Texas Cowboy Joel Nelson Named Working Cowboy Award Recipient

Ranching Heritage Association will present award at National Golden Spur Award dinner October 10.

Joel Nelson, a Texas cowboy that some say has considerable talent with horses, will be the third recipient of the Ranching Heritage Association Working Cowboy Award during the 43rd Annual National Golden Spur Award dinner at 6 p.m. Saturday, October 10 at the Overton Hotel in Lubbock.

“This award is designed to recognize an outstanding individual who makes his living primarily horseback caring for livestock on a daily basis,” said Jim Bret Campbell, director of the National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC) at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “Although Joel grew up in Seymour, Texas, and now ranches in Alpine, his impact has been felt from the King Ranch in South Texas to the Parker Ranch in Hawaii.”

The Ranching Heritage Association (RHA), a nationwide non-profit membership organization supporting the work and mission of the NRHC, sponsors the award on an annual basis to honor a working cowboy skilled in all aspects of ranch work and respected by the ranch crew and ranching community.

“Our Board of Directors believes it’s important to recognize those folks who brave all kinds of weather and conditions to ensure that work on a ranch gets done,” Campbell said. “Our first two recipients—Boots O’Neal of the Four Sixes Ranch and Arizona cowboy Ed Ashurst—set a high standard in regard to integrity and impact on a ranch and the surrounding community. Joel Nelson definitely fits in the mold established by Boots and Ed.”

Campbell said Nelson’s nomination included heartfelt letters from supporters across ranch country. King Ranch descendent Tio Kleberg called Nelson “a cowman’s cowboy” who does and can do all the jobs to perfection. Kleberg’s wife, Janelle, described Nelson as “the finest horseman I have ever seen, and I have seen many.”

Western entertainer Red Steagall declared Nelson’s talents with a horse unequaled and said “his instincts about handling cattle give him an edge over almost anyone else in the cow outfit.”

Nelson has spent decades working on some of the most respected ranches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Hawaii, specializing in breaking colts. He and his wife Sylvia work together on horseback operating the Anchor Ranch near Alpine and raising Angus cattle.

Nelson’s skills on the ranch are rivaled only by his widespread reputation as a cowboy poet. He takes the raw materials of ranch life and expresses them in poetry. In 2009, Nelson was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts for “major contributions to the excellence, vitality and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts.” In addition, his “Breaker in the Pen” album of cowboy verse is the only cowboy poetry ever nominated for a Grammy Award.

Nelson was invited in 1999 to Rothbury, Northumberland, England for one month as a poet-in-residence visiting school classrooms, young farmers’ meetings and public gatherings. An article in “Poetry Review” described him as captivating his audience and “incomparable as an inspirational force for poetry.”

Since 1986 he has been a regular performer at the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., and helped found the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, where he served on the organizing committee for 33 years.

“My earliest memory is of my father carrying me in the saddle with the saddle horn between my legs,” said 74-year-old Nelson. “I must have been three. He pointed to the ground and taught me to tell the difference between a cow and a horse track.”

Cows and horses have been part of Nelson’s life ever since, and he has managed to merge his two great passions: poetry and the cowboy lifestyle. “There’s rhythm and meter to everything when you work outside,” Nelson said. “Trotting across a grassy flat, working cattle, the day-to-day changes of the seasons; they all have a poetic cadence.”

Gary Dunshee, owner of the Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, may have summarized Nelson’s life best in describing him as “a great ambassador for cowboying not only in Texas but all of the West.”

To register for the National Golden Spur Award dinner, call Vicki Quinn-Williams at (806) 834-0469 or register online at www.ranchingheritage.org/spur. Reservations are required by Thursday, October 1. Tickets are $95 for RHA members and $125 for non-members.


CUTLINE: Texas cowboy Joel Nelson, recipient of the 2020 Working Cowboy Award, stands with his horse Stoney on the Anchor Ranch in the Davis Mountains near Alpine. The award is given annually by the Ranching Heritage Association, a nationwide non-profit organization supporting the programs of the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. (Photo by Ross Hecox)