Why do country singers wear cowboy hats? It's not always to keep the sun out of their eyes. The answer, my friends, goes deep into the heart of country music.
The Cowboy: Poverty in Disguise
Our story starts in the 1930s, when Western themes infiltrated the popular consciousness and made their imprint on hillbilly music. Cowboys were an integral part of mainstream culture that became increasing popular in the 1930s, when Depression-era listeners flocked to the escapism the ideal of the cowboy offered.
Southern singers often faced discrimination when performing for non-Southern audiences. While their everyday garb might cause them to be derided when performing, a ten-gallon hat would make them an acceptable object of praise. By dressing like cowboys, they were able to be accepted by a wider slice of the American public.
Interestingly, this masquerade parallels a similar phenomenon among Mexican mariachi singers. But that's another story.
Big Stars on the Big Screen
Gene Autry and Roy Rogers helped popularize cowboy music. Autry performed in numerous films in the 1930s, giving cowboy music a national audience. He's considered the first cowboy star, and future performers followed in his foot steps, notably Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers.
With the rise of television, such stars were provided with another outlet -- most notably on the series Hopalong Cassidy and Rawhide, with its catchy theme song.
Cowboy Songs vs. Country Cowboys
So are all cowboy songs a fad? No. Frontier tunes predated their popularization of cowboy tunes in 1930s. They're part of the American folk tradition, originating on the range to where cowhands whiled away the time and calm spooked cattle. Their roaming spread them across the land and were influenced by those they met on the trail -- including Mexican vaqueros.
While they sometimes provided a basis for popular songs like “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” they’re different from the wave of nostalgic frontier songs that swept the country during the 1930s, ‘40s, and later.
The heyday of cowboy country tapered off in the '50s with the rising popularity of rock 'n' roll. The peak also coincides with the declining popularity of the Western genre in film and TV.
Cowboy Country Artists
- Gene Autry
- Dale Evans
- Patsy Montana
- Riders in the Sky
- Tex Ritter
- Roy Rogers
- Sons of the Pioneers
The Cowboy Rides On
The lure of the Wild West continues to figure prominently in country music. The urban cowboy craze of the early '80s reestablished Western wear as required attire for country singers. Outlaw country obviously sided more with the bandits, but Western themes continued to prevail: from the wanted poster artwork to music videos to songs like "The Gambler." Cowboys themes continue to be popular, as evinced by such songs as Kid Rock's "Cowboy" and Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”
Where to Start: Recommended Recordings
- Back in the Saddle Again: Country Music Cowboy Songs (X5 Music)
This compilation provides a fairly good survey of the essential cowboy songs, with material from Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and Merle Haggard.
- Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, edited by John A. Lomax
This collection of frontier songs is the essential songbook for traditional cowboy songs, and was studied by everyone from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger.
Cowboy Country Playlist
Take a musical journey through the evolution of the cowboy in country music with this chronological playlist:
- Woody Guthrie - "The Old Chisholm Trail" (arguably the first cowboy country song) - Listen
- Johnny Cash - "Streets of Laredo" - Listen
- Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers - "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" - Listen
- "Rawhide" Theme Song - Listen
- Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson - "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" - Listen
- Kid Rock - "Cowboy" - Listen