Story by Ryan T. Bell/ Photography by Ross Hecox
West Texas horseman Joel Nelson reflects on the poetic life and how it feels to be a man who has willingly submitted to his muse.
On an unseasonably cool July morning in the Davis Mountains of southwest Texas, Joel Nelson drives through a pasture of Corriente cattle. He recently drilled a well in the pasture, so he’s checking to make sure that water is flowing properly before the heat of the day arrives to parch the cattle.
Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of the chore, but Nelson is in a pensive frame of mind. He recites a favorite quote by the poet Stanley Kunitz:
“If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.”
“Boy,” he says, “that nails what poetry means in about as few words as you could hope to get it said in.”
We pass another stock tank filled to the brim with the reflection of Texas sky.
I ask him what it takes to write a cowboy poem that does like Kunitz’s description.
“You must allow yourself the luxury of thinking deeply. To be a great artist, you have to submit to the muse.”
And that’s Joel Nelson in a nutshell: a man submitted to the muse. He’ll be going about the workday when an idea for a poem will command his attention. He’ll reach for the nearest writeable surface and jot it down.
“I’ve written poems on napkins, receipts, feedbags and envelopes. I’ve even written around and around a Styrofoam cup while pulled over on the side of the road.”
Put these scraps together and you have the collected works of one of the greatest living contemporary cowboy poets. The collage of his words would resemble the interior of his pickup truck this morning: a box of carriage bolts jingling on the dashboard, tattered work gloves stuffed into a cup holder, and a cardboard box on the floor crammed with a medley of plumbing, electrical and fencing supplies. They are the raw materials of ranch work, and the bearers of future poetry.
Nelson’s person, in contrast, is meticulously well kept. He wears a waterfall mustache that shrouds his mouth so that you don’t see his lips move; you just hear the words. His uniform is a stain-free pair of Levi 501 jeans, a black cowboy hat, and crisply ironed buttoned-up shirt.
“I like symmetry and balance,” he admits. “Like when I build a fence, it’s got to have five rails – not four. I want that center rail to look at and be drawn to.”
Joel Nelson has lived an odyssey of a life, crisscrossing the globe from Texas, to Vietnam, to Hawaii. He’s witnessed armed combat, the dawning of the natural horsemanship movement, and the rise of cowboy poetry as a popular folk art form. Along the way, he’s cowboyed on some of the most prestigious ranches in America.
He was born in 1945, in the north Texas town of Seymour. His parents, Grady and Margaret Nelson, ranched and farmed cotton on leased land in the area.
“My earliest memory is of my father carrying me in the saddle,” Nelson says. “I must’ve been three. He pointed at the ground and taught me to tell the difference between a cow and a horse track.”
Grady Nelson became the Deputy Sherriff of Baylor County, and the Nelson family moved into the jailhouse, where Joel lived from age seven until he graduated from high school. On a family vacation, the Nelson’s passed through southwest Texas. The climate of the Big Bend region made such an impression on Joel that he returned to attend Sul Ross State University in Alpine for one year while finishing a dual major degree in forestry and range management from Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches.
Not long after graduation, Joel was drafted and sent to Vietnam where he served in the 101st Airborne Infantry Division. But Nelson was no ordinary soldier. He voluntarily extended his tour and spent 14 months in the jungle. And he carried three books in his rucksack: Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, and Eric Hopper’s Passionate State of Mind. He read them repeatedly, jotting down notes and thoughts in the margins. Today the books hold a place of honor on his bookshelf.
He’s proud of the experience.
“I wouldn’t take five million dollars to let you obliterate Vietnam from my memory,” he says. “It gave me perspective, understanding, and a sense of patriotism. The war might be considered a fiasco, but it makes me feel like I was part of something meaningful.”
However, as it is with most soldiers, returning to civilian life was a challenge.
“I walked off the plane at Dallas Love Field, dressed in my Army greens and wearing what few medals I had won,” Nelson recalls. “Nobody would meet my eyes or say anything – they’d glance off. I thought, Why not turn around and go back to the bush where my buddies are?”
Instead, Nelson loaded into his pickup truck and drove to the only place that felt like home: Alpine.
“The 06 Ranch was hiring their fall roundup crew and I hired on,” he says. “Two of the guys working on the ranch had also just gotten back from Vietnam, and we could relate to one another. I was so darn weak from a relapse of malaria that I couldn’t have popped a paper sack. But I got stronger while we were on that roundup. It felt so good to get back in the saddle. I started feeling human again.”
Nelson worked on the 06 Ranch for the next 13 years. In 1982, the ranch’s cutting horse trainer, Jack Phariss, invited him to a Ray Hunt clinic in Dublin, Texas.
“At the time, I thought I was a pretty good horseman. But I was hungry to learn more about my craft. I had read Ed Connell’s books Hackamore Reinsman and Reinsman of the West, and I knew Ray Hunt came from that Californio style of horsemanship, so I went.”
The clinic was a defining moment in Joel Nelson’s career as a cowboy – although more for his failures than his successes.
“Ray didn’t tolerate somebody who had an attitude,” he says. “He must’ve picked up on the fact that I was too proud of myself at the time. I took a tight filly to the clinic. Ray had us riding in the arena without anything on the horse’s head, just loose. That felt pretty awkward. Then Ray rode behind me and got his flag under my filly’s tail. She swallowed her head and bucked me off right there in front of everybody. That hurt my pride, but it was good because it humbled me.
“But I was so impressed with the horse he rode, a sorrel, streak-faced horse called Barry, that I thought if a fella can get a horse to do all that after just two or three months, whatever Ray’s got, I want it.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Ray Hunt, and a turning point in Nelson’s career as a horse trainer. The coming decade saw him become a nationally horse trainer from Texas to Hawaii, and everywhere in between. But first, he took a detour through the town of Elko, Nevada.
“I’ve loved poetry ever since I was a kid,” Nelson says. “I like the way the words flow, the meter and the rhyme. It’s fascinating to me.”
Nelson wasn’t aware that “cowboy poetry” existed when he was young. Rather, he was enthralled by the classics, like Emily Dickinson, Robert W. Service and Edgar Allen Poe. In college, he discovered the works of S. Omar Barker and Bruce Kiskaddon and was moved to see his two great passions, poetry and cowboy life, merged.
“There’s rhythm and meter to everything when you work outside,” Nelson reflects. ”Trotting across a grassy flat, working cattle, the day-to-day changes of the seasons; they all have a poetic cadence.”
Unbeknownst to him, while he was trying his hand at cowboy poetry during the 1970s and early 80s, a national movement was underway to recognize cowboy poetry as a legitimate folk genre. The first-ever Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Elko, Nevada, in January 1985. Nelson saw the event advertised in Western Horseman, but didn’t go. The next summer, Texas folklorist Pat Jasper traveled through Alpine and heard Nelson recite his poetry. Nelson was invited to perform at the second Elko gathering in 1986, and he’s been a mainstay at the event ever since.
In the 1990s, Nelson’s career as a poet and a horseman took off. He juggled stints working for the Parker Ranch in Hawaii and the King Ranch in Texas, with invites to recite poetry at gatherings cropping up from California to Colorado.
“I met most of my really close friends through the poetry gatherings,” Nelson says. “When I hired the roundup crews for the 06 Ranch, I invited guys like Ross Knox, Gail Steiger and H.A. Moore to come out and work with me. We formed a double bond through the horses and the poetry.”
Another of those horseman-poet friends is Montana cowboy Randy Rieman.
“In the 20 years I’ve known Joel, his poetry has matured more than any cowboy poet I know,” Rieman says.
The two worked together in 1997 on Hawaii’s Parker Ranch, where they started 45 colts under saddle and halter broke another 120 yearlings. During that stint, Rieman recalls a morning when Nelson arrived late to the breaking pens.
“I would have been here earlier,” Nelson apologized, “but I had a poem rattling around in my mind. I had to pull over on the side of the road and write it down before the words left me.”
Nelson then recited a rough draft version of “The Men Who Ride No More,” a poem he would record on his Grammy-nominated album, Breaker In the Pen.
“Bronc to Breakfast” calendars hang fading on the walls,
There’s a lost and aimless wandering through the corridors and halls,
Of slippered feet that shuffle on a waxed and polished floor,
And vacant stares of emptiness from the men who ride no more.
As a witness to the poem’s birth, Rieman is fond of it and often recites “The Men Who Ride No More” during his own poetry performances. Joel remembers hearing Rieman recite it for the first time.
“I didn’t know that Randy had memorized anything I had written. He took the liberty of repeating the first stanza at the end of the poem. I sat there with my mouth open and thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ It was a rewarding expression of friendship.”
Today, Joel Nelson is an entrepreneur in the cattle business. He, wife Sylvia Nelson, and their partner, Arnold Witte, of Hillside, New Jersey, lease several pieces of rangeland where they run about 450 head of cattle.
We drive up to another of their leased properties where some holdover cattle from a roundup the other day need gathered. Sylvia meets us there with three saddle horses. She’s an attractive woman, with a sharp sense of humor that she enjoys leveling at Joel, whom she refers to affectionately as “Mr. Nelson.” For example, when I ask Joel a question he’s not sure about, Sylvia says:
“Now you’ve done it. We won’t hear a word out of Mr. Nelson for the next half hour while he thinks about it.”
Joel and Sylvia met in 1994 when she traveled from northeast Iowa to Alpine, Texas, to attend “Horsemanship on the Rocks,” a program held on the 06 Ranch. Joel was hired to take the participants riding.
“I recited my poem ‘Equus Caballus’ in appreciation of the horse, which is what had brought us all together that day,” he says.
I have run on middle fingernail through Eolithic morning,
I have thundered down the coach road with the Revolution’s warning.
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail.
I have strained before the caissons I have moved the nation’s mail.
“During the ride I watched how Sylvia rode and how she interacted with people. I was impressed by the amount of life in her.”
They met again the following year, when Sylvia returned for another “Horsemanship on the Rocks” program. The Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering was underway in Alpine, and she attended Joel’s performance. Afterwards, she asked him for a copy of a poem she particularly liked. Nelson doesn’t keep printed copies of his work, so he offered to write it down from memory. After chatting her up for several minutes while he wrote it, Joel stopped and confessed:
“I’m guilty of stringing this out because I’m enjoying sitting here talking with you so much,” Nelson said.
“You think I don’t know that?” Sylvia responded.
They became friends and finally married in 2006.
We find the remnant cattle hunkered down in the shade of a brush thicket. Joel signals for Sylvia to pressure them from the rear. He rides flank, poised to get out in front of the cattle once they’re on the move.
“I handle cattle with the same philosophy that I learned from Ray Hunt about horses,” he explains later. “If the cattle want to hit a run or a trot, we ride along in front of them until they slow down on their own. They never know they could get away from a horseman. So they never try.”
Joel headman’s the small herd into the corrals where another pillar of his stockmanship philosophy takes place.
“We pen cattle going in one gate and out the opposite end. That way they get to thinking that the way out of a pen is to go through it.” He adds, “It keeps their mental attitude fresher, and they’re not as likely to ball up and turn around at the gate.”
Joel and Sylvia ride quarter horses that they raised and trained. The geldings savvy cattle and handle in a smooth and collected manner.
“Some guys consider the horse a tool to do the cattle work, but I consider the cattle a tool to make a good horse.”
We load the cattle and the horses into two stock trailers and drive out. As we travel down a washboarded dirt road, Joel tells me about the most recent accolade in his storied poetry career.
In 2009, he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an honor that came with a $25,000 award. The fellowship was created to honor individuals who have “made major contributions to the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts.”
A person can’t apply, they must be nominated. The Western Folklife Center staff in Elko nominated Nelson. They collected letters of recommendation from Randy Rieman, Gail Steigard, Wallace McRae, and Betty Ramsey (the late Buck Ramsey’s wife). It was a long shot that he’d win. An average of 10 artists are selected each year out of a large pool of nominees.
The nomination was meant to be a surprise, but Montana poet Wallace McRae spilled the beans.
“This is supposed to be under wraps,” he told Nelson, “but you’ve been nominated for an NEA fellowship. I’ve written a letter of recommendation and I want to send you a copy of it.”
Nelson guesses that McRae wanted him to have the letter no matter what the outcome of the nomination. And it wasn’t long before Rieman, Steigard and Ramsey sent their letters as well. It was an outpouring of friendship and support.
“I told Sylvia, ‘I don’t know what the chances are that I’ll win. But if I never hear another word from it, I’ve got these letters from my friends and they mean more to me than an award.’”
Joel Nelson won the fellowship, a testament to the value of his work as a folk artist. And that his friends couldn’t wait to give him their letters is evidence of his character and the way he’s impacted their lives. Nelson joined cowboy poets Buck Ramsey and Wallace McRae, and saddlemaker Dale Harwood, as the lone Westerners inducted into the National Heritage Fellowship.
We arrive at the pasture where the cattle are to be turned out. We could just open the trailer gate and say “git,” But Joel wants to ride with the cattle awhile and see them settled in their new environment.
We move the cattle to a stock tank. Joel rides up to the trough and lets his horse drink. He hovers over the water’s reflection of the Texas sky, and it brings to mind something I’d heard Nelson say before: ”The horse elevates us. Not just in altitude, but to a higher level of being. Without the horse, there wouldn’t be cowboys. And without cowboys, there wouldn’t be cowboy poetry.”
Deep words from a horseman and a poet, telling the story of what it’s like to be alive as a cowboy during the long odyssey of the race.
Listen to Joel Nelson perform the poem “High Flight” set to a slideshow of photographs by Western Horseman editor Ross Hecox.