Arts & Culture

'Don’t Fence Me In' celebrates America’s wide open spaces

Yahoo! yodeler Wylie Gustafson is one of several acts that will perform for 'Don't Fence Me In.'
Yahoo! yodeler Wylie Gustafson is one of several acts that will perform for 'Don't Fence Me In.'

Poet Paul Zarzyski can trace his love of America’s wide open spaces to childhood. He and his father would go on fishing trips in the hardwood forests of northern Wisconsin.

“I’d always ask, ‘Dad, what’s the name of that bird making that sound? Dad, what’s that tree with the shaggy bark?’ ” he recalled.

Home movies of his dad’s hunting trips out West fed his fascination further.

“You always had that footage of acowboy sitting on a hammerhead horse hand-rolling his cigarette,” Zarzyski said. “I knew as early as 11 or 12 that someday I’d make it my home.”

The poet shares his appreciation of the great outdoors in “Don’t Fence Me In: Songs, Music and Poetry of the American West,” March 1 at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts.

The show, produced by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, also features performances by Yahoo! yodeler Wylie Gustafson, Tex-Mex quartet Los Texmexicanos, Native American drumming group North Bear and western swing group The Quebe Sisters Band.

Sophia Quebe and her sisters, Grace and Hulda, found their calling as children watching a Texasstyle fiddling contest in Denton, Texas.

“We had never heard anything like that,” Quebe recalled. “We saw other kids up there competing and we were just really amazed by this style of music.”

Today, the Texas trio tours with guitarist Joey McKenzie and bassist Drew Phelps, sharing with the stage with the likes of Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. It was Skaggs who introduced the Quebe Sisters to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. “That was one of the coolest moments of our career — getting to do that for the first time,” said Quebe, adding that the band has played for President George W. Bush and performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“It’s cool that we’re getting to play music that’s traditionally based in the state we’ve grown up in,” Quebe said of the Fort Worthbased band, which plays a blend of bluegrass, country, jazz and western swing. “It’s a privilege in a way.” Unlike the Quebes, Zarzyski had to forge his own ties to the West.

After finishing his undergraduate studies in Wisconsin, he studied creative writing with poet Richard Hugo at the University of Montana, earning his master’s degree while working as a bareback rodeo rider.

“I was learning to write poetry and learning to ride bucking horses in the same breath for a few years,” recalled Zarzyski, a Montana resident since 1973. “Neither was very lucrative.” These days, poetry is his main profession. The recipient of the 2005 Governor’s Award for Literature , he’s published four spoken word albums and several poetry collections, including “All This Way for the Short Ride,” “Wolf Tracks on the Welcome Mat” and his latest book, “51: 30 Poems, 20 Songs & 1 Interview.”

Zarzyski has even branched out into song lyrics, collaborating with Ian Tyson, Tom Russell and other performers. He teamed up with tour mate Wylie Gustafson and producer John Carter Cash on the 2008 album “Hangn-Rattle!”

“It was a way for my words to be onstage without me having to be there with them,” he explained.

According to Zarzyski, “Don’t Fence Me In” celebrates a uniquely American genre exemplified by its “real soulful appreciation of nature and the wide open spaces.”

“It all begins with open spaces,” he said. “If you didn’t have those immense expanses of land on which these cattle graze and run, then you would have no need for the horse no need for the cowboys.

“It’s all about keeping things as free and open and undeveloped as possible.”