“This is my first rodeo,” said Angel Mercier, on stage and introducing the first of many to perform at Johnson County Community College’s Kansas Cowboy Jubilee.
Mercier is the program director of the JCCC Performing Arts Series, which spearheaded the event with the school’s Kansas Studies Institute in an effort to spur interest in the state’s cowboy culture. With community support from Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site and other local groups, the jubilee on Saturday drew educators, musicians, poets and professional cowboys to promote the vocational and artistic traditions of the rural Midwest.
“It’s about connecting our community to Kansas,” Mercier said.
Performers took to two stages and included Marty Tipton, a trick roper and fourth generation Wild West entertainer, who talked of his time in the 82nd Airborne, his two daughters, and distant relation to Will Rogers — all the while looping a lasso above his head, then around one boot and finally his entire body. Among other acts were Tallgrass Express, a string band fond of and familiar with the Flint Hills; and Prairie Rose Rangers, the four-piece house band at the Prairie Rose ranch in Benton, Kan.
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Organizers hope to make the jubilee an annual event.
More than 200 attended the daytime events and another 300 attended the evening performance by Hot Club of Cowtown, a folk group that formed (surprisingly) in New York City and has since toured with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and the U.S. State Department as musical ambassadors in several Middle Eastern countries.
Lectures by guest speakers and Kansas Studies Institute staff gave context to the customs and folklore shown on stage.
“If there is no market, there are no cowboys,” said Jay Antle in a talk on meat eating habits and the cattle economy.
Antle, executive director of the college’s sustainability center, discussed the cattle trade’s ties to health and wealth across a century of meat. American beef consumption rose substantially after World War II, a result of intensive farming methods, home refrigeration and the proliferation of fast-food restaurants.
Antle traced a steady incline between 1955, when McDonald’s was established, and 1968, when the 1000th restaurant opened. But since its peak in the mid ’70s, consumption has declined due to health initiatives, higher prices and a shrinking beef supply.
“We don’t get many opportunities to pair what we do in the performing arts with the academic side,” said Emily Behrmann, general manager for JCCC’s Performing Arts Series. “This was a great way to engage faculty on both sides.”
Behrmann said the event was also meant to bridge a different kind of gap — that between the community and its historic cowtown.
“Some of us may be disconnected from that way of living by a generation or two,” Behrmann said. “We’ve moved from farms and into cities. We’ve lost touch with what all this meant to the state of Kansas.”
Between performances, attendees roamed lobby exhibits that featured a stagecoach, saddles, bronze sculptures and paintings of sprawling skies.
Adelaide Everett of Shawnee twirled a red-speckled rope that she’d earned during an earlier onstage appearance with Tipton, the trick roper. She’d mastered six tricks so far of the 100 that Tipton recommended for her repertoire.
“I thought this would be boring, but it’s actually not,” Everett said with the charming authenticity of an 8-year-old.
Everett’s grandmother, Barbara Smith, whose husband teaches at JCCC, smiled and said: “I thought you’d like it.”
At one of the last daytime events, a small group gathered for a performance and songwriting session by Andy Wilkinson, an award-winning singer, songwriter, playwright and poet. Wilkinson is an artist in residence at the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University and also a visiting assistant professor in the School of Music.
Wilkinson taught the fundamentals of songwriting and performed several originals, recalling the times a song was formed from a single, spoken line. He urged the importance of the natural writing process over the finished product — in true cowboy custom.
“As a cowboy, you can’t control the deal — the wind or the rain,” Wilkinson said. “It’s about finding your place in the world, in relationships, and among natural processes.”