There’s a distinct difference between country music and cowboy music. The former can evoke images of sweeping plains, dusty roads and dry paddocks, yet it can also cover love, death, marriage, debt, shiny red dresses, backward Southern lawyers and just about everything else in between. Country music—at its heart—is about life, and is often a very visual depiction of hardships and happiness, filled with meticulous metaphors and whole lot of personality (depending, of course, on who’s telling the story).
Cowboy music, while encompassing many of these varied themes, is a little different. There’s something about the music of the cowboys—say, Guy Clark, Chris Le Doux, Randy Travis and any one of the Highwaymen: it can have all the vivid imagery in the world, but if you’ve never actually sat hip-deep in the saddle of a bronco, chances are, you’re never gonna fully understand just where the cowboy’s hard-edged vocal swagger comes from.
Though my dad fancies himself a bit of a rough rider and has done for more than 30 years, I have only ever sat in any kind of saddle once, only to promptly fall out. Even so, (thanks to my dad, I still get an almighty kick out of cowboy music. The slow and steady steel guitars, the gravelly voices culminated from so many Marlboros and so much Jack Black, the sumptuous and complex poetry of the white line and all its lost, lonesome heroes. Yeah, there’s just something about it, something often quite miserable but thanks to its spit and polish beauty, something completely inspiring, whether I understand it or not.
Sadly, there aren’t that many cowboys doing their thing musically any more, and if they are, the worldwide audience just isn’t hearing it. Which is why Cowboy Nation is so timely, and hard not to embrace. According to band members guitarist Chip Kinman, singer and bassist Tony Kinman and drummer “Taco” John Norman, they seek to preserve cowboy music’s “tightly guarded persona with a tough-as-nails attitude”—something they do with every tune on their latest offering, Cowgirl A-Go-Go.
Cowgirl A-Go-Go has all the elements of a classic cowboy record. Kinman’s gloomy baritone meanders through track after track of workaday blues for boys on the road, spouting anthemic gems about rebellious country girls, rambunctious horses, and the lonely life of the rodeo rider. The boys also add a dark, punk edge to their songs placing them at the forefront of the alt.country / country-punk genre, adding a unique, compelling modern twist to their music.
Kinman’s often down and out lyrics are written in that classic country way, filled with classic Southern imagery, double meanings, caustic wit and irony. Songs “Last Ride Home” and “Girl Why Don’t You” are two examples of Cowboy Nation’s melding of the best elements of old-style cowboy music and new-wave sensibilities. “Last Ride” sees Kinman, the used-up horseman finally coming home after so long on the road. The story of the lonely man heading home is told so simply, yet still carries with it so much emotion and heartache, thanks to a dripping, haunting bass playing throughout. “Girl” is the classic story of the cowboy giving up his career on the road for the love of his special girl. But, obviously, nothing’s gonna be that easy. “I gave up the freedom of the range / And tried to live a steady life with you / The life I lead binds me like chain / I wish I didn’t love you so”, Kinman sings, the song more a gritty ode to the audacious rodeo life.
Cowgirl A-Go-Go also features stark contempt for pretense, with Kinman’s songwriting sticking true to rebellious cowboy form, upholding the philosophies of the blue collar man, and berating anything claiming to shine brighter than it actually does. “This world keeps on turning / We’re selling our short lives away / A man is worth just what he’s making / And I make about a buck a day”, Kinman sings on “Dollar a Day”, while on “Full Fathom Five”, he hits out at broken promises of glitz with, “So this is California, should I get down on my knees?”
“Good Old Days” follows this theme as well, perhaps to most startling effect. It’s really the only song that strays from cowboy classics, denigrating the desire to get back to simpler times by harshly bringing to light the failures of years gone by, which, according to Kinman, are far worse than any supposed evils of contemporary life. “What was so good about the good old days? / ... Do you remember the silence at an infant’s grave? / Sweet soul music from the cabin of a slave? / The doctor made a mess of your grandma’s dress / Be thankful for the gifts she gave”, Kinman sings, without complacency.
The love of a good woman is another pervading theme on the album, and Cowgirl A-Go-Go runs the gamut. There’s long-time loves so hard to break free from (“Girl Why Don’t You”), heart-breaking temptresses so far out of reach (“The idol of women / The desire of men / She could lead old Daniel / Back into the lion’s den” on the title track), the strong, independent radical who refuses to settle (“She was born in Carolina / The finest in the world / Her daddy was a rebel / And he’s her rebel girl” on “Rebel”) and, of course, the importance of a guiding mother (“Mom it’s your son knocking / Unlock the door and let me in / Put on a pot of coffee / And I’ll tell you where I’ve been” on “All I Had To Offer”).
There’s just so much to love on Cowgirl A Go-Go. Hopefully, the Cowboy Nation boys will soon see a resurgence in cowboy music, and, if the genre has to merge with punk in order for this to happen, seems it can’t hurt any.
// Notes from the Road
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