Tom Swearingen Is Oregon’s Cowboy Poet With a Lot of Stories to Tell

“I’m writing about lives. I’ve written about friends that I’ve lost or horses that I’ve lost. More meaningful things.”

Tom Swearingen (Courtesy Oregon Cowboy Poet)

Tom Swearingen didn’t really consider himself a poet when the St. Paul Rodeo—long deemed one of the finest in the sport—came calling in 2013, looking not just for a poet but a cowboy poet to perform at the Marion County event. The lifelong Oregonian didn’t really know how to react to the request.

“They said, ‘I understand you’re a poet,’” he recounts. “And I said, ‘Well, barely.’”

Since then, Swearingen has released three albums and an entire book of verses, all of which have been nominated for or won International Western Music Association awards. On top of all that, he was named the organization’s Male Poet of the Year in 2019 and 2022, high honors for someone who never thought himself much of a wordsmith.

Cowboy poetry has a long history, starting over 100 years ago during long cattle drives. As ranchers and cowboys spent days guiding livestock across wide swaths of land, they would make up songs and poems to keep their minds occupied. Even as large cattle drives began to disappear, the art form continued on as a way to remember a part of America’s past.

Swearingen had always appreciated these poems and the bits of American history and culture within—he first discovered the genre by watching poets like Baxter Black and Waddie Mitchell perform on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the mid-’80s. But writing poems was never something he planned to try himself.

“I did not wake up one day and say I am going to be a cowboy poet,” Swearingen says. “I wrote about a friend and then it struck a nerve with some folks.”

Nearly 15 years ago, that close companion, who had spent much of his life ranching, suddenly died, and Swearingen decided to share his thoughts through cowboy poetry.

“It was really well received,” he says. “Some of [the] family and friends were like, ‘I didn’t know you were a poet.’” When Swearingen told them he wasn’t, their reply was simple: “Well, what was that?”

For his own enjoyment, Swearingen continued to write poems about his experiences and thoughts when word spread about his small performance to a saddlemaker at the St. Paul Rodeo, and the rest snowballed from there. Swearingen agreed to perform and his poetry began to take off. Two days after the rodeo, he got another call from someone looking for a cowboy poet.

He continued booking appearances before the pandemic put a halt to all of that, but COVID didn’t pause his work entirely. During the suspension of live shows in 2020, Swearingen compiled a collection of nearly 50 of his most popular works and released a book. Now, he’s back to performing regularly, with events scheduled in September and October at Wine Down Ranch in Prineville, The Dalles’ Granada Theatre, and Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy to write cowboy’s tempting to turn that into easy poetry,” Swearingen says. “But I’m writing about lives. I’ve written about friends that I’ve lost or horses that I’ve lost. More meaningful things.”

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