Cowboys are nothing but useful fictions. They co-opted their image from the South American vaqueros and gauchos, the original horseback livestock herders, from the spurs on their boots to the brims of their hats. In terms of the lives they led, they were multi-racial itinerant workers, driven to the Frontier out of poverty but regardless, to romanticise western expansion is only to insult the experiences of Native Americans.
Cowboys were a myth first used to sell the idea of America to its citizens and then to sell masculinity in the form of products. They represented the bedrock of American Ideology, The Dream, one of radical self-reliance and social mobility, where the Cowboy discovers land and claims it as his own. Hollywood made this iconography ubiquitous and it was in this image businesses found both their scapegoats and their protagonists. Soon they were used to sell Levi Jeans, Beer and most notably, Malboro Cigarettes, as a rugged cowboy would never fret the health consequences.
The country music cowboy is built on a nostalgia for something that has never been and yet it is an identity that is constantly fought over. When country musicians addressed the question of what cowboys stood for they were questioning America’s foundations, which is because Country was built in the light of American ideals rather than its failings – unlike blues, for instance. It was for these musicians to settle what these ideals were. The problem is that the cowboy is a paradoxical figure both used to represent conservatism and extreme freedom, which was a schism carried into Country’s development in the 1960s.
In the 1950s the cowboy had hung up his hat and settled down in Nashville, adorning a rhinestone suit. This brand of cowboy came to symbolize a social compliance and anathema to the budding counter-culture, which is unsurprising as they have always been conservative symbols: white, gun owners with little need for the State or change.
Similar to the cowboy, country music of this era was built on a false history, one that is littered with stolen music. Perhaps the most controversial example of this is Elvis, who would sooner shake hands with Nixon in the White House than credit the black artists who inspired his music. What was different was that these rhinestone cowboys were urbanites who had forfeited their creative freedom to the sleek production of the time, defined by Chet Atkins, making them far from the nomads we are familiar with in Westerns. The ‘Nashville Sound’ was a push back to the burgeoning success of Rock n’ Roll; defined by its smooth string choruses, slow tempos and elaborate background vocals. Undoubtedly this sound was successful, popularising Country into the multi-million dollar industry it is today and in turn, realising the cowboy’s longstanding aspiration of bettering himself.
For some Broadway was the road to tainted ideals and the 1960s saw the development of Outlaw Country, a subgenre that lauded the minimalism of cowboy living. They sought to break free of the Nashville oligarchy and do it DIY, securing their own recording rights. Pioneered by the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, their music was stripped down and more in line with traditional folk and country. Rather than resisting rock they integrated into their sound and in doing so these artist gained the attention of a younger audience, bridging the gap between the hippies and rednecks.
However, it is one thing to sound like an Outlaw cowboy and another thing altogether to live like one. For figures like Nelson and Jennings, Outlaw Country marked a renaissance in their careers, as they had already tried their hands at the Nashville sound. Doing it from scratch proved much harder, as many of the Outlaw heroes had very little commercial success in spite of their talents, including Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley. They adopted the cowboy’s roaming lifestyle but their lyrics reckoned with the sad reality that to do it your own way meant sticking out on the road just to pay the bills, as Townes put it:
I’d like to lean into the wind
And tell myself I’m free
They were creatively free but that was about it.
The division in the Country music is indicative of the schizophrenia of American ideals. Living as a true cowboy is to make something out of nothing, much like pulling a rabbit out of a hat; an tantalising facade. The cowboy is a figure who lives outside the rules of social order and yet reaps its benefits, when the reality is usually much more polarized: you can have the journey, the freedom, or you can have ending, the success. Historian Eric Hobswarwm claimed that popularity of cowboys rested on a utopian vision of America, where everything was bigger, more dramatic and unlimited, and yet a lone individual could make their mark. This split in Country shows that self-dependency may get you something but it probably wont be prosperity, and for that reason the Dream will be ever allusive.
Image: Bozotexino, Wikimedia CC