The Pappy, His Boy, and that there Holy Ghost

Cowboy church in Payson.

Marion Manwill is not wearing a ten-gallon hat or spurs. His buckle is of a normal size, proportionate to the rest of his belt. Yet, despite lacking the more obvious accoutrements of Western wear, something about Manwill reminds you of a battle-worn preacher from an old spaghetti Western. His gaunt, weathered frame, his thick white mustache, his heavy black overcoat and his intense stare can be somewhat intimidating to the unrepentant, as if he may let out a loud whistle and unleash a veritable stampede of holy indignation.

Appearances aside, Manwill, the official chaplain for the Cowboy Poets of Utah, is easygoing in his speech. Speaking before the small handful of people assembled way too early on too cold a morning, his opening remarks are more a kindly ramble than a formal dose of fire and brimstone. “We try to keep it non-denominational,” Manwill says. “I think most of us are Mormons. But for an hour or so here, we get to be ourselves.”

The Cowboy Poets of Utah is an organization dedicated to the preservation, performance and presentation of the Western arts. This would obviously include cowboy poetry, a style of extemporaneous composition heavily themed around ranch work, cowboy values, and the American landscape. In addition to chaplain, Manwill is one of the organization’s founding members.

On Saturday, Jan. 8, the Cowboy Poets of Utah hosted a full day of lectures, workshops and performances at Salem Hills High School in Salem. The following Sunday, the CPU hosts a non-denominational cowboy church at the Peteetneet Cultural Arts Center and Museum in Payson. Although only fifteen people were in attendance, it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. Manwill shared his experiences as a member of a cowboy band called Peteetneet Creek Ranch Hands in his youth. “We didn’t get too many good crowds, but we got a lot of good rehearsals,” he laughed.

Meandering is the soul of Cowboy Church, which is centered more around spirited performance than strict dogma. The opening hymn commenced after three cowboys debated over which key is best for “Amazing Grace.” A man named Paul Bliss with a mustache longer than a small child’s forearm declared that “spirituality and religion don’t necessarily go together.” A gentleman got up and played his bagpipes. The instrument isn’t exactly Western. Nevertheless, parishioners responded as graciously as they had for anyone else – clapping as quietly as possible so as to preserve the reverent atmosphere.

Cowboy church feels like an open mic variety show, but with more emphasis on Jesus – the sort of Jesus who wears a good hat and boots.

“I came from a musical family,” said singer-songwriter Clive Romney. “But instead of pursuing a career as a performer, I became a banker.”

Romney went on to relate how a bout of severe ulcers inspired him to quit the banking business and work on the preservation of the Western arts.

“I don’t get ulcers anymore,” he smiled. “I don’t get rich, but I don’t get ulcers.”

Perhaps the value of cowboy church is more humanist than strictly Christian. Nobody was what you would call a Bible-beater. In fact, the Bible wasn’t even cracked open. But by layering a thin patina of religious devotion over the their performances, these cowboy poets and singers had the opportunity to communicate their innermost feelings in a comfortable and familiar way.

“What I’m telling you is not doctrinal or scriptural in any church or sect,” said C.R. Woods before his recitation. “This is just me working some things out”.

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