Cowboys strummed their guitars and sang folk tunes about making friends with horses and repairing fences while teachers wrangled among the student audience at Shearer Elementary School Friday afternoon.
Performers from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering gave students a special preview of their show, which comes to the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater on Saturday night.
Arizona rancher Gail Steiger kicked off the show with a song about a horse named “Willy” that he’d made friends with as a child. The little ditty featured young Steiger going on adventures with Willy, who’d occasionally buck him off.
“Willy was my friend when I was a kid,” Steiger sang. “I took him for granted the way kids did.”
The next song in the four-song set was a crowd favorite.
Amy Hale Auker, Steiger’s wife, introduced Steiger’s next song by telling the students about one time on the ranch when she saw a bear chasing a jack rabbit.
“Not a great big bear but a little bear,” she said, stirring an “Aww” from the crowd of children sitting criss-cross applesauce on the auditorium floor.
As Steiger played a melody from a Lyle Lovett album, singing about the sweet and sour perceptions of bears, the students began clapping along to the rhythm. Then, through the next two songs, they continued clapping to the dismay of the adults nearby trying to shush them by waving their arms and holding up the peace sign, which means “be quiet.”
Caitlyn Taussig, who raises cattle with her mother and her sister in Colorado, took over singing the next two songs, which she wrote.
The first, she said, was about following your dreams. The soothing yet strong lyrics told the story of her mother who was born in Sacramento but dreamed of leaving the city and starting a ranch.
“Big dreams and worn out jeans and she still stayed on track,” Taussig sang while strumming her guitar. “The Sierras and the Rockies, they couldn’t hold her back.”
Taussig’s next tune was what she called a “joke song” about one chore she does that she really dislikes — fixing fences.
After the show, students were invited to ask questions. The first boy with his hand raised announced in the microphone: “I want to be a cowboy when I grow up!”
Most little hands were up in the air to ask questions like “How old are you,” “How many miles did you travel,” and “When do you guys grow up?”
“They like to be engaged,” Principal Elizabeth Gonzalez said later. The students enjoy singalongs and were moved by the music, she said. All in all, she said, the nearly 400 students were pretty well behaved for a Friday afternoon.
“I like it when they clap,” Steiger said. It’s great to see children listening to music just for the joy of hearing it, he said. “I was happy to see them not falling asleep.”
“I liked the songs,” said second-grader Matthew Martinez, 7. The one about Willy the horse was his favorite, he said. Matthew had never seen a real-life cowboy before, but, he said, “they were really funny.”
Matthew and his classmate, 7-year-old Gabriel Martinez, both said they were interested in learning how to play the guitar.
“I’ve always wanted to (learn guitar),” Gabriel said. His favorite song was the one about the bears.
Steiger used to listen to this kind of country-folk music when he was a child – his grandfather would play at home and whoever was visiting would join in with a song, poem or joke.
“People were more in the habit of entertaining themselves,” he said. With urbanization, he said, a lot of that has gotten lost. At least by playing to children and “anyone who will listen,” the cowboy tradition can be kept alive, he said.
Steiger said that he likes to share with them the coolest thing about working on a ranch – an appreciation for life.