Moab local Sand Sheff has been playing music since he was 11 years old. At the end of this month, he will share his music at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev.
“I had tried in years past, a couple of times just throwing my name out there, but this year they got a hold of me,” Sheff explained. “I instantly of course said yes, and I’m excited. It’s a real big honor for me.”
The internationally renowned event has been an annual festival for the past 33 years, and hosts workshops, performances and other activities for poets, musicians and their fans, who come from all over the world. According to the event website, “the gathering embraces its role as a pilgrimage destination for thousands of ranch folk and others who love the West and come to learn and experience art that grows from a connection to the rhythms of earth and sky.”
This year, the event’s theme is “Basques and Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond.” It will celebrate the herding cultures of both the American West and Europe. Sheff has had his eye on the gathering for years now, as it is the largest cowboy poetry gathering in the world, and to attend as a performer is prestigious among the western music community. He credits the event’s interest in him partially to Utah filmmaker Chris Simon, who brought attention to his work when she interviewed him for an upcoming documentary project.
“She probably got me on their radar,” Sheff explained.
Sheff describes himself as growing up, “a small-town kid,” a fact that has contributed to his musical style. “I was one of those people that started playing when they were a kid. I started performing when I was a teenager,” he said. It can be hard to pin down the genre he adheres to, though. “It’s always kind of been country, but kind of not,” he explained.
Sheff has lived in Moab at various times since 1988, and he said the area has played a significant role in developing his style of Western music. “I did work for seven seasons at Pack Creek Ranch, up with Ken and Jane Sleight, back when it was a guest ranch and dude ranch,” he said. “And I also worked for a few years out at Red Cliffs ... kind of ranch hand cowboy stuff. That’s where I really started singing songs about horses.”
Sheff added that he does not view himself as the ultimate cowboy.
“I’m not a rodeo star, I’m the fellow they tolerate hanging around with,” he said. But during his time in Moab, Sheff has spent years living the cowboy life. “I used to take pack trips out in the canyons, into Grand Gulch and Dark Canyon Wilderness back in the day when you could still take horses out there, and that’s when I started singing cowboyish material,” he explained. Even now, he works with his father-in-law, Stan Holland, on his hay farm, where the family owns ten horses. “I ride horses, I throw hay bales, I’m in the dirt, I live around the animals,” Sheff said.
During the six-day gathering, Sheff will be performing in a number of settings. He will have his own solo concert in addition to several other concerts where he will work with other musicians who have been invited — and he will even be putting on a humor show. Of his preparation for the event, Sheff said, “I’ve been kind of organizing my material as best I can, and I put together a little kid’s sing-along song.” That’s because Sheff will also be taking his show on the road in Elko County, to perform for several elementary schools in the rural area that sits on the Utah-Nevada border.
“I just always get a kick when anybody actually invites me to come play my music somewhere. It’s a fun thing,” Sheff said of his invitation to the gathering. “Like everyone else, I get Moab bound.” He attributes some of his success to the Moab roots he has created. “I sure appreciate all the friendship and support that I’ve always received in Moab. I love Moab, and I love my life here, and I’m very grateful for the experiences that I got to have here,” he said. “I was taken in by a community of country people both at Pack Creek and at Red Cliffs, right when I needed it the most, and I got to live the wildest life a person could live out there.”
Sheff is intricately involved in Moab’s local music scene. He teaches music at the Moab Charter School for kindergarten through sixth grade, and he and his wife, Sunnie, own and operate the Backyard Theater, where Sheff plays with his band, Quicksand Soup.
“I wrote a bunch of the music of my life here,” Sheff continued. “I’ve got several albums I wrote at Red Cliffs Lodge while working with my cowboy friends. We all sat around after working all day at the ranch, and they even helped me write a few songs.”
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will take place Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 in Elko, Nev. Tickets and additional information can be found at nationalcowboypoetrygathering.org.