ELKO, Nev. (AP) _ Cowboys from across the country swapped homespun verse and sang simple ballads over the weekend to thousands of fans, some of them genuine cattlemen but many others just would-be cowpokes.

''We didn't ask to become the Super Bowl of cowboy poetry, but we've been thrust into that role - so let's see what we can do with it,'' said Hal Cannon, who directed the Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Since its start in 1984, it has grown from a modest convention of cowboys to an international event. Organizers estimated this year's three-day meeting, which ended Sunday, attracted 7,500 people from 18 states and Canada.

The Elko Convention Center was a sea of cowboy hats Saturday night as cowboy poets and musicians paid tribute to Gail Gardner, a 95-year-old Prescott, Ariz., cowboy poet. An infirm Gardner addressed the gathering on videotape.

''I have no claim to fame except I wrote some cowboy poems - doggerel verse - and some of 'em was set to music,'' said the white-haired cowboy with a patch over one eye.

The guest of honor also sang his best-known ballad, ''The Sierry Petes,'' which Cannon called ''probably the most widely recited cowboy poem today.'' The 1917 classic begins:

''Away up high in the Sierry Petes

Where the yeller pines grow tall

Ol Sandy Bob an' Buster Jig

Had a rodeer camp last fall ...''

The ballad, which is more commonly known as ''Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail,'' goes on to tell the story of two hard-drinking cowboys who meet the devil and get the best of him, tying him to a tree.

Cowboy poets and musicians swapped verses and tunes during informal sessions late at night at local casinos.

Assorted guitarists, fiddlers and mandolin players formed a dozen or more clusters. Musicians and listeners moved from group to group as the playing continued, sometimes all night.

A major goal of the gatherings is to overcome false impressions about cowboys, Cannon said. ''The stereotyped notion that all cowboys are white Anglo-Saxons is one of the first false ideas we want to break down,'' he said.

Cannon said he took a step in that direction this year by inviting a group of Hawaiian cowboys who brought an exhibition of island folk art and played their distinctive island cowboy music.