Lady poets, cowboy poets, and lady cowboy poets are well known in Arizona. The U of AZ College of Humanities and UA Poetry Center has a Centennial exhibit, running now until March, honoring Arizona poets Sharlot Hall and Hattie Lockett. Both Sharlot and Hattie resided in Arizona and were recognized poets when Arizona became a state in 1912. Prescott holds an annual Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering at the Sharlot Hall Museum, in August. Sierra Vista holds an annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in February, and Wickenburg holds a Cowboy Christmas Gathering in early December. With all three functions, poets spend time at the schools teaching cowboy poetry writing. Besides the main show, and free sessions, they have free “Open Mike” sessions, in which anyone, kids and adults alike, can sign up to read their poetry.
One cowboy poetess often invited to present her poetry at all three Cowboy Poetry Gatherings is Joette Conley – Trombi. Joette was not only an established poet, but a beautiful singer. She often said that she chose to sing old cowboy songs, researching those which were over 50 years old. One, she traced back to an Old Irish tune, the words changed to fit the west, but still a sad song where the hero loses his love. Her poems were mostly humorous, such as “Mountain Oysters,” which explains their source, and ends: Just the thought of where they came from, Will turn a face bright red. That’s when I usually tell ’em, “Eat scrambled eggs instead.”
“Thanksgiving Dinner,” the story of poor ranchers, ends with: Ranch kids are kinda simple, The Lord made us that way. We didn’t think it was suspicious, That the duck ran off on Thanksgiving Day.
Joette published two books of poetry on Heritage, where her poems tell the story of her pioneer family – many of whom were cowboys.
Joette told me that she enjoyed presenting poetry to the students at schools in Sierra Vista and Wickenburg, and discussing her poetry. Although she also liked listening to new poets when asked to preside and evaluate at the “Open Mike” sessions, she hated to have to say anything bad about one of them.
Joette is descended from three Arizona pioneer families: Burch, Ross, and Conley. Joette’s great grandfather, J.D. Burch first settled in Cortaro, now part of Tucson, in 1913, then bought a ranch in Sonoita, AZ. His daughter, Bessie Burch met and married Lou Ross, a cowboy for the Empire Ranch which is now a historical monument in Sonoita. After marrying, Lou and Bessie bought a ranch in Beuhman Canyon in the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson. Lou rode in Tucson’s first Rodeo, where he was photographed by the esteemed photographer, A.R. Beuhman. One photograph, “The Night Herder” is on permanent display at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Much to Bessie Ross’s dismay, he was also featured in another photo in the Tucson newspaper under the title, “The Rustler.“
The Conley family settled near Payson, AZ., where one drove a twenty mule team from Payson to New Mexico and started what became part of Arizona’s first highways. Joette’s parents, Joe Conley and Dorothy Ross Conley, ranched in the Buckeye Valley, where she was born. All three later settled in New River, AZ., where Joette designed and built her own home. Joette’s love of old cowboy songs was developed listening to her parents sing around the campfire, or in the living room.
Joette was a lovely, charming lady who loved her children, her family and her heritage. Sad cowboy songs will always bring memories of her. Cowboy Poetry Gatherings won’t be quite the same without her tender spark. Like the cowboys she wrote about, she died with her boots on.