Belinda Gail has been a popular draw at the annul Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival held in downtown Monterey.
Belinda Gail has been a popular draw at the annul Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival held in downtown Monterey.

One wouldn't necessarily think of Monterey as being the center of cowboy culture, but for the past 14 years the Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival has been bringing in the best and the brightest of those two Western genres.

And it's not as if Monterey County is completely bereft of cowboy culture, it is, after all, an important agricultural area with a long, rich history of farming and ranching.

"From my vantage point, it's some of the most premiere horse country in the entire West," said renowned cowboy poet Paul Zarzyski, in a quick phone call from his ranch outside Great Falls, Mont. "I know the Dorrance brothers, Tom and Bill Dorrance, who are the maestros of horse handlers, made camp in your country for years and years and their family is still working horses. I get a feel that a lot of the best cowboys and horsemen have done at least a tour of duty in that country. If you go back you'll find the foundation is stronger than you'd think."

Plus Zarzyski is a fan of the music history of Monterey — he said he'd love to take a time machine back to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival: "We're going to do our best to channel Janis and Jimi and The Who and Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar, if not the music specifically, then their soulfulness."

Zarzyski said he's even written a poem in honor of Dylan in his new book of poetry, "51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics and 1 Self-Interview," called "Bob Dylan Bronc Song."

"I'm a fan of singer-songwriters across the spectrum. I think Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are up there on the pinnacle.



As for this year's lineup of performer for the Monterey festival, Zarzyski said he was "astonished" when he looked at the schedule online.

"Most of the celebrities from our tribe are going to be there," he said. "It's a star-studded cast of poets and singer-songwriters."

And Zarzyski is quick to praise the organizers, board members and volunteers of this festival; "I don't say this lightly, but they're the true celebrities. They work so hard to make this event happen and for no pay.

The Sons of the San Joaquin return to the Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival with group and solo performances this weekend.
The Sons of the San Joaquin return to the Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival with group and solo performances this weekend.
They do it for the sheer love of the culture of the cowboy West. That was part of my enthusiasm for going back to Monterey again and again."

According to Dee Dee Garcia White, president of the festival, it's not just the cowboy poets and musicians that draw folks from near and far.

"It's the appeal of Monterey, it's so beautiful," she said. "They want to see Fisherman's Wharf and Carmel and Cannery Row. That's why they come two or three days ahead of time, they want to see what all the talk is about."

And unlike larger such festivals — she cited the biggest and most popular in the land, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. — the Monterey festival is self-contained and more convenient.

"It's sort of unique because everything is inside and it's convenient because everything is all in one place, unlike Elko, where you have to drive to the various venues. Plus, it looks like rain this weekend, so people never have to leave (the hotel grounds). And, the Western art show and marketplace is free to the public, so everyone can do their holiday shopping there."

In addition to Zarzyski, 2012 festival performers includes Juni Fisher, Waddie Mitchell, Sons of the San Joaquin, Marian DiCicco, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Ed Peekeekoot, Dave Stamey, Brenn Hill, Gary Allegretto, Wally McRae, The Old West Trio, Kent Rollins, Belinda Gail, Carolyn Martin and Adrian. Allegretto will also host a harmonica workshop on Sunday afternoon.

Allegretto, an award-winning "Harmonicowboy," teaches beginners ages 5 and up to play four Western songs instantly — guaranteed. No musical experience is necessary, nor is a harmonica because the workshop includes a harmonica, musical booklet and the teaching session for $20 per person. Reservations recommended at

As for what she is personally looking forward to this year, Garcia White was quick to respond: "I like the songwriters, because it's just so off the cuff. They play a lot with each other and they're all fantastic songwriters."

"Songwriters at Their Best" is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, is hosted by Zarzyski and features Stamey, Fisher (both national award-winning songwriters), Jack Hannah of the popular cowboy trio Sons of the San Joaquin and Hill.

In addition to the poetry and music shows, the festival presents a jam session on Friday night, a Saturday night dance (back by popular demand), a Vaquero Breakfast Saturday morning, a silent auction and a special Sunday morning Cowboy Church, which benefits The Salvation Army and features many of the top performers of the weekend.

Added this year is a Friday night kickoff barbecue in which ticketholders can meet and mingle with many of the festival's artists. Cost for the barbecue, set for 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday, just prior to the start of the festival, is $20.

The Saturday Night Dance, set for 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the De Anza Ballroom at the Portola Plaza, features the Carolyn Martin Swing Band and the Saddle Cats. Also $20 per person.

The free Friday night jam session allows fans to play with some of their favorite festival performers — if they bring their own instruments.

Another componenent of the festival that draws attendees is the The Cowboy Art & Western Marketplace, which features more than two dozen artisans that offer a wide variety of items, including Western art, photography and books, clothing (hats, jewelry, handmade boots, belts, purses, jackets, etc.), custom and antique saddles, Navajo blankets, antique bits and spurs and more.

During the school year, as part of the "Cowboys in the Schools" program, volunteers work with local educators to introduce the concept of cowboy culture and the influence of the vaquero to a diverse group of elementary school students. The program presented a special educational event in September at the Carmel Valley Trail and Saddle Club for hundreds of visiting schoolchildren.

Mac McDonald can be reached at GO!

What: 14th Annual Monterey Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival and Cowboy Art & Western Marketplace
Where: Monterey Conference Center, 1 Portola Plaza, Monterey
When: Friday, Nov. 30-Sunday, Dec. 2
Tickets: Ranging from $20-$35, available at