A quick dinner trip to Sonoma’s Girl & The Fig the other day and the arrival of Andy last night has saved me from going completely feral as I manned the winemaking and evaluated the grape harvest alone this week. That was a week with no TV, no radio, no Internet and spotty cell reception. It was dicey Thursday when I found myself talking to wildlife – especially large, horned wildlife. I’m better now.
One thing that has stuck as a result of my week of living “Country Dangerously” is that I’ve been listening to a lot of Western and Cowboy music. No, I don’t mean Country. Especially not that Pop crap with a twang overlay that passes for Country today. I mean good old fashioned cowboy songs. Think Marty Robbins, Sons of the Pioneers, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Gunfights, cantinas, cattle drives. THAT Western music.
And I’ve made a list. I’ve tried to mix things up. There are the classics, but there are also some surprises.
Don’t like Westerns you say? Sure you do. Star Wars was nothing but a big Western set in space. And Indiana Jones was a cowboy in a fedora. Even George Lucas admits it.
If you think you’ll be spending any time gazing at the landscapes of the American West. Or looking through a book of Edward Curtis photographs. You’ll want this soundtrack.
So from one whose brain is now thoroughly saturated with Whoopie Ti Yi Yays and Yippee Ki Yays, let me offer this humble list:
The Top Ten Cowboy Songs of All Time
1. Whoopie Ti Yi Yo (Git Along Little Dogies). This sort of has to top the list, although the list is in no particular order. Many cowboy stars have recorded this, but I’m partial to Charlie Daniels’ version. He’s got just the right sort of rough Texan voice and, of course, that great fiddle to really put the song across. Note to non-Americans, the chorus is “Git along little DOGIES” (pronounced DOH-gees) not “Doggies”. A dogie is a young male calf. Contrary to what one of my English friends thought, cowboys did not wrangle herds of dogs along with their cattle.
2. Ghost Riders in the Sky. Again, many versions to choose from, but how can you go wrong with Johnny Cash. His deep bass-baritone is perfect for this ghostly tale of a cowboy’s version of Hell.
3. Big Iron. No list of cowboy songs is complete without a song of outlaws and shootouts. Marty Robbins is the master of these and El Paso could be just as easily in this slot. But Big Iron edges it out as El Paso is more a love song where Big Iron is pure High Noon.
4. Cowboy Logic. Want to get inside the mind of a cowboy and learn his special way of doing things? Listen to this song. Charlie Daniels does a credible version but the winner has to be the one sung by Michael Martin Murphey. Murphey has a couple of great cowboy albums out there and, if you get on his website, you can either buy his records or a Quarter Horse from his ranch. Now THAT’s a real cowboy singer.
5. Big Boned Gal. Just to mix things up with a contemporary song, a woman and a Canadian. K.D. Lang’s ode to a “full figured gal” with plenty of cowboy spirit hits the spot.
6. Cancion Del Mariachi. No list of cowboy songs would be complete without one or more Spanish songs, given that Vaqueros accounted for a large percentage of the people punching cattle in the Old West. This song, sung by Antonio Banderas and Los Lobos, is from Once Upon a Time in Mexico, one part of Robert Rodriquez’s stylish Mexican answer to the Man With No Name Series. This was the song Banderas sang, in full leather Mariachi gear, in the cantina shortly before he opened fire and killed all the bandidos. It’s even got the requisite “Ai Yi Yi” chorus. ‘Nuff said.
7. Big Ball’s in Cowtown. This song deserves to be in the Hall of Fame on so many levels. Firstly, this version is by Asleep at the Wheel, the great Texas Swing band formed as a tribute to the immortal George Wills and the Texas Playboys who pretty much invented the genre. “Wheel” is helped out on this song by George Strait and a lot of “Yee Hawin” and fiddlin’.
8. Beer for my Horses. You couldn’t have a list like this and leave out the original outlaw, Willie Nelson. This is his explanation of frontier justice back when even the cowponies were tougher than you’ll ever be. Not that I’m advocating the return of “Necktie Parties”, but there are certain news days where you can almost see it Willie’s way:
“Justice is one thing you should always find
You gotta saddle up your boys
You gotta draw a hard line.
When the gunsmoke settles
We’ll sing a victory tune
And we’ll all meet back in the local saloon.
We’ll raise up our glasses against evil forces
Singin’ whiskey for my men and beer for my horses.
9. I Ride an Old Paint. Michael Martin Murphey does a more mournful take on this classic, but I prefer the upbeat version by Riders in the Sky complete with great fiddlin’ by Woody Paul, King of the Cowboy Fiddlers. As far as capturing the American spirit, my vote’s in for this as our National Anthem. It’s got all the REAL American elements: horses, wide open spaces, cussed independence and a touch of violence in the form of a “bloody knife fight” that doesn’t dampen a cowboy’s spirit.
10. Pops Roundup. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra? What cowboy cred could they have? Well, they’ve done something wonderful here by mixing all the most famous tunes from the great TV Westerns (Bonanza, Have Gun will Travel, Maverick, The Rebel, The Big Valley, Wagon Train and others) and melded them into the soundtrack for the greatest Western never produced.
Well, that’s the top ten. I could easily have made this twice as long. Or included the 400 cowboy songs that are in my Sonoma Cowboy Playlist on my iPod. If you’re coming my way, you’ll be listening to it. It’s the soundtrack for Two Terrier Vineyards.
Now, want to see how the other half sings? Check out The Top Ten Greatest Cowgirl Songs of All Time.