Top Ten Cowgirl Songs of All Time

Doris Day as Calamity Jane.

We talk about a lot of things here at Left Coast Cowboyland. A little bit of politics, some green living tips, a smattering of gardening, some horticulture, lots of wildlife, critter poo and encounters, and terrier adventures. But one thing I’m starting to realize, no matter what scintillating posts I put up, I will never write anything more popular than my countdown of the Top Ten Cowboy Songs of All Time. Yup, look over in the very next column. I routinely change up my most popular posts from Most Popular of the Day, Week, Year or All Time. Doesn’t matter the time period, that cowboy song post is always at the top. And it’s the post that brings the greatest number of foreign readers over here. If there is a reason, Left Coast Cowboys is the most popular blog in Albania — and I’m still claiming that title — it’s that post, although it was my themed Christmas music posts that really cemented my on-line standing with those east of the Elbe.

So in a shameless bid to garner more web hits. And to demonstrate to Eastern Europe that I’m working for my fans, let me serve you up a companion post. I predict this one will soon be Number Two with a bullet.

Instead of making this list, I could have just steered you to this CD. Every song is a cowgirl classic.

Here they are: The Top Ten Cowgirl Songs of All Time. And here’s how they were chosen. While a cowboy song can sometimes be classified as a country song, very few country songs also qualify as true cowboy songs as I see them. To be a cowboy song — or cowgirl song, as the case is here — the singer has to hit at least some of these criteria: 1) gotta be singing about something from the cowboy lifestyle. Ridin’, ropin’, wranglin’ or loving those who do. 2) To make this list, I’m demanding a special kind of voice, preferably with that “high lonesome” that features in so many of the greatest cowboy songs. 3) If it isn’t a classic yet, it has to demonstrate the makings of it. And finally, 4) you can only imagine the singer in cowboy gear and surrounded by cattle, horses or cactus while singing it. To sum up with an example, while I love Ella Fitzgerald singing Cow-Cow Boogie — and it does include the phrase “git along little dogies” and it is about a cowboy — it conjures up nothing west of New York City Jazz clubs. So it doesn’t make this list. Here’s what does:

1. Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers. I Want to Be a Cowboy Sweetheart. This has got it all: yodeling, lyrics about cowboy stuff, and classic status. And how can you not be a cowgirl with a name like Patsy Montana?

2. Patsy Cline. San Antonio Rose. As long as we’re on Patsys and classics. Has anyone ever done this Western standard better? If she didn’t possess one of the best voices ever in Country Western music, Patsy Cline would have secured her status with her great stage outfits. And this one has the Alamo in it. Can’t get more Western than that.

The great Patsy Cline makes the list for her voice. But she could really rock the cowgirl look.

3. Emmylou Harris. Kern River. Frankly, you could fill a greatest Cowgirl Song list completely with Emmylou songs. So many great ones: Amarillo, The Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Montana Cowgirl, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, I’ll Be Your San Antonio Rose. Most of them from her fabulous Songs of the West album. But I generally find California under-represented in cowboy songs, even though we were just as wild as the rest of them. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt once said, “When I am in California, I feel I’m in the West of the West.” In Kern River, Emmylou tackles the classic cowboy topics of love, tragic death, driftin’ and Western landscapes. Plus, it was written by Merle Haggard, the original Country music outlaw. ‘Nuff said.

4. Linda Ronstadt. Desperado. She’s Emmylou’s soul sister and, as a daughter of a famous Tucson pioneer family, she has plenty of cowgirl cred. Linda doesn’t usually tackle cowboy themes, although she recorded one of the best versions of Old Paint ever. Here she gets the nod in the category of that high lonesome cowboy feeling. Desperado, which she has said she sang as if she were singing it to herself, fits the bill. If she’s thinking of herself as a desperado, she’s a cowgirl.

5. Dixie Chicks. Cowboy Take Me Away. Like Emmylou, a whole greatest cowgirl songs list could be made with just Dixie Chicks songs. It was a close call between this and Wide Open Spaces, but the subject matter of Cowboy Take Me Away just had to win out.

6. Tish Hinojosa. In the Real West. Another under-represented group in cowboy song lists are the Hispanic voices. Not on my lists! Here, Tejana singer/songwriter Tish Hinojosa holds that place. If you discover just one singer this year, let it be her, especially her wonderful Culture Swing CD. She sings sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, but always with that characteristic catch in her voice I associate with Spanish singing. Think a less earnest, more playful Joan Baez with a Tex-Mex overlay.

7. Nanci Griffiths. Across the Great Divide. I love this Texan gal’s singing and she has so many songs to choose from. It finally came down between Divide and Ford Econoline, her musical tribute to how the great Utah folk singer, Rosalie Sorrells, escaped an abusive relationship and lit out for fame and glory toting five kids in an old Ford van. Surely a modern day version of a cowgirl saga on par with anything Marty Robbins could write. But in the end, I went for the poetry of Great Divide, where Nanci uses that iconic boundary of the West — “where the rivers change direction” — to stand in for a life changing moment.

8. Kitty Wells. It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. Another classic. And if there ever were iconic figures of the West, it would have to be the “soiled doves”, saloon gals and other not quite respectable ladies who made their way out here against all convention. Kitty tells you how the modern day version of them might have ended up that way.

9. K.D. Lang. Trail of Broken Hearts. K.D. is from real cowboy country, but think the Calgary Stampede instead of a Texas roundup. That doesn’t keep her from working one of the best “high lonesome” voices anybody’s West has ever heard. I could just as easily have chosen Big Boned Gal, but I already included it on my Best Cowboy Songs list. This one is just as good.

10. Loretta Lynn. You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man). Okay, she’s not really a Western singer in any sense of the word. But I think this song could be sung by any cowgirl worth her six shooter. If the West was a place where the men were tough, I bet the women were even tougher. And you wouldn’t get between a cowgirl and her cowboy. So forget for a moment all that coal mining heritage. I think you can easily imagine Loretta bursting through the swinging doors on a saloon, twirling a couple of pistols and chasing off the female varmint making eyes at her cowboy.

That’s my list. I could have made it three times as long. But I want to hear from you. What other songs should have been included?

(While you’re thinking, I’ll leave you with Tish Hinojosa and The Real West.)

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Author: Lisa

Although I'd like to think of myself as a rootin', tootin', wine-makin' cowgirl, I currently only live in Sonoma part-time. Mostly I'm on freeways between San Jose, San Francisco and Sonoma. With two yapping terriers in crates behind me. We try to enjoy all three places and points in between. Which will explain why my post subjects are all over the map.

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  4. Love Gillian Welch, but had to restrict myself to the very narrow category of Cowgirl music. Which meant songs with ropin’ and ridin’.

  5. Wow, I’m REALLY surprised you didn’t include Gillian Welch on this list. IMO, she is the new queen of real American roots country.

  6. Bonzize, thanks!

    I’m afraid Two Terrier wine will never be on shelves in Utah, or much of anywhere outside of Sonoma County. We don’t make enough and we aren’t a big enough operation for the expense of a distributor. Our market will be the restaurants, wine shops and independent wine tasting rooms of this area. But currently, we aren’t even bonded to sell!

    Right now my husband jokes that we have Johnny Cash wine. To paraphrase his famous song, you pick it up one bottle at a time and it won’t cost you a dime.

  7. I’ve been reading your stuff at the Womens Colony and now your blog. You are some writer – rational, opinionated, and a wonderful woman. I look forward to seeing Two Terriers on the shelves of our local wine store someday (that would be Salt Lake City). Thank you!

  8. Girl of the Golden West is a wonderful opera — and a welcome change from all the old Puccini warhorses that are often dragged out over and over again.

    It’s got Gold Rush miners, Pony Express riders, saloon girls, Mexican bandits, Native Americans and lots of cheating at cards. (Synopsis here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_fanciulla_del_West )

    I haven’t seen it in years, so I might put this on my list.

    And Daughters of the Purple Sage: fantastic. What harmonies!

  9. http://sfopera.com/o/291.asp

    The universe is spinning and aligning with your writing, Lisa. I was sent this announcement from the SF Opera. I immediately thought of you and your cow gal post. Although I would love to wander up that way and enjoy the performance, my boycott of the City will probably still be in effect. What a shame. I will be delighted to read a review if you attend.

    I would like to add Daughters of the Purple Sage for your consideration. Here’s a few songs you can enjoy.
    http://www.thedaughters.com/recordings/

  10. I thought of Gretchen Wilson, but I classify her as country rather than cowboy.

  11. Most popular blog in Albania until CarmaSez got a rep from an Albanian TV station to comment on her blog that is….

    How about something by Gretchen Wilson – not exactly a cowgirl, but pretty she’s got the attitude. Or is it more “redneck” than “cowgirl”

  12. Note to self: look up Shelly West. Done. Second note to self: put her on upcoming list.

  13. Shelly West – Holy crap THAT is an excellent suggestion. I have sung/sang Jose Cuervo countless times.

    Linda Ronstadt can sing ANYTHING. I love her mariachi songs.

    This was a fun post, Lisa.

  14. Shelly West – Jose Cuervo (You are a Friend of Mine)
    Her voice meets the “High Lonesome” criteria. She talks about cowboys, bars, and guns. Admittedly, now mention of horses or cows.

    I’d also nominate Crystal Gayle for her version of “Cool, Clear, Water” … but obviously I was delirious when I saw her performance on Austin City Limits? PBS presents? Anyway … cowboys and water .. I saw a listing for Joni Mitchell – so I’ll give her the nod – since it’s clear the Jose Cuervo might be effecting me!

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