LEAD | Paul Larson isn't particularly interested in writing or playing "country" music.
"We don’t worry about if you lost your dog, your wife and your house," Larson said. "We’re more worried about embracing the land, family. It’s a lot more positive."
The "we" he's referring to are his fellow "cowboy musicians" and "cowboy poets," a niche genre of music and art that Larson said celebrates and relates to the western lifestyle.
"To some folks, it’s a novelty. But for those that ranch and live out here, it’s just embracing our way of life," he said. "Some of it’s real fun. Some of it’s real serious."
Novelty or no, it's proven to be popular in the Black Hills. That's why the Homestake Opera House in Lead created a new event, the Black Hills Great American Cowboy Music and Poetry Gathering on April 7 at the opera house. The event will feature daytime and evening sessions showcasing 15 well-known and regarded cowboy poets and musicians from a five-state region.
Tickets are $15 each for the daytime or evening sessions, or $25 for an all-day wristband. They are available by phone at 584-2067, online at HomestakeOperaHouse.org or at the door.
Sarah Carlson, executive director of the Homestake Opera House, said the event came from a growing demand in the community.
"We’ve found that that genre, mixed with the experience of this building, has been attracting more and more crowds," she said.
Events like the Black Hills Cowboy Christmas and the Black Hills Opry, both at the Homestake Opera House in Lead, have drawn strong crowds, she said. The 2017 Cowboy Christmas event sold out its matinee and evening shows in the venue, which seats 500 people. It's the first time both shows have sold out, so she said this year's event will add a third show.
She said venues like the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, a friend of the opera house, host cowboy music and entertainment year-round. And there are well-established cowboy poetry gatherings across the region, including the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. But the Black Hills didn't have one of its own.
"I think it’s been building for the last couple of years as our communities are looking to provide both the locals and the visitors a chance for festivals," she said. "It’s not that these are original ideas for these communities, it’s just being opening to listening to what your community needs and wants."
Larson, whose band Campfire Concerto will perform during the gathering, helped coordinate the new event, hand-picking the performers. He spoke highly of the lineup, which includes a mix of musicians and poets performing in two sessions.
The day session starts at noon, and features Robert Dennis and the Dennis family, Pegie Douglas, Brad and Bonnie Jo Exton, Jim Hamilton, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Roy and Marcia Kenobbie, Allen and Jill Kirkham, Chuck Larsen and Abby Carr Maginnis.
The evening show starts at 7 p.m. and features Almeda Bradshaw, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Chuck Larsen, Jim Hamilton and The Campfire Concerto, which is made up of Larson, Kenny Putnam and Boyd Bristow.
It's a two-hour show jam-packed with what Larson calls "cowboy-isms."
"I know that's a made-up word," he said with a chuckle. But the point remains: "No matter what time you come, you’re going to hear an hour or more of great performers," he said.
"In South Dakota, we don’t get a lot of credit for having a lot of talent, and so we’re going to showcase the talent that we have — and they’re all exceptional," he said.
A longtime rodeo competitor and judge, Larson started writing and performing cowboy music about 14 years ago. He lives outside Rochford next to Deerfield Lake, where his land overlooks Pe' Sla, a stretch of mostly prairie that is sacred to Native Americans.
He moved there about 16 years ago from southern Minnesota, seeking a change of pace.
"When I moved out here, I found that. I found that inner peace, exactly what I was looking for," he said.
It's that sense of connection — with the land, with family, with cattle and horses and a day spent working outside — that makes cowboy music and cowboy poetry powerful. And, he added, fun.
"When I write my music, the songs that I have written are all about South Dakota; they’re all about living in the Black Hills, in that particular area," he said. "It’s just good for your soul to sit on the porch and look out. It’s just celebrating this life that we live."
Cowboy poetry, in particular, he said is often overlooked. Some gatherings are focusing less on poetry and more on music, but Larson said he wanted poetry to get its chance to shine.
"We want this to be about being able to connect," he said. "This is poetry that will make your stomach hurt from laughing, it will make you cry all in the same poem."