Rhymin' on the Range

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I'm back in the saddle again

Out where a friend is a friend . . ."

*

If you found yourself humming along with that line, take a deep seat and a long rein and ride out to Melody Ranch, the former home of Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy. This weekend, the old homestead will be the site of Santa Clarita's Fifth Annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.

For a $6 admission fee, you can enjoy a nostalgic visit to the Old West that many of us first learned to love in the Republic film features starring Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix.

Melody Ranch is, as it has been all these years, a movie studio--CBS' "The Magnificent Seven" films weekly TV episodes there--but it feels as much like a ghost town as Rhyolite, Bullfrog or Tuscarora, former Nevada mining communities. The ghosts of some of our most beloved cowboy heroes seem to lurk in the shadows of the familiar buildings.

Truth be told, however, the schoolhouse and the saloon and the jail aren't quite the ones you remember from the Autry movies. Paul Veluzat, whose family bought the property in 1990, explained that the outdoor set burned down in 1962 and was reconstructed from photographs. The lumber was carefully painted and weathered to look as if it had been left from the last century.

So this weekend you can walk down the same street that Gary Cooper walked in "High Noon," past the hotel window from which Grace Kelly fired the final shot. You can peek into the sheriff's office, almost expecting Robert Mitchum to be sitting at the desk in a scene from "El Dorado." And surely Amanda Blake of "Gunsmoke" fame will any minute descend that staircase to the Long Branch bar.

The ghosts of the bad guys (or their doubles) fall from the balconies as you replay the gunfights of memory. But be careful where you place your boots--the horse droppings in the dirt street are recent, and real.

The festival was inspired by the Cowboy Poetry Gathering held annually since 1985 in Elko, Nev. The difference between the Elko poetry gathering and the Santa Clarita festival is one of real life versus reel life.

Elko lies about halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City, and its only excuse for existence is the railroad station that made it a trade center for 19th century miners and ranchers. Even today, the town doesn't consist of much more than a handful of hotels--with casinos and bars attached--and a rundown red-light district. (Prostitution is legal in some areas of Nevada.)

The Elko gathering is held the last weekend in January because there is usually so much snow on the ground that the ranches are effectively shut down. The poets and musicians don't look like Gene Autry, although some of them look like extras from a ranch house scene. The familiar hats are a little worse for the snow, and the boots are worn from work.

Besides music and poetry, the Elko gathering offers workshops in such useful decorative crafts as rawhide braiding and horsehair hitching. The event is described as "people visiting with others who care about the ranching way of life." It has also become an impressive tourist attraction.

Thus, these poets--working cowboy poets--have followed the lead of Will Rogers and Gene Autry and brought the show to Santa Clarita, with help from that city.

Some participants such as Red Steagall have worked both sides of the fence for years. Steagall has been a working cowboy and an actor playing a cowboy. According to festival organizer Michael Marks, Steagall lived in Santa Clarita from 1968 to 1973 and boarded his horses in stables next to Gene Autry's horse Champion. Steagall is one of the featured performers at this year's festival.

A more recent addition to the cowboy poetry circuit is a Santa Clarita resident. Michael Flemming organized the musical trio New West two years ago, and the group has won two awards: the Academy of Western Artists 1997 Will Rogers Award for Best Western Swing Song ("Sometimes This Old Cowboy Gets the Blues") and the 1997 Western Music Assn for Song of the Year ("Below the Kinney Rim"), co-written by Flemming and Les Buffham.

"We're kind of Sons of the Pioneers for the '90s," Flemming said. The rhymes may be a little more sophisticated--and the "flickering light" in the lyrics is as likely to refer to a television screen as a campfire--but the sound is the traditional acoustic guitar.

Flemming started his musical career playing folk music in the '70s. And then one night he went to a Don Edwards concert. "That blew me out of the water," Flemming said. "I realized what I wanted to write about--man, woman, nature, elements. I wanted to write with traditional people in mind."

The transition from folk to cowboy was an easy one. Flemming pointed out that many of the songs from the cattle drives were folk music, often Irish ballads with new words. "The melodies were neat," he said. "And even today, the coolest thing of all is, nobody's writing the rules. All you gotta do is write good songs."

Flemming and his partners in New West, Raul Reynoso and David Jackson, will perform Sunday evening with singer-songwriter Stephanie Davis.

Poetry readings and concerts aren't the only offerings. There will be displays of Western gear and other crafted objects, souvenir stands and food--authentic cowboy food, in case you have a hankering for barbecued tri tip and chili.

Several guided trail rides are scheduled, including one through Placerita Canyon, past the Oak of the Golden Dream, where gold was discovered in 1842. You need to bring your own horse for this one, but breakfast is included in the $35 ticket price.

The featured performers are all familiar names to any lover of contemporary cowboy lore--Baxter Black, Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, Red Steagall and Sons of the San Joaquin--but don't despair if you can't get tickets to see them. (Tickets for Don Edwards were gone two months ago.)

Three sites offering continuous performances by lesser-known artists are included in the price of admission, and drop-in appearances are as common here as at after-hours jazz joints. So even if you aren't bringing your horse, bring your banjo.

If you don't have a banjo, come anyway. Especially if you've ever wondered if maybe your real home was that one ol' Gene used to sing about--the one "where the skies are not cloudy all day." After El Nino, you'll be ready.

* Catherine Dain is the author of "Lament for a Dead Cowboy," a novel set at the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The book was nominated for a Shamus award by the Private Eye Writers of America. Her most recent book is "Dead Man's Hand."

BE THERE

Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival, Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, shuttle parking off 12th street in Santa Clarita. Friday's silent film event begins at 7 p.m., $25; Friday's Hart mansion event begins at 7:30 p.m., $75. Saturday festival hours, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $6, includes access to festival grounds, entertainment and shuttle service. Limited tickets to poetry events, $7-$14. (800) 305-0755.

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