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California: Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival

Author: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Whether or not you were raised on cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, you've probably heard of them. What you might not realize is that these rough, tough, gun-totin' guys loved to sing in the saddle. It's an old cowboy tradition, as is spouting straight-shooting, and sometimes downright silly, poetry.Santa Clarita celebrates these art forms annually at the historic Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio. Every year since 1994, Melody Ranch has opened up its gates and invited the public in to celebrate the Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival. The 11th annual festival is scheduled this month for March 26 through 28.

Opened in 1915, Melody Ranch looks just as dusty, windy, and parched in person as it did in the background of westerns that include movies like "High Noon" and "My Little Chickadee" and TV shows like "The Gene Autry Show" and "Gunsmoke." More than 1,950 films have been shot here since the studio opened.

Elvis was here for a photo shoot in 1962 when a devastating fire broke out, and though he jumped in to help extinguish it, the studio's historic Main Street burned to the ground. The studio remained closed for a while, was rebuilt over the last decade, and is once again helping Hollywood churn out entertainment.

For the festival, vendors set up shop inside the various facades and buildings used as sets. Everything from gaudy Western ware to vintage books of Western fiction is for sale. The saloon becomes a venue for live piano music and a gigantic 7000-square-foot sound stage becomes an auditorium for performances. There is no better place to see the Old West come to life.

As visitors walk down Main Street, they encounter cowboys on horseback strumming a guitar and singing a haunting melody like "Do not forsake me oh my darlin'," or plunking out another atmospheric tune like "The Streets of Laredo." Near where the chuck-wagons are dispensing chow, more cowboys are busy demonstrating lasso twirling and telling tall tales.

Situated inside the studio prop house, the Melody Ranch Museum is open for viewing the Purple Pimp Car used in "Dirty Harry," a car that went over a cliff in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and a jeep used in "M*A*S*H."

People-watching is primo, and this is a great chance to don your dancing boots and tinkling spurs. Many visitors dress in Western gear, and some people appear in get-ups that are too beyond the pale to imagine. Many professional extras show up wearing authentic gear, adding immensely to the flavor. Part of the fun is just sitting for a spell and surveying the scene.

Shows are scheduled in large and small venues and included in admission. You'll want to see several. Some of the best cowboy entertainers come to town for this. Last year they included cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and classic cowboy balladeer Dave Stamey. Related events held in other venues have in the past included a dinner ride on the Fillmore & Western Railway, a performance in the living room of the nearby William S. Hart Mansion, and a trail ride and camp out.

So guys, break out your bandannas, fringed suede jackets, and cowboy hats, and gals, your bustles and fancy hats, and kids, your ratty Davy Crockett fur hats, and y'all high-tail it on out to Melody Ranch.