december 2008

And I Am Alone Upon This Land

By David McGee

"The Wagon Boss" by Charles M. Russell

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land. I have long since crossed the Mississippi. No other rides with me, and the plains lie vast about. My eyes are toward the horizon where the sun sets in gold and crimson, an enormous sun like none my eyes have seen in the thirty years that have been mine...I ride westward into an unknown land, toward what destiny I know not.
—Louis L'Amour, The Ferguson Rifle

50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition
Sony BMG Nashville/Legacy

Long before Louis L'Amour ever set pen to paper to chronicle the hard, violent, inevitably lonely and morally ambiguous lives of the men and women settling the old west, those lives were being romanticized in film and song as bespeaking the resilience and ingenuity of the American spirit. Somewhere between the unsettling realism of L'Amour's fictional narratives and the poetic evocation of the cowboy milieu in, say, the ethereal beauty of Bob Nolan's songs lay the cold, hard truth about the cowboy way and its sporting offshoot, the rodeo. As Neil Reed notes in his informed liner notes for Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition, cowboys, rodeoing and country music are a natural fit. Practitioners of these art forms (you say rodeoing is not an art form? Try staying on a bucking bronc for eight seconds, then tell a cowboy it's not an art) know the tedium and danger of traveling long distances on short energy in the dead of night to make the next day's event, both come up through the bush leagues of honky tonks and local competitions hoping for a shot at the Big Show, and the soundtrack chronicling their wanderlust, be they cowboys or troubadours, is country music. Through both breeds runs an abiding loneliness, an outsider's isolation, a sense of impermanence shadowing the best of times. Like L'Amour's Ronan Chantry, all ride into unknown territory, towards a destiny they know not, alone upon this land.

The 50 well considered songs contained on three CDs in this outstanding box set mostly chronicle cowboys of all stripes, from the ones competing on the circuit to the ones who roamed the prairies of old. The artist roster includes the two most famous singing movie cowboys (Gene Autry and Roy Rogers), real singing cowboys (George Strait, Michael Martin Murphey, Chris LeDoux), masters of the western song (Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold), and their female admirers (Patsy Montana, Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter). Most of the artists represented are very much with us and working today, but the few vintage cuts opening Disc 1 are choice: Gene Autry kicks off the set with his timeless "Back In the Saddle," Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers follow with the classic "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" (she being the first female artist to so vocally express her affection for the saddle tramps). Elton Britt, sounding like a country blues version of Gene Autry, kicks up a storm with his strutting, solo acoustic "Patent Leather Boots," notable for Britt's impressive, sure-footed yodeling. But yodeling was never sweeter than when Eddy Arnold practiced it so memorably in "Cattle Call," and the American West was never so spiritually and poignantly evoked as it was in Bob Nolan's songs, especially "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," here in its original version by Nolan's Sons Of the Pioneers—although the great country songwriter Cindy Walker gave Nolan a run for his money in her weary shuffle, "Dusty Skies," elegantly performed by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, with Tommy Duncan giving it his finest melancholy drawl, so vivid that when he sings "sand blowin'/I just can't breathe in this air," you might find yourself getting choked up too. Roy Rogers and The Sons Of the Pioneers introduce the modern era of cowboy songs with their early '50s hit, "Stampede," which opens and is liberally sprinkled with ghostly sci-fi organ swooshes and then rushes forward frantically, driven by a relentless, pulsating electric guitar lick mirroring the urgency of the singers' voices (especially Roy himself who has a dramatic spoken part midway through) as they describe the furor of rampaging cattle.

The contemporary material offers few surprises, really, but the producers haven't settled on entirely predictable material; and no matter, there's most certainly a whole lot of good music here. Even so, only hard-core fans of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, two men who knew whereof they sang when it came to western songs, are likely to be familiar with their respective contributions, the wild-eyed "Rodeo Hand" and the beautiful balladic account of a cowboy's attempt to tame a wild horse in the sharply observed character study, "Strawberry Roan." (Cash later returns with the outstanding version of Rodney Crowell's "Bull Rider" from his Silver album.) The mystical side of cowboying is addressed in Michael Martin Murphey's classic tale of a ghost horse, "Wildfire," which is included here in its album version, featuring Murph's tender solo piano introduction ahead of the familiar hit arrangement. Murph (who is now working a ranch up in Wisconsin after spending some three decades-plus doing so in New Mexico, from where he launched the fondy remembered WestFest celebrations of old west culture) also has the final say, closing the third disc with a tough, stomping, guitar- and fiddle-fired country rocker, "Born To Buck Bad Luck," a previously unreleased track from his Cowboy Songs 4 album. In the no-brainer department, there's Willie Nelson's "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," and George Strait's "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" (although one of the all-time great cowboy songs by Strait, "Amarillo by Morning," is curiously absent). Women get their say via Lynn Anderson's driving "Ride, Ride, Ride," Jessi Colter's sorrowful "My Cowboy's Last Ride," Sylvia's (with James Galway) "The Wayward Wind," Tanya Tucker's evocative musings on "a dream chasing cowboy with a girl by his side" in a dramatic, wistful reading of "Rainbow Rider" and Suzy Bogguss's moving, steel-drenched version of Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon." Disc 3 is heavily weighted to younger contemporary country artists, and so is a bit harder edged than the fare on the first two discs. Rodney Crowell holds up the literary end of things with his bopping twangfest, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and Don Walser paints a vivid portrait of the solitude and physical deprivations attendant to the lifestyle in an emotional, heartfelt reading of "Cowpoke." Doug Supernaw, Tracy Byrd, Lonestar, Deryl Dodd, Charlie Daniels, Trent Willmon and Brooks & Dunn (with the thunderous assault that is "Cowboy Town") come with guitars snarling and drums resounding, probably the best way to aurally evoke the tenor of the modern cowboy's life, when you think about it. No collection of cowboy songs would be complete minus the late Chris Ledoux, an award-winning competitive cowboy who financed his rodeo career with his homemade tapes before Garth Brooks helped him land a major label contract. He's here with the '80s-style rocker, complete with galloping, fuzzed-out guitar, "Hooked On An 8-Second Ride." Take this trip one disc at a time, in order, and you'll find it says a lot about how life has changed for cowboys over the past half-century, and how the cowboy's highway mainstay, country music, has changed too. Instructive, illuminating, indispensable—now that's a good box set for you. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024