Cowboy Culture

A Personal Reflection

“I don’t consider that there is any place in the world that offers the subjects that the West offers. Everything in the West is life, and you want life in art...the field to me is inexhaustible.”—Frederic Remington, 1900

I was standing on a stage, singing cowboy music at a benefit to raise money for the legal defense of Kit Laney, a rancher near the Gila Wilderness who was jailed for balking at the idea that all he had worked for, all he had built, could be taken away by the U.S. Forest Service with no scientific justification.

I found it ironic that only a few years ago, I had been hired by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to perform for the 50th Anniversary of the Gila Wilderness. I’ve always liked the Gila area, and I’ve always been intrigued by Aldo Leopold, who advocated protecting it. According to his daughter, Nina Leopold, Leopold loved cowboy music, ranchers, hunting, fishing and the people of the Southwest—though he spent the majority of his career in Wisconsin. While Leopold certainly was a conservationist, he was not anti-hunting, anti-agriculture, or anti-rancher. His idea was to involve private property owners in good conservation practice—not confiscate land. He hated over-grazing, as do the vast majority of ranchers—it’s their resource. As Kit Laney told me, “I have absolutely no problem with the idea of the Gila Wilderness, and meetings with the Leopold Society went well.” Laney impressed me as a good man, who was being bullied for no good reason.

(L-R) Kit Laney, Sherry Farr, Michael Martin Murphey, and Cowboy Poet, Doc Mayer

The performance space in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico was packed to the rafters, and Laney was sitting on the front row. I started out singing old cowboy songs, then moved on to some contemporary songs written by cowboys and ranchers—a few of the songs were my own. As I sang, I looked into the faces of those present. What was going on in my mind at that moment? Why would a large group of people, not all of them in cowboy hats and boots, turn out in big numbers, to hear old cowboy songs and new ones, and pay for the experience—all in the name of a rancher who defied a court order to reduce his cattle numbers, and then refused to leave his ranch home? Were they all just a bunch of sagebrush rebel ranchers, on a tear about the government?

Well, as it turned out, most of the audience present that evening were not ranchers and cowboys. But they were something bigger than that. They were members of a distinct culture—a culture that goes beyond the boundaries of the United States of America; a culture of the community of people who are involved in the life and business of grazing—or are touched by it, or find inspiration from it. But that led to another question. Why does the lifestyle of people who raise grazing animals inspire such a desire for artful expression? Stay with me.

The 20th Anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada featured Mongolian Cowboy Poets and Musicians. That’s right—Mongolians! This was the culmination of the ongoing mission of the Gathering to track down and showcase the poetry and music of grangers from around the world. I was not only transfixed by the music and stories about the Mongolian ranges (which I understood—thanks to a translator who was on stage with them), I was even more enchanted by the Mongolian cowboys’ personalities. I wanted to get to know them, and I got the chance.

I was invited to a post-Gathering party at the home of a local Nevada rancher, where it was said that the Mongolians would be present. I jumped at the chance, and the chance played out. As I spoke to them through a translator, these Mongolians spoke of the same kind of problems with bureaucrats that we have in America. As cowboys and ranchers, they exhibited qualities and ideals that are universal to the culture of cowboys—they wanted to be free, and left alone. They didn’t want people who live far away to determine their way of life, and they had plenty of songs about the beauty of the free life they revere.

The conversation with the Mongolians lingered in my mind, and still haunts me today. Together with the music and poetry of other cowboy cultures—American Buckaroos and Cattlemen, the Australians, New Zealanders, Hawaiians, the U.K. beef raisers, the Canadians, the Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans (who can deny the nobility of the Gauchos?), African herdsmen, and so many more, there is a considerable body of work that can only be described as derivative of culture. And the themes are remarkably unified: independent spirit, precision and dedication in work, fiercely defensive of place and property, and dismay at the interfering greenhorn who knows little about the rules of the range.

To return to the North American range, the amount of cultural material relating to the cowboy is overwhelming and staggering. The cowboy and his experiences have been reflected in an overwhelming body of work that confounds those who think culture is related to the more refined endeavors of those who write about refinement in a refined way. Does this sound redundant? Of course it does, and that’s the problem. It’s all about the ever-tightening inner-circle of those who think their degrees qualify them in the ranks of the Art-and-Culture Police. Most people in academic settings, who define what culture should be, are convinced that no artful good thing can come from the people who work the land—thus, the ever-present “aggie jokes” and “redneck” references regarding anyone who comes from the much-despised back country of anywhere.

Allow me a telling example. The study of artists and sculptors, Art History and Criticism, had been a legitimate genre of study in major universities for a long time. Yet it has only been in the last 5 years that Oklahoma State University initiated the first Art History degree with a special certification in Western Art. Why? Western art has been looked down upon as the unwanted step-child of the more urbane aficionados of the “Arts” who have long thought that Western art was the quaint commercial art of the unenlightened lower classes from the country regions. You see, it is assumed that those who grow food and work with grazing animals must be uneducated, uncouth, and fraught with the accompanying ignorant political positions that come with too many days too close to the dirt.

Western art has it genesis in the American fascination with cowboys and Indians. It started long before film and pulp fiction, and shows no signs of diminishing. From the vibrant early impressions of Carl Bodmer to the realism-gone-abstract imagistic starkness of Georgia O'Keefe, Western art is loved, and thriving—all over the world. The cowboy artists of old are now recognized by museums and millions of visitors, as masters—Charlie Russell, Buck Dunton, Fredrick Remington, Maynard Dixon, W.R. Leigh, Joe Beeler, Gordon Snidow—the list is long, and growing. At last, a university has decided to acknowledge the importance of its study, by offering a degree program for it.

The American Western Film has recently passed its 100th birthday. The Great Train Robbery (1903), the first commercial feature film, was a huge hit in its day, and public fascination for the Western film hasn’t stopped. It slows down at times, but it doesn’t stop. Between 1926 and 1967, more than 3,600 Western feature films were made in America by major and independent studios. When television came in, hit westerns became a staple, with more than 600 Western series running from 1949 to the present. Today, films like Crossfire Trail and Monty Walsh are capturing huge audiences on television, and features like Open Range are succeeding, in spite of predictions to the contrary. Western television series, whether the mini-series type, like Lonesome Dove, or extended series like Doctor Quinn, Young Riders, and Deadwood have achieved startling numbers in the ratings, while Western features like Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone, The Horse Whisperer, and Open Range have also produced considerable box-office success.

Western literature has always been a hit with readers around the world, and it still is. From the days of dime-novel pulp fiction, to Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Louis L’Amour, to McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Western setting and the cowboy theme has always proved popular, and is getting increasingly legitimate recognition as a fertile ground for creative writing.

Western non-fiction is a rich motherlode of insight into the very concept of a frontier. Though a comprehensive bibliography of essential Western non-fiction has not been compiled, it’s a subject that attracted great historians, presidents, adventurers, down-to-earth workers in the soil, and everyday frontier people. Teddy Roosevelt was inspired to tackle the subject in the 1880s, and he waxed eloquent. Yet, Western history is certainly not widely available to American History students, even in the universities of Western states.

The overwhelming success of cowboy poetry has inspired many men and women of the range, across the nation, to write poetry about this lifestyle. Yet most academics dismiss it as insignificant, as beneath the serious attention of more sophisticated types who write, study and read “serious” poetry. Yet it’s been around since the last half of the 19th century, and it’s astounding how much of it is published and bought in the open marketplace of bookstores and specialty shops. From early masters like D.J. O’Malley, Badger Clark, Bruce Kiskaddon, Gail Gardner, Henry Herbert Knibbs, S. Omar Barket and Curley Fletcher—to latter-day craftsmen like Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell, Wallace McRae, and Doc Mayer, the size of the movement, and the swiftness of its rise to popularity is astounding. Yet you don’t hear about it much in the media. How can such a powerful movement be ignored so often?

Cowboy music is experiencing a wide-spread revival, closely related to the ascendancy of cowboy poetry. There are now hundreds of successful cowboy singers roaming the country. They’re below the hip culture radar. Again, it’s been around since the early post-Civil War era, and has always enjoyed popular success. From Jules Verne Allen, Jack Thorp, John I. White and Carl T. Sprague, to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers, to Marty Robbins, to Don Edwards, and Red Steagall, the music of the cowboy is growing so fast it can’t be denied. Yet when was the last time you saw anything about it in the media? “Country music” isn’t interested. Nashville-based music executives pressure people to write almost anything besides a cowboy song or a song of the range.

Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first in the ranch country of North Dakota to reach wide audiences with entertaining and fascinating prose about ranch life in the West. In the 1880s, he wrote, “The moral tone of the cowcamp is rather high than otherwise.” He goes on to describe the remarkable sense of decorum among them. Since Roosevelt was an outsider, no one liked him right away, but he eventually became the President by convincing them that he was one of them at heart. He praised the cowboy over and over again.

I am saying all of these things with an end in mind. The elitists of the world cannot ignore the cultural importance of all of the activity in the cowboy and Western cultures. The “culture vultures” are just that; they feed on the dead, not the living. They will try, because if they can, crush it, they may have some success. But the end, it will flourish.

Cowboy culture and expression must be kept down by its detractors, precisely because they know they cannot pursue their own goals if millions are listening to cowboy poetry and music, buying Western arts and crafts, and watching Westerns at home or in theaters. But they will fail to keep it down. It’s like a herd of runaways! They started the chaos that led to the stampede, hoping to be rustlers of a loyal audience—but don’t worry! Cowboys will not only rescue that herd, they just might continue to win the hearts of millions.

No other group within a profession has inspired so many and so much. But today, there is a concerted effort to trivialize the music of the cowboy, because people have been force-fed the idea that cattle are not good for the land, and horses are a trivial pursuit. Science tells us otherwise. The cowboy of today has been called a “romantic,” “believer in myths,” and dismissed as a person of little value. Yet it is that tenacious romanticism about the lifestyle that keeps the range in good shape, because those who love the life simply won’t give up.

A cynic who decides to do a little research in this area ought to start by visiting The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma—then head on over to the Philbrook in Tulsa, the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, the Sid Richardson Gallery of Fort Worth, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of Cody, Wyoming, to name a few. There is no doubt in my mind that a cynical person, however negative, will walk out a changed person.

Respect and open-mindedness for the “Culture of Agriculture” is one of the most important things for those who run our government to consider. Until those in our nation acquire it, Americans are creating a tinderbox that could torch the whole resource—and alas, so few will be remembered. But it could also backfire, and the wind could blow the fires in a different direction. The stampede might turn, too. There are still brave people out there, who are, as Fredrick Remington said, “full of life.” Their code won’t allow them to stand by and watch anyone get hurt.

The time has come. Cowboy Culture is worthy of respect from the highest institutions of art and culture. The world cannot long ignore the depth of the culture of agriculture. If the influence of agriculture on culture were not there, virtually every art and science would be unimaginably bare.

The cultural revolution of our day will come from people of the land. The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that those who are working in the fields and taking care of the land have a great deal to say, and much of it has profound depth. Simple truth and plain expression is always the most profound—and now, the world is beginning to listen.

Michael Martin Murphey in concert at the Freedom 21 Conference in Reno