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Ian Tyson, Jerry Ambler, Cowboy Legends

Ian Tyson (left), Paul Zarzyski, Producer Gordon Stevens, Singer-Songwriter Wylie Gustafson—Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Even after attending 33 of the 35 annual National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings in Elko, Nevada—my cowpoke mecca, my city of riches, responsible for the bulk of the gold-bullion heft in my strongbox of otherworldly encounters of the poetic kind—I marvel still at my continued good-fortune there. In 2019 (the 35th Anniversary) during a late-night Ian Tyson Tribute Show, orchestrated by troubadour-guitar maestro, Mike Beck, there I stood on the main stage again, on the receiving end of the Gathering’s Mysterious Gifts. The format of the event was straight-forward: A dozen or so of Ian’s friends—Mike, Corb Lund, Gary McMahan, Bren Hill, R.W. Hampton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Stamey, Michael Martin Murphy, David Wilkie, Denise Withnell, et al. (the Who’s Who of cowboy singer-songwriters)—each delivering one of their favorite Tyson hits, with two exceptions, poets Ross Knox and myself, neither of us guitar-players or capable of carrying a tune in a 5-gallon feed bucket. Ross had the good sense, however, to choreograph, with the talented Trinity Seely as his accompanist, a spoken-word presentation of a Tyson song written with, and about, Ross, “I Outgrew The Wagon,” which worked beautifully. I thus became the maverick among the star-studded musician cast, the only presenter who took the stage sans a stringed instrument and sporting only a couple of typed pages of “naked” narrative that I introduced as a paean or testimonial to the power of song—in this case, a song titled “Jerry Ambler” that Ian and I had co-written:



“One of the great honors of my 33-year National Cowboy Poetry Gathering tenure is having co-written a trio of lyrics with Ian, one in particular accompanied by a story that imbues the power of song with truth, to its utmost magnitude:


In the early 1990s while driving to Santa Fe, I crossed trails with an old rodeo cowboy, Tex Smith, in Dillon, Montana. When Tex caught wind that Liz and I were going through Monticello, Utah, he asked if we’d stop by the cemetery and let him know if we could find the gravesite of Jerry Ambler, who was killed in a car wreck outside of town there in 1958. Tex and a bunch of fellow roughstock riders had passed the hat when they heard that Jerry had been buried without a grave marker and, after sending the money to the mortuary, never found out if a stone had been erected. After a fashion, we located the gravesite, complete with a simple, but gorgeous marker that reads:


Jerry Ambler—World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider, 1946


As the story goes, he had died broke.  I had keep-saked for some time in the coin pocket of my Wranglers a Kennedy half-dollar, which I thumbed into the ground just to the front of the marker’s base. 


Liz and I have since stopped there often over the years on our way to New Mexico and usually are surprised by mementos left behind by other visitors, thanks to Ian’s song—no pilgrimages more poignant, more soulful, however, than that of a mother and father enduring the deepest sorrow parents know. I’ll keep their names private tonight, but in the spring of 2008, I found the following message on my answering machine, and I quote:


“Paul? This is Joyce…. I’m from Cody, Wyoming. And we’re down by Monticello, Utah.  And we lost our son in a car accident. He was a saddle bronc rider. And we want to visit the place that you wrote the poem that Ian Tyson sings.  And we’re not exactly sure where it is, but we’re on our way there to visit the site, because we think our son wants to talk to us from there.”


I was home to answer the phone several weeks later when Joyce’s husband called. Bill told me that his son, Cort, was killed on Halloween night, 2007. He recounted how he had been drawn again and again back to the crash site outside of Cody—7 miles up South Fork—in search of something, anything, to offer some solace, some sign or answer. One Sunday morning, in the spring of 2008,  after seeing a father and his young son fishing together, the beckoning became stronger than ever, and this time, while walking the same ground he had previously walked numerous times, Bill’s eye caught something shiny sticking out of the mud—Ian Tyson’s Live at Longview CD, cracked and weathered, after being thrown from his son’s vehicle months earlier. He took it home, cleaned it the best he could and put it into the player.  “Jerry Ambler,” with Ian’s gracious tribute to me, which I’m guessing informed Joyce’s call, was one of the few audible tracks. Bill recounted how he’d placed his hand on Jerry’s marker and felt his son’s comforting words. And again, I quote: “I’m okay, Dad—don’t worry, Jerry’s taking care of me.” Bill then said to me, “It saved my life, Paul, and I want to thank you and Ian for writing that song.”

We closed the evening with a grand finale grander than any I have been honored to humbly take part in over my 4-decade stage career, as Corb Lund on guitar and Ian at a stage-left mic lead our “symphonic choir” in Ian’s masterpiece, “Four Strong Winds.”      


Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don't change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I'm bound for moving on
I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way.


(We’ll look for you, Ian, if we’re ever back this way….)

Photo by Willie Matthews

 "Jerry Ambler," written by Ian Tyson and Paul Zarzyski
erformed by Ian Tyson
Video by Lee Ray

For Sound Click Above


Flamenca Duende

From 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview (“5 Rounds with 1

Paul Zarzyski”)—Bangtail Press, 2011


If you’re up for it, I’d love to open Round 4 with a “triggering subject” scenario....


I lived outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico for a bit in the late 1980s—culture-shock, to say the least, for someone beamed-up out of the Midwest with a long layover in Montana. But I love the landscape, love the people, and especially love the food. I experienced a good number of firsts there, among them my first encounter with flamenco, performed by artist Maria Benitez. I was still riding a few broncs, and felt a distinct kinship between Maria’s passionate pursuit for the dance-perfected and that of the bucking horse twister. Her performance—the electricity, the panache, the verve, the moxie, the élan, the ardor, the disciplined tempestuousness, the grit, the soulful downpour of two-hundred-proof passion—flipped the switches on my epinephrine pumps to full-tilt. I absorbed the dance—one stomped foot and handclap per pore—into my deepest being, where it has taken up residence for life. Months later, back in Montana and living in that hundred-year-old ranch house, Maria’s dance rose to the surface, busted through the cold and ice and into the warmth of the room, where I sat two feet from the wood stove and worked up the first draft of “Flamenca Duende.” The title arrived much later, after poet-friend Gary Thompson cued me to a Federico Garcia Lorca essay from which I plucked the epigraph, the springboard into the poem:


                                       “The duende is a power, not a work;

                                        it is a struggle, not a thought . . . ,

                                        not a question of ability, but of true,

                                        living style, of blood, of the most

                                        ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…

                                        It is, in sum, the spirit of the earth.”



                                                      Maria Benitez
















                               Flamenca Duende


                                          Not just any hot Latin blood, but the fiery

                                          blood of Maria Benitez—her heart’s

                                          whole voltage into each muscle, perfect

                                          choreography of the body’s troupe,

                                          500 strong—is not just any passion

                                          put passion a-horseback

                                          full-gallop with gut-stringed, cypress guitars

                                          to the stampede of hand clap, castanets,

                                          laughter and tragic Andalusian wail

                                          cracking the night like lightning

                                          striking Gypsy moons afire.


                                          Into this flamenca’s dance goes the faith

                                          of all saints, one poet’s soul, vaquero savvy

                                          and toreador grit, predator

                                          frenzy at the taste of blood, plus a shot

                                          of erotica, rage, and mother love.

                                          When the blur of feet mesmerizes me—

                                          holds me in the black bonds between stars—

                                          I miss the gait of her eyes,

                                          and when I follow her face, chin poised

                                          for passage into the meteor storm of rhythms,

                                          I miss the aerial steps of one hand. Yet,

                                          when I focus on that flight,

                                          the mate solos out of the frame—

                                          impossible to track a duet

                                          of acrobatic toucans through a tropical

                                          canopy’s kaleidoscopic dance.


                                          But the Spanish, heir to that grace,

                                          cheer her on: "Olé! Maria! Olé!"

                                          and the ruffled grouse drumming

                                          accelerates to cicada chirr, that chain

                                          reaction of ricochets

                                          rippling through the train of her gown,

                                          through her shawl’s foot-long fringes

                                          flailing wild as hot wires

                                          in a gale. As she pivots

                                          finger-snap fast, an earring

                                          whiplashed to the stage

                                          flickers to life, ignited

                                          by the charge of its atoms dancing—

                                          dancing to the pulse of passion’s lithe flame

                                          burning for Maria

                                          from the molten center of the earth—dancing,

                                          that gold earring dancing, ‘til it too burns.



So is the poem’s intent to harness the essence of Maria’s passion conveyed through her dance?


Don’t ask me. Ask the poem. As did “The Hand,” it wrote most of it itself, without much direction from me. I have yet another postscript, however. I saw Maria dance again in 1997. I did so with heavy trepidation. What if my response this time was less pronounced or, far worse, what if it was every bit as profound but made the poem seem anemic? Call Me Lucky, to echo the title of my first chapbook, because the power of her dance had not diminished and—I swear this truth on my sacred Smith-Corona Silent-Super typewriter—I came away not wanting to alter a single image or syllable. For a perpetual, punctilious tweaker such as myself, the odds against this are colossal. I spoke with Maria after her performance and she told me that as a young girl she and her mother had lived in Montana for awhile—on one of the Indian Reservations, I believe she said.  Try to convince me that “Flamenca Duende” isn’t a “cowboy poem.”


And then there’s your song lyric companion piece, “Maria Benitez,” which singer-songwriter John Hollis put a melody to and recorded. You’d agree that, thematically, it’s more of a cowboy song than “Flamenca Duende” is a cowboy poem?


I wrote the lyric long after the poem, and seem to recall consciously focusing on that bucking hoss-twister flamenca-dancer kinship I mentioned. The poem chose not to address that—at least not directly—and I trusted the poem’s instinct to veer wherever it needed to veer, as well as my instinct to hitch a ride, sans reins. Rendering the lyric, I took more control—albeit control with a hackamore rather than with the potentially, in the wrong hands, more severe spade bit. I just this instant realized how I’m prone to leveraging some control with the lyric, whereas, to the contrary, I’ve seldom used anything more than a halter and a buck rein with my poetry. I’m partial to giving the poem its head and trying to stick with it through every acrobatic literati-lariati trick or contorted feat it throws at me. All Equus caballus metaphors aside, John Hollis was the first musician to field my neophyte attempts at songwriting. He sent me a demo cassette, and I’ll never forget the elation as I listened for the first time to a musician’s melodic interpretation of my lyric narrative. John augmented the chorus with some Spanish, and created a beautiful lilt. Tom Perlman, Jean Prescott, and Justin Bishop of Horse Sense also cut “Maria Benitez,” which, as you suggest, most definitely is more of a cowboy story—much varied from the original poem, focusing purely on Maria, on the dance, in a more ethereal, universal vein.

Photo by Lois Greenfield

Written and Performed by Paul Zarzyski
         Video Credit:  Sande De Salles



Valentine’s Day Love & The Possibilities Thereof




It is dishonest, if not impossible, to express true love on Valentine’s Day to fellow human beings without first loving the Earth who graces us, as well as our loved ones, with life—in the very same breath, in fact, in which She graces with life all beings with whom we inhabit this glorious orb.


With this spiritual sentiment from Paul in mind, we invite you to engage a trio of poems in celebration of the most honest love—that of all miscellanies, medleys, and mélanges across all of Earth’s musical species.


Feeding the Creatures I Used to Eat




Long-stemmed roses, slow romantic kiss, sweet

dark chocolates in heart-shaped boxes,

Hallmark cards we call “valentines”

mean nothing to cottontails and prairie chickens

hunched, headless and mottled,

motionless as cantaloupes

in a minus 25 February 14th dawn

outside my kitchen window. They are waiting,

I am finally free enough to believe, for me

to flail, fistful after fistful,

their daily pail of grain. Each golden toss aloft

peppers the sheet of fresh snow

like lead shot-gunned into freezer wrap

to test-pattern the deadliness

of the full choke’s spread. How many

lovers today will consummate love

with sumptuous meals of flesh

turned euphemistically into “New York strips,

medallions, chateaubriand, provençale, fine

cuisine” long after the last loving drop

drips from the jugular. Guilt, sentiment, intimacy—

bone, blood, muscle—is what moves me,

still in slippers and shirt sleeves,

before coffee, juice, oatmeal and toast,

through the porch door—one step,

one breath, one hundred degrees colder. Stricken

instantaneously naked as Cupid

pink and unarmed in this flurry of birds,

this scamper of rabbits, this quiver

of little red hearts, I am wild, alive, in love.

Zarzyski Dictum # 113


When women-of-wisdom rule this world—“this world,” best defined as our life-giving Mother Earth—then She, feeling illuminated by Her sisterhood rulers nurturing truth and munificence rather than deceit and greed, just might continue to welcome us onto her cornucopious home for another eon or so in addition to the four or five eons She’s already oh-so-patiently awaited this eventual evolution of the human soul.


The Garnet Moon

Written and Preformed by Paul Zarzyski
        Video Credit:  Sande De Salles


                            The Christmas Saguaro Soirée

           Written by Paul Zarzyski
         Performed by Betsy Hagar

     Video Credit:  Sande De Salles


Las Ballenas de Bahia Magdalena ~ I Believe





The gray whales, as we speak, are giving birth in the March waters of Baja’s Magdalena Bay and hoping—yes, “hoping”—to introduce their newborns to friendly interactions with other intelligent species. At least during this one microcosmic scenario, we humans wisely abide the peaceful wishes of our kindred earthly beings. Liz and I experienced this soulful encounter in the late 1980s, and to this day deem it one of our most spiritual moments.


Flash forward to a 2004 recording-studio session during which the producers and I heeded a Musical-Universe cue highlighting two of my poems—Las Ballenas de Bahia Magdalena and I Believe—as manifesting a synergy echoing deep from within their chromosomes. The “soundtrack” we created back then gives voice to the video that follows—the result of poetic, sonic, and visual journeys into the nexus, the connective tissue, between these two works.


We send this posting out in honor of U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, soon to be sworn in as the first woman and, far beyond that long-overdue distinction, the first, First Peoples woman (a 35th generation “American!”) to hold the position of Secretary of the Interior. And what better timing for her confirmation than in the midst of Women’s History Month? May Secretary Haaland’s vision and wisdom, during this extremely crucial time for our precarious planet, guide us toward taking whatever Big-Medicine, critical-crossroads measures needed to save all inhabitants of this orb from further degradation and/or extinction.


                 Paul Zarzyski, March 7, 2021

Written and Performed by Paul Zarzsyki
         Video Credit:  Sande De Salles

"Why I Like Butte" 




Written and Performed by Paul Zarzyski

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko

"The Mistress, The Maestro"

Written and Performed by Paul Zarzyski 

(Video courtesy KNPB-TV)

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV

"Ain't No Life After Rodeo" and "Rodeo to the Bone"


Written by Paul Zarzyski

Video Performance:  Paul Zarzyski and Wylie Gustafson

CD:  Steering With My Knees

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV

"Why I Like Butte" [video #2]

                                                                            Tap Music Notes Above For Sound


Written by Paul Zarzyski

CD:  Steering With My Knees

Video Credit:  Lee Ray

         To See Additional Paul Zarzyski Performance                                        Videos, Please Visit


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