What’s in a Name?
When Shakespeare penned those words he was asking does a name really matter? For Bruce Douglas “Waddie” Mitchell, it’s a safe wager his answer is yes.
As a young buckaroo growing up on a remote ranch near Elko, Nevada, Bruce was his dad’s right-hand man. “The hired hands around the ranch always called me ‘Doug’s Little Waddie,’” he says. “They’d shout out, ‘Hey Little Waddie,’ and as I grew up it was still Little Waddie until all of a sudden it was just Waddie.”
You can hear the pride in his voice as he explains, “It was more or less used to say, ‘He’s a good cowboy, he’s my friend, he’s an Old Waddie.’”
At the age of 22, Doug’s Little Waddie legally became Waddie Mitchell.
The Birth of a Poet
Those ol’ cowhands gave Waddie much more than his name. They instilled in him a love for storytelling. Living 14 miles away from the nearest neighbor in a small community consisting of only ranch hands and his family, Waddie grew up like generations before him. There was no electricity, and no radio or television.
Waddie chuckles as he says, “We did the strangest things at night — we talked to each other.” For Waddie, community borders faded away and the world opened up as he sat around the supper table and listened to those cowboys spin their tales. It wasn’t just the stories that caught Waddie’s attention; it was the rhythm and cadence, the tempo and twang of the cowboys’ voices, the song of words without music. “I fell in love with what those cowboys were telling me, those old cowboy poems. I loved them without knowing why.”
Waddie’s love for cowboy poetry led him to write his own, and with no idea where it would lead him, he began to share what he wrote. “The biggest things that I’d do with my poetry was to give them out at Christmas time. I couldn’t afford a Christmas card so I’d write a poem and draw a picture and have them run off and send out my own Christmas cards. That was the only way I had to spread some of my poetry around a little bit.”
Although Waddie had been reciting poetry since the age of 10, his first public performance came 24 years later.
It would change everything.
Western Poetry, Johnny Carson and a Silver Anniversary
In 1984, Waddie helped organize the first Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He didn’t think anyone would be interested but during that frosty winter weekend in January, over 2,000 people came to listen to ranchers and cowboys as they weaved their yarns of life working cattle. Waddie was one of those “Ol’ Cowboys,” and as he took that first step into the spotlight, giving life to words with his Western drawl, people took notice.
When a neighbor traveled 40 miles to deliver a message that he’d been invited to appear on “The Tonight Night Show” with Johnny Carson, Waddie gave a polite, “No thanks.” It was calving time and besides, never having had a television, he’d never heard of Johnny Carson. Waddie’s friends talked him into going anyway — and the rest is history.
After 26 years of riding and roping, Waddie hung up his cowboy hat and donned a new one: that of a professional storyteller and poet. For the past 36 years, Waddie has performed all over the world, appeared on numerous television shows and been featured in top U.S. magazines. He’s written four books and made a series of recordings for Warner Brothers and Western Jubilee. Waddie founded the Working Ranch Cowboys Association in 1994 and wrote a poem specifically for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Oh, and that little cowboy poetry gathering he started in Elko? Well, it’s celebrating its 35th anniversary and is now internationally recognized as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Waddie also had a little something to do with the start of the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Waddie and Tom Whittaker met in Logan during one of Waddie’s performances, and after speaking together about the ins and outs of what it takes, Tom was up and running. Thanks to the help of Waddie and the Heber Valley community, Tom and his friends created one of the nation’s largest premier festivals. Waddie, who has hosted the gathering for 20-plus years, will once again host our local gathering as it celebrates its silver anniversary this October.
The Heber gathering holds a special place in Waddie’s heart, so when asked to share one of his most memorable career experiences, it came as no surprise that it took place in our beautiful valley. “Last year in Heber they brought in Jack Hannah, one of the members of the Sons of the San Joaquin… We had been buddies and done shows together for 30-plus years and always appreciated and loved each other,” he reminisces. “For him to sit there with his guitar and sing me songs and ask me to do a poem he hadn’t heard for years, just that little bantering back and forth, it was one of those things you realize how important they are. That little deal just did a world of good for me.”
What a Ride
Waddie himself has done a world of good for others, too. In speaking about sharing his poetry, Waddie said, “People come and they laugh and they have to think and they’d be moved to tears and they didn’t know where all this was coming from. They didn’t have that growing up and so people that are in their 50s say to me, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life without having any idea of what I was looking for.’ I’ve had young people come up to me and say, ‘We didn’t know anybody did stuff like this — this is cool.’ If [the stories and poems] didn’t hold merit, they wouldn’t survive.”
For Waddie, a name does matter — and the name Waddie Mitchell holds more than merit in many hearts. It’s been a wild ride for Waddie — from Doug’s Little Waddie, a one-time buckaroo and cowboy, to now a professional storyteller and poet, and, of course forever a son, father and friend.
“Ya know, I spent 26 years as just a way strong cowboy and if somebody had told me a year before it all happened that I was going to go off and become a professional storyteller and poet, and not even work on the ranch anymore to speak of, unless I just wanted to, I’d ‘a said, ‘You’re absolutely nuts! You’re crazy! Absolutely crazy!’ — But, it’s been quite a ride!”
The designation of “cowboy” holds a lot of merit and meaning for Waddie. With a reverent voice Waddie explains, “I think that throwing that word ‘cowboy’ around has kind of cheapened it. Those saddling up in the dark and often times coming home in the dark, that’s their life they’re living. They’re carrying that title and deserve a little more of our respect. Ya know, I spent 26 years as just a way strong cowboy and I’ve spent the last 35 years telling stories about it. So, I used to be the real deal but I’m not anymore.”
Here ya go, young feller
Let’s take this saddle off your back
I’ll get you a scoop of rolled oats
And we’ll have us an evening chat
Now let me curry this sweat off
I suppose it’s the least I can do
Settle down now, enjoy your grain
I’ll turn you out when you’re through
Well, we finished us up another day
That ol’ sun is going down
Hmmmph, I wonder why we say that
When it’s the Earth that’s spun around
‘Cause the sun is stationary, you see
…What’s that, boredom in your eyes?
I guess it don’t make no difference to you
If I call it “sundown” or “earthrise”
But regardless, we had us a good day
And we got what I wanted to done
Neither one of us got hurt
And we managed to have us some fun
I’ve got me high hopes for you, Brownie
I believe we will make a good team
You’ve just got to slow down some
In time you’ll know what I mean
O’ when I was young I was like you
But when working cows, you’ll find
That enthusiasm’s dandy
But experience is kind
Sort of lets an older feller
Work at a slower pace
And still get as much accomplished
On account of fewer mistakes
Here, let me have that foot up
I’ll check on that ol’ hoof crack
Hold yourself up, darn it
No need to be hard on my back
Yep them clips I drew have done it
Looks like it’s growing out fine
Won’t hardly know you had one
When I shoe you up next time
Say, but you caught that yearling slick
Do you like ropin’ as much as you claim to?
Maybe we should enter us a jackpot
Now there’d be something to aim to
But I don’t see the boss allowin’ me
To take you past them hills
‘Sides, you know nothing of trailerin’
And I don’t recon you ever will
See, you and I are a dying breed
Ain’t many like us these days
Well, I see you’ve et up the last of your grain
Come on, pard, you go out and graze
Thanks for the chat, I’ve enjoyed it
S’pose I best head on inside
And git me some supper started
I’ll catch you later, pard… Thanks for the ride
by Waddie Mitchell