The cowboy motif in country music
January 5, 2014
It’s time for a little respite from Simone Weil. So, let’s talk about cowboys! Why not.
In a previous post from last year, we looked at the creativity of early country music, as discussed in Richard Peterson’s fascinating study, Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). In short, the leading producers, talent scouts, promoters, and record executives — at the dawn of country music in the 1920’s and 30’s — hated country music! As Peterson put it, “In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience.” So they did not interfere, and pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff could develop their sound as they saw fit.
At the risk of over-romanticizing, it can indeed be said that this was the music of the rural Southern worker, who had migrated to cotton mills and other factories that sprouted across the South. Away from home, they longed for the music of their upbringing. A few upstart businessmen in Atlanta and elsewhere discovered that the ragtime, jazz, and blues from Tin Pan Alley (NYC) was not really what these workers wanted to hear. So they began recording some of the fiddlers and pickers that were popular within these communities, and — to their surprise — the records sold briskly! Country music, as a commercial enterprise, was born.
The other significant contribution came from AM radio stations, namely those with a clear-channel signal that would reach beyond the cities and far into the rural country. The most important and most famous is WSM in Nashville, which is still going strong. WSM had a little show called, The Grand Ole Opry, which was based upon a “hillbilly” comedy-and-song format that had become popular at a few other AM stations. In 1942, Roy Acuff created his own label in Nashville, which attracted other country artists who were being exploited elsewhere, many having traveled to NYC to get recorded. Acuff signed Hank Williams in 1946, who would take country music to new heights of success. At this time, Nashville was not the “hub” of country music. There was none. It could have just as easily been Atlanta or New Orleans, if not Chicago or New York! It was the combined success of the Opry and Acuff’s record label that attracted other labels. Nashville quickly became synonymous with country music.
So, how do cowboys come into the picture?
In the early days, if you wanted to perform in a public venue, you would dress-up in your Sunday best. And, that is naturally what the earliest country performers did. Suit and tie — usually the only nice set of clothes they owned. However, the “hillbilly” image became popular, and most artists began to play the role — regardless of whether they were actually from the mountains or not! This dominated the country music image well into the 30’s, and “hillbilly music” (not “country music”) was the most common name for the genre.
But, the hillbilly image had limited appeal to a broader range of listeners. Even in the South, “hillbilly” was not necessarily a beloved epithet and could denote lazy or ignorant. Meanwhile in cinemas across the country, a string of “western” flicks were depicting the adventures and excitement of the cowboy’s life. And long before this, in the 19th century, the folk stories of frontiersmen like Davy Crockett had captured the imagination of the people. The cowboy was a ready image for country artists looking for a new way to express themselves. In the 30’s and 40’s, Gene Autry became famous as “the singing cowboy” in a series of popular western films. The cowboy image quickly took off, with Hank Williams being a notable example.
The “cowboy” signifies courage and strength, combined with passion and self-sacrifice. It was very much a chivalrous image. It also signifies a free spirit, on the open range. Interestingly, this aspect of the cowboy image would be taken-up by the “trucker” image in the 1970’s. Truckers became the “cowboys” on the open highways and “outlaws” if the situation demanded it! (See the movie, Convoy, for example, and most famously, the Bandit!)
So, there you have it. That is how the cowboy became the dominant image in country music and frequently a motif in the music’s storytelling. Real cowboys, let it be known, were not known for writing songs or carrying a guitar on their saddle! But it has become ingrained in the imagination of Southern folkways, even if you live east of the Mississippi River (as I do) among cotton fields and tobacco farms, not open ranges for steering cattle. As someone who values imagination and folkways, I am fine with that.
And here is my favorite cowboy-themed song, “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” from George Strait:
This is just a perfectly crafted song. No frills. Just perfect.