVN. “He put a bug in some folks’ ears that they should make a place for cowboy poetry,” Smith says. “Jerry Bennett had the Sunday morning time slot and rounded up some cassette tapes; he did a great job of picking things out. When he started spending winters down south, Jerry Braugn carried on with the show; when he passed away I was given the chance to keep it going.”
Smith has since learned enough about the Internet and mp3s to make his show-which includes commentary as well as poetry-downloadable at his website.
Much has changed for Smith since that first poem and those early performances live and on the radio. He is now the author of a book “Ride Through Rhyme, 1995″ and three CDs “Early Riser, 1998; Stage of Life, 2001; and It’s Only Fair, 2009″. In 2010, he released his first DVD, “Caught in the Act,” showing a live performance he delivered at the Star Theatre in Curtis, Neb.
Smith refers to his local Nebraska performances as his “bread and butter.”
“The Nebraska shows really seem to work the best,” he says. “I can go and get back without a great deal of disruption to what is going on with my family and on the ranch. I really appreciate the folks. They have given me so many opportunities to entertain over the past nearly twenty years.”
During those twenty years, organizations in all but five of Nebraska’s 93 counties have invited Smith to perform.
Smith gets most of his material from what is going on at the ranch. Some of the material is inspired by his family. He says this gives his work an authenticity and down-to-earth quality that strikes a familiar chord with audiences. He describes his work as “historical fictionŠ embellished for accuracy.”
“I usually work off of an experience that I have had on the ranch and try to shape it into something that others might find interestingŠ I enjoy playing around with rhyme patterns and especially enjoy an interior rhyme pattern that was often used by Robert Service. They take more work to write and if you lose your place while reciting them they are tougher to recover from, but it sounds really good when they work.”
Smith also spends a lot of time reading other poets. “Lately, I have been reading more on grass and cattle management than I have of poetry,” he admits. “I did receive a book from a cousin for Christmas that has some poetry written in the late eighteen-hundreds and early nineteen-hundreds that has been interesting. I usually do some swapping with other poets at a few gatherings each year, either books or CDs. So I get to see and hear quite a bit of what is being written at the grass roots.”
Smith says he pulls out South Dakota poet Elizabeth Ebert when he really wants to see how cowboy poetry should be written.
Smith’s faith in God is another inspiration for his poetry: “I try to have my mind opened up to where if the Lord has something he would like me to say, I’m ready to listen.” A fourth generation rancher, Smith is at work on the ranch year round-in the winter trying to figure out how to get the cows fed and the ice broke while he is away at performances, and in the summer fencing, moving cattle and irrigating. He says any day he can go without turning a key or starting an engine is a day he considers good.
A passion for working with livestock figures as strongly in Smith’s poetry as his faith in God. His favorite poem is “Song That Has No Tune,” which ties together various elements of the calving season and credits God for what he describes as “the blessing allowing me to be in the lines of work that I am in, ranching and performing.”
Sometimes, the farther away Smith lives from the performance the better prepared he is. He says the crowd also plays a role in how a performance shapes out.
“I try to take into consideration the group that I am speaking to. I do not necessarily try to tell them what I think they want to hear; I try to tie in stories and poems that might encourage the audience, and to make a connection between what I do and the lives they lead. There are times that I might be the only rancher that some of these folks ever met. I try to do a good job as an agricultural ambassador, and as an ambassador for the Lord.”
When it comes to performing, Smith strives for a balance of humor and reflection in his presentations. “Sometimes,” he says “I hit it better than others.”
Smith and his wife graduated from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (then the University of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture) in 1980. He is often asked to speak with NCTA students about writing and performing poetry. Some of the students want to know what it takes to become a poet. He tells them to work at becoming observant, to listen closely to the elements around them and to have fun putting the words together.
“A poem might only really mean anything to a very limited number of people,” he says. “If a piece means something to just one person, even if that person is the author, there is value in writing it down. If a person only writes what he thinks will get a laugh from an audience, it might tend to get a bit shallow or go in a direction that you really do not want to go.”
Smith advises beginning poets not to underestimate the ability of the listener to understand what the poet is trying to say. “Don’t sell the listener short. But if you are speaking to a group that is not familiar with your craft, you do not want them blindly charging the other direction the next time they hear the words ‘Cowboy Poet.’”
Smith also tries to make the point when talking to young people that the time they spend improving their public speaking skills will serve them well regardless of what career they go into.
Currently, Smith is planning performances at NCTA in Curtis, Neb., in March and at a chamber of commerce banquet hosted by the Curtis State Bank in April.
Song That Has No Tune
By R.P. Smith
An alarm sounds inside my head;
I force myself from a warm dry bed,
With a lantern to guide my site
I stumble into the frigid night.
The snow raises its voice to complain,
As if my footsteps cause it pain,
I hope all is well and I’ll be back soon,
My steps sound an introduction,
To the song that has no tune.
Very few men get the chance
To take a night check on the ranch,
A Horned Owl spreads its wings in flight,
Casts shadow on the snow so bright,
I say “It’s me” when he questions who,
And then he asks me, “Who are you?”
From a new perch he will croon
His verse in the song that has no tune.
The coyotes sing without refrain,
A haunting chorus of pleasure and pain,
The damsels’ whistle, their suitors’ fight,
Their voices rise into the night
With neither base nor treble clef;
I praise my Lord that I’m not deaf.
Beneath star filled sky and crescent moon,
They sing the chorus of the song that has no tune.
The heifer is alarmed by her offspring’s birth;
She jumps to her feet to prove her worth,
Tries to warm the calf with her hot breath,
He must rise soon to ward off death,
Now she dries it with her tongue,
And hums a song of encouragement to her young,
The calf is on its feet and nursing soon,
Providing rhythm for the song that has no tune.
The cold night air it stings my face;
Cold tries to stop time in its place,
I pause and wonder if I know,
Is this now or a hundred years ago?
This song sung as sung for centuries before,
I listen as I walk once more,
Reappearing like the land of Brigadoon,
This ancient song that has no tune
Some think the life I talk to is past,
I assure you friends; I’m not the last,
To herd the stock that graze God’s earth.
It was shepherds first told of His Son’s birth-
They were the first to tell the world
And on stockmen his blessings are still unfurled.
If our Savior tarries, though I believe He’s coming soon,
Stockmen a thousand years from now will know
The song that has no tune.