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Gene Autry, known as the Singing Cowboy, epitomized the western star, performing in movies, television and radio for more than three decades. (© Sunset Boulevard/Corbis)

The Cowboy in Country Music

In his new book, music historian Don Cusic recounts the enduring icons of western music and their indelible mark on pop culture

Who are some of the musicians that represent that revival era?
The biggest were Waylon and Willie, with the “outlaw” movement. It’s funny, they were cowboys, but they wore black hats instead of white hats. In terms of western culture, Riders in the Sky and Michael Martin Murphy were leaders. But a lot of country acts were dressing as cowboys and singing about the West or western themes. If you listen to the song “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the cowboy loves little puppies and prostitutes – sort of like Keith Richards in a cowboy hat.

So with the outlaw country movement, the cowboy isn’t so clean and pure anymore.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll hit country in the ’70s. That’s what the cowboy was in country music [then] – sort of the hippie with the cowboy hat. Independent, individualist. That ’60s figure, the liberated person, had a cowboy hat and cowboy boots on by the mid-’70s.

In the book, you profile early artists such as Patsy Montana, Tex Ritter and Bob Wills but also more recent acts, including Asleep and the Wheel and George Strait. You say Strait is the most western of contemporary, mainstream country musicians. Why?
He actually owns a ranch and works on it. He does rodeos with roping. He sings some cowboy songs, and he certainly dresses as a cowboy – he’s the real deal. Strait is doing today what the old singing cowboys – the Autrys and the Rogers – did back then.

Do you notice other artists – including those outside mainstream country – embracing the cowboy image today?
Some of the alt-country artists do, but it’s a campy thing. Not like “I’m a real cowboy and I know how to ride a horse.” A lot of music is attitude. Cowboy is an attitude of “We’re basic, we’re down to earth, we’ve got values rooted in the land.”

What about younger musicians – are they interested in cowboy culture?
From what I’ve seen they may wear cowboy hats, but increasingly country performers are much more urban. I think they embrace the clothes more than they embrace the full culture. I mean, I grew up on a farm – you don’t want to take care of cattle.

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