Cowboy Music in the Urban Archipelago
As we speak, I’m listening to a three-disc collection called Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition. It’s a box set compiled by Sony Nashville that, from what I can tell, has something to do with Wrangler jeans. I can’t say much for the liner notes, but the collection itself is pretty exhaustive. I’m not looking to write a review about it; it’s just got me thinking about this trend that’s been emerging over the last couple of years where folks like me in cities like this one (Seattle) are cottoning up to the old school of country music.
A good friend recently commented on the tendency our local hipsters have of pulling on cowboy boots as a fashion statement; absurd to her, whose boots are actually caked with manure she stepped in when she was enticing her giant horse toward the barn for a brushing. Then again, we live in Seattle, where someone like her can keep their horse on the other side of the lake, on a sprawling farm that backs up to 400 acres of horse trails. Here in the grunge capital, we’re still living in the wild west, the final outpost of the country before you drop into the Pacific. Back east, near my hometown down south, and in Texas where country singers make an honest living, we’re almost too far out on the frontier for them to even pull their rental vans into town to set up their pedal steels on the sticky stage at the Tractor Tavern. Somehow, for all these reasons, it’s starting to make some sense to me that Seattleites are turning on to country music. It might look like a city, but we locals know the truth of things. Then again, I get paid to think people love this stuff and I drank the kool-aid a good decade ago when “roots” and country music (not to be confused with the other “country” music) were in a brief period of remission.
So what’s bringing it all back? I can’t believe it’s only going on out here in the wild west. I can’t believe I’m the only person under 35 who would spend a rainy day grooving to Willie and Waylon singing “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” I know because I hear it in the music that’s coming out of our local scene these days, but I also hear it coming from folks my age in the Carolinas, Colorado, the Boston songwriter scene, etc.
I have this crazy idea that it’s a reaction to the political atmosphere we’ve gotten into. Maybe we’re so far past a need to sing protest songs. We missed that train (though of course I know well plenty of people have been singing those songs). We long ago passed the “just cheer up” and “just buck up” music. We’re in a pathetic environmental and economic disaster zone, still shaking the dust off the ideas of justice and community that have been lying somewhat dormant (at least in the greater, umbrella of America sense) for the duration of the Bush Years. But, I’ve suggested this to some of the artists making this music and they all tend to think about it for 30 seconds before shaking their head and saying something about how it just feels more honest and accessible. But why? Why all at once? No songwriter exists in a vacuum. We’re older than our parents were when they started digging up all those obscure old timey tunes and Harry Smith’s Anthology and all those other styles that roots labels like Rounder were founded on. So it’s hard to swallow what older and wiser folks have told me about every generation getting turned onto this stuff when they’re young.
I don’t have an answer, but it’s becoming an obsession of mine. Probably in no small part because I’m me (a folk and country song singing freelance roots music reporter) and I live where I live, a town known for its rock and roll – forget that Jimi was a blues guitarist, Ray was a country singer, and Kurt liked to cover Leadbelly. Of course the easy answer is that it never went away. When I started writing rootsy songs 13 years ago and I called myself a folksinger or whatever other word I could come up with, it struck most people as an odd choice for a young person with a musical inclination. Now, it seems normal for the young and hip to sidle up to these yodeling country songs and all that other rootsy stuff ND has spoken to over the years…to claim an artistic connection with Willie and Waylon, Merle, Roy, and Hank.
What’s changed? Any ideas?