Back in 1991, I knew so little about country music that I thought Garth Brooks actually was a cowboy. Like a Marlboro-smoking, bull-riding, up-with-the-sun kind of outlaw. Either I was very impressionable, or Brooks was very convincing.
When I heard his song ‘Rodeo’ that year, I was a busy career woman in Chicago, going out for martinis after work before going home to my quintessential city condo. I knew nothing of a life of boots and chaps, cowboy hats and spurs, ropes and reins, joy and pain.
Yet still, this picture Brooks had painted of the cowboy life drew me in like no other song ever had. I was not just mildly interested in cowboy songs, I was obsessed. Luckily, shortly after I’d heard Brooks’ hit, I heard Toby Keith’s ‘Should’ve Been a Cowboy’, George Strait’s ‘I Can Still Make Cheyenne’ and Brooks & Dunn’s ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie’.
Again, the subject matter was in no way relatable to me, or the life I was living back then. Six-shooters? Cattle drives? Line dancing? The short-go? Never heard of them, but it still had me hook, line and sinker. Once I started listening to rodeo and cowboy songs, I couldn’t stop - I wouldn’t ever listen to anything else again. Pop music was dead to me, Motown was a goner, and classic rock? Never speak such words again.
I started spending my lunch hours at record stores in the city, doling out the better part of my paycheck at Reckless Records, Sam Goody, Rock Records and Tower Records. I went in search of every album Brooks and other like-minded artists had ever recorded; anything with the mere mention of cowboys and rodeos. I jumped into the deep end of a world I knew nothing about, thanks to the music’s ability to immerse me in a life I could only live vicariously. I didn’t want to literally live that life, but just picture myself in it, if only for three minutes in a song. If music’s meant to take us away, I was destined for Cheyenne or Tulsa. It was almost as if, in another life, I was some kind of cowboy’s sweetheart, living my best life somewhere on a frontier.
As I was unearthing this subgenre of country music, I discovered that not all the cowboy songs made their way onto the radio. A lot of the albums in the ‘90s had cuts that were every bit as good as the hits. I made it my mission to find all the deep cuts I could to add to my mixtapes (yes, I am mixtapes-years-old.) Brooks’ cover of Roy Robinson’s “The Cowboy Song” taught me that when you see a cowboy, he’s not ragged by choice - he never meant to bow them legs or put that gravel in his voice. He’s just chasin’ what he really loves and what’s burnin’ in his soul, wishin’ to God that he’d been born a hundred years ago.
But all of the other songs - old and new – were teaching me life lessons, too. The basics, like chase your dreams, climb high in the saddle, grab the reins of your life, pull your hat down tight, if you fall get back up again and work until you can join the sun in sitting down. I was also inspired by the vivid imagery of being the only one for miles and miles, spending the spring on the Great Divide and letting the whiskey do what whiskey does. I found joy in the thought of the Sunday crowd exploding, until you’d gone your last go ‘round.
Then right around 2005, it’s like a flip was switched - the music just disappeared. Cowboy songs had been the zeitgeist of the 90s in American country music, where stars like Brooks had become the keepers of the flame, carrying the torch from the artists who came before them, like Strait and Chris LeDoux and even the outlaws like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. But then, those cowboy songs were replaced with rural, small-town life songs - full of dirt roads and fishin’ holes. Then they were taken over by bro-country songs, which have now been shifted by the popularity of nostalgia. If country radio is your only means of discovering music, don’t hold your breath for an influx of any new rodeo songs. The songs that are playing on the radio right now, in 2021, are at least a hundred country miles away from what was coming out of the chutes when cowboys were king.
Occasionally, when I looked hard enough, I still found some gems. “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” - a fiddle-packed collaboration from Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire from 2007 and “Like a Cowboy” from Randy Houser in 2013. But still, nothing. It seemed like I was doomed, I’d never again get my fill of the music that had brought me here in the first place.
Then I found Cody Johnson. I’m not saying he’s the new Garth Brooks, but damn, does he fill in those blanks. Johnson actually was chasing that champion rodeo buckle in real life; until he decided to let go of his roping and riding dreams to pursue country music. We’re all most certainly better off for his choice. His latest single, ‘Dear Rodeo’, takes me immediately back to hearing Brooks’ own run in the saddle, back in ‘91. This one song, written like a love letter to the rodeo he had to leave behind, fills my heart with unbridled joy. Sure, it fills me with sorrow too because it broke Johnson’s heart to write, but it’s mainly joy - I’d found myself another cowboy-song singer to fall madly in love with.
His major label debut album from 2019, Ain’t Nothin’ to It, was (and still is) everything I never knew I needed; ‘Where Cowboys Are King’ presents county roads and fenceposts as far as you can see, ‘Ain’t Nothing to It’ is a to-do list in keeping a marriage alive, while ‘Fenceposts’ details a piece of property that sure looks good on his wife. Even before Johnson signed that big-time Nashville record deal, he’d released six albums independently, all with songs about two-steppin’, saddles, buckles, chutes and boots. Almost overnight, Johnson became my desert-island guy. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only bring one country star with me, he’s my man.
That then led me back in search for even more new singers of cowboy songs, roping in some pretty great ones in the process. Singer-songwriter Randall King sounds like a modern-day Strait; he’s waltzing in with a fresh perspective on the traditional sounds after growing up in West Texas and possessing all of the influence that brings. His song ‘Another Bullet’ paints a heartbreaking picture of shutting down that kind of cowboy life; when there ain’t no fields left to run and there ain’t no cattle drive, while ‘Hey Cowgirl’ is a straight-up love song set inside of the rodeo barriers. Another new favorite is Ned LeDoux, son of the late rodeo and radio champ Chris LeDoux: a man who became a household name when Brooks mentioned “worn-out tapes of Chris LeDoux” in his 1989 debut single ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)’. The younger LeDoux has followed in his father’s footsteps; you can hear it loud and clear in his song of memories and buckles, ‘A Cowboy Is All’.
It's great to see a new generation of boot-wearing word-slingers bringing the stories of cowboys and rodeos to a new generation, from those that have inspired them. Now, after a lifetime of listening to cowboy songs by singers like these, I hope that when it’s my own time to ride off into the sunset, there’ll be pick-up men at my side telling me, “Good ride, cowboy. Good ride.”