The image of the cowboy in the American West holds fascination and power. It’s a portable symbol that has been utilized for a variety of purposes, whether in entertainment, marketing, or politics. The cowboy myth was perpetuated in dime store novels and show business while the events associated with the Wild West were still happening. Wild Bill Hickok — already a legend of the West — performed on stage before he ever stepped foot in Deadwood. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was founded by Buffalo Bill Cody in 1883 as the last of the cattle drives were still happening across the West. When the first silent movies were first produced, westerns were among the most popular. The 1903 film The Great Train Robbery and 1904’s Brush Between Cowboys and Indians, both directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison, are generally considered the earliest silent westerns, barely more than a decade after the last tracts of land had been claimed by settlers. The cowboy archetype was created through these westerns. According to historian Mary Halnon,

“The Western hero is the possessor of physical strength, stamina, and an innate sense of the right thing to do; he rejects eloquence, refinement, and superior intelligence as standards of measure.”

The actor whose on-screen persona most exemplified these supposed ideals was John Wayne. Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote the following about “The Duke” for the New Republic in 1979:

“[Wayne] had never been a real-life Western hero like Tom Mix, nor even a real-life cowboy like Gary Cooper, but rather a druggist’s son in pinched middle-class surroundings. From an early age he found a more satisfying existence on the movie screen, and he labored long and hard to paint himself on that magical canvas so that it would seem that he had always inhabited it. In the end Wayne himself was just about all that was left of the Old West in our imagination.”

Wayne crafting his own image to fit that of the cowboy characters he played on-screen is a reflection of America’s penchant for self-creation and self-determination. The famous adage from one of Wayne’s best movies, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, aligns well with the Wayne self-made image: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The cowboy has been and continues to be a go-to image for the advertising industry. The most potent example is the “Marlboro Man” campaign by the Phillip Morris Co. from 1954 through 1999, depicting a sturdy and tough cowboy-type figure in arresting scenic vistas in the American West. The compelling symbol of the cowboy is telling as sales for Marlboro saw “a 300% increase within two years” with the launch of the campaign. Of course, artists continued to be attracted by the cowboy, but it was the pervasive nature of the Marlboro Man campaign that inspired artist Richard Prince. He photographed the advertisements themselves, removing the text and the rest of the advertisement content to focus solely on the cowboy within the landscape and presenting the new re-purposed images as stand-alone pieces. Prince’s Cowboys series perpetuates the highly-idealized myth of the freedom of the cowboy. As art critic Rosetta Brooks writes:

“In both the geographical and cultural sense, a cowboy is an image of endurance itself, a stereotypical symbol of American cinema. He is simultaneously the wanderer and the mythological symbol of social mobility. Even today, the image of the cowboy has not lost its luster.”

Bill Callahan has utilized the figure of the cowboy in the American landscape within selected songs throughout his career. One example is “Drover,” an acid western that subverts the traditional myths of the American West by exploring the costs of living on stolen land as previously discussed on Recliner Notes. In a 2020 interview with Flood, Callahan acknowledged this trend in his work by saying, “I’m…well aware that Western expansion was an awful bloodbath of cruelty and fighting and killing.” With this context, he decided to take a different approach for the song “Cowboy” on his 2020 album Gold Record, trying to “distill those parts that I like about westerns and show how it can apply to a guy sitting on his couch watching TV”:

The song starts with Callahan playing a solo on the acoustic guitar before the other instruments join the extended musical introduction. The core riff in this intro is the same “bomp-ba-dee-da” sound representing the clopping of horseshoes on the trail from the song “Happy Trails” by Roy Rogers:

Dubbed the “King of the Cowboys” for his numerous appearances in westerns for both film and television, Rogers closed every episode of his television show with his wife Dale Evans by singing “Happy Trails.” The lyrics of the song represent a sentimental tip of the hat:

Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.
Happy trails to you,
Keep smiling until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song, and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.

These lines display a corny, yet benevolent and idealistic view of the West. Callahan purposefully invokes these feelings by including the sound of whistling off in the distance as if a cowboy is plodding along on the trail. Callahan begins sing his own words in “Cowboy” with:

Well, I’ve been living like a cowboy
On the late, late movie.

In an interview with Aquarium Drunkard in 2021, Callahan expanded on his thoughts about watching westerns late at night:

“But back in the 80s when we had only a few TV channels there would be one movie on late at night, the Late Movie, and then another Late Late Movie, after that. For an insomniac high schooler it was a real place of half dreamy, half awake self-actualization. A lot of John Ford westerns. Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda — they presented role models, or moral options to consider. And at that hour, there was a real sense of being able to FEEL the other people watching the movie — the sleepless, the lonely, the lost. Or just people that loved life and didn’t want to go to sleep!”

In this quote, Callahan names the moral issues at play in westerns that were important for him as a teenager. He also remembers the sense of community created by the late night movies among viewers. Even though it’s an imaginary cohort, it’s important as a teenager to believe that you fit and belong with someone. Combining these memories that helped shape him with the romantic tendencies of “Happy Trails,” Callahan pushes the instructive nature of old westerns in “Cowboy.” Callahan continues singing:

All I need is whisky, water, tortillas and beans
And buffalo meat, one time per week
And give me some loving
When I come to town.

Back to Callahan’s interview with Flood magazine, he talked further about what he learned about the cowboy life rom the movies:

Robert Duvall said that westerns and jazz are the only true American art forms that we created. I’ve always loved the minimalism of Western life where people only have what they could carry on their horse. In movies I always found it so beautiful when they’re around a campfire and making coffee. It’s such a simple thing. Everyone’s crazy for coffee, and they drink it before bed, too. And also whiskey. I guess people were constantly drunk back then, which is kind of appealing [laughs].”

“Cowboy” continues:

Riding in on a conversation the morning after
The late, late movie stays with me.

Here, Callahan connects the idea of the narrator imagining being a cowboy in a movie and how it impacts his real, waking life. The movie “stays with” him as it provides insight and guidance in approaching the subject of the conversation. Throughout the song, a trumpet calls out as if from far away, answering Callahan’s vocals. The utilization of the trumpet in “Cowboy” is similar to the great desert noir band Calexico and their trumpet-forward sound, best demonstrated on “Stray” from the 1998 album The Black Light:

Callahan continues:

Through the mountain pass and the prairie grass
Crossing the border like a river
It’s all one river
It’s all one river crossing
So many times, I can’t remember one river.

This is a beautiful set of words, recognizing the ubiquity of rivers and the significance of river crossings in the life of a cowboy. Yet it also serves as a wink to Callahan’s own audience since he has referenced rivers many times throughout his body of work. Two songs previously analyzed by Recliner Notes — “Say Valley Maker” and “From the Rivers to the Ocean” — speak to the magnitude of rivers to Callahan. By saying that he “can’t remember one river” seems like a funny little tweak to this continued trend in his songwriting. Callahan ends the song by singing:

Trying to fit it all in
Before the test pattern and the anthem
And off to bed you go, and off to sleep
And off to dream that trail you ride.

The first line — “Trying to fit it all in” — could be a nod to the abbreviated two-hour life of the cowboy in the late late movie. At the same time, it could be Callahan telling the listener that he is actually composing the song late at night, the time that was once preserved for the late late movie. The song recognizes that it’s time to say goodnight and for the cowboy and the songwriter himself to go off to sleep. Sleep and the conclusion of the song won’t stop this story as Callahan sings, “And off to dream that trail you ride.” This cowboy will continue to dream about life on the trail. Like Rogers signing off at the end of his television show, this is Callahan’s own way of wishing “happy trails” to the listener. The song ends with whistling again over the extended musical outro. The trumpet lets out one more call and the song ends with what sounds like the wind blowing gently over the landscape. One more cowboy lays his head down on the trail or on the pillow on his bed. With “Cowboy,” Callahan drops the menace inherent to his acid westerns such as “Drover.” This serious grappling with the legacy of the cowboy has been replaced instead with a sleepy dad who is no longer able to stay up late to watch westerns. He  falls asleep on his couch and knows that he needs to return to his own bed. Happy trails, indeed. 

Image: Forbes, Edwin (1839-1895). Illustrateur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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