As the Sons of the San Joaquin’s deep, rich baritones harmonized to “Shenandoah,” BYU’s Philharmonic Orchestra responded, their melodramatic violins rising up louder than ever, drawing out the night’s climax. The ocean of cowboy hats in the Wasatch High School auditorium was transmogrified to a place where western tunes met classical music, creating a musical movement through the combination of distinct traditions. And it was during that concert that Brent and Mary Kelly — with tears in their eyes — knew they were part of something special.
It is fitting that these lifetime residents of the Heber Valley have played an integral part in building the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering — Brent as a longtime executive board member and Mary as the producer. Now in its 24th year, the annual event will take place Oct. 24-29, 2018, featuring Grammy Award-winning folk and country singer Suzy Bogguss alongside more than 30 other entertainers.
The Humble Beginnings
Brent and Mary both attended Wasatch High School but they never met until Brent returned from his LDS mission (though he joked that “she knew of me”). They finally connected in 1971 at BYU when she asked him for a ride home to Midway… to go on a date with another guy.
“We hit it off right away,” reminisced Mary. “We had a lot in common and got married the following year.” They raised their five kids on a charming plot in a house they built in 1974, just a block-and-a-half west of his childhood farmhouse in Midway.
Those formative years of marriage were full of hard work. Brent’s dad was a livestock dealer and dairy farmer and his passion carried over to Brent, who bought a livestock auction with his brother in 1978. For 31 years, Brent taught LDS Seminary while moonlighting on the weekends as an auctioneer and rodeo announcer.
“While other kids watched Saturday morning cartoons, mine picked up calves at dawn, put in a long day at the auction and returned home after dark. It was quite the family business but they loved it… and we raised really good kids who learned how to work,” he said. Though the Kellys sold the auction in 2008, they continue to run the annual Heber Valley Horse Sale, and Brent’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. In July, he was inducted into the Utah Cowboy Hall of Fame.
A Tradition is Born
The Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering serendipitously began in the fall of 1994 when Tom Whitaker saw his cowboy friends, Ben Quinters and Kim Cutler, riding their horses on what is now the bike path connecting Heber and Midway. As the conversation ensued, all three professed to having a few cowboy poems up their sleeves and they decided to showcase their talents in what they initially named the Wasatch County First Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Midway Town Hall.
Brent was the emcee and they recruited John Burns’ family to cook Dutch oven chili and cornbread for $5. The music and poetry were free.
“I didn’t know if 15 people were going to show up or 100. We had about 250 people and we ran out of chili so we had to run out and buy more,” laughed Whitaker. “I invited Joel Elliott, a singer from Wyoming, who said he would come if we paid him $50 for gas. After we bought all the food and paid the artists, we broke even. Most importantly, everyone was happy and we vowed to do it again the next year.”
The gathering now attracts more than 10,000 people from all across the country. It has become one of Utah’s premier events with musicians and mountain men, poets and painters, singers and songwriters, craftsman of all kinds, great grub and the support of an entire community committed to celebrating western life in all its forms.
The Performance of a Lifetime
Brent and Mary were shocked when up-and-coming (and later Grammy-nominated) singers-songwriters Joey and Rory Feek asked if they could perform at the gathering. “We can’t afford you,” responded Mary, but the Feeks only requested that their travel expenses be covered. They were a hit and the Kellys didn’t mind when their rates grew a little higher each year.
“The last time they came together, Joey was very pregnant with her daughter, Indy, and they were phenomenal as always,” said Mary. Their beautiful daughter was born with Down syndrome that winter and shortly after, Joey was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer. They were scheduled to come back the following year until Rory called Mary two weeks prior — Joey was too weak to attend but he would bring their older daughter Heidi to sing with him.
“It was one of the most emotional concerts we’ve ever had,” Mary explained. “We were heartbroken for him to be without her. He performed at Soldier Hollow and at the end, he just put down his guitar and quietly said, ‘I’m done. I’m going to be by my wife.’ That was the last time he played in public before she passed away.”
Sustaining the Cowboy Way of Life
The Kellys’ affiliation with the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering has spanned almost a quarter-century but it has become a tough balancing act. They are passionate about preserving the cowboy way of life but also recognize the need to attract a new generation by recruiting more modern country artists.
“Sadly, we’re at the point when many of the old-time western performers are retiring or passing away,” said Mary. “We want so badly to keep the western lifestyle alive for this next generation so they remember their heritage.”
The Kellys are not alone. For so many, there is a great urgency to carry on the traditional songs and poems that have imprinted themselves upon an entire generation in the American West’s forgotten pockets… and to never forget that there is no place quite like home on the range.