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 Bob 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.
Four Strong Winds.
You can’t leave out–Don’t Fence Me In.
Love that others have favorite cowboy songs! Obviously there were many good ones left off the list. But “Don’t Fence Me In” was written by Cole Porter who was the epitome of the Eastern Dude and about as far from a cowboy as you could get. And wasn’t Ian Tyson’s song about migrant workers in Alberta? Good song, but not a cowboy hall of famer.
How about “a country boy can survive”? or “big city”? merle haggard
Whoops sorry just saw you weren’t looking for country but cowboy (sorry, I love country, and proud of it, old country that is, so I just assumed when I saw mention of “cowboy:)
How about . . . does “El Paso” count?
“Out in the west texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl . . .”
I considered el paso for #3, but opted for big iron. More cowboy.
p.s your place looks great
Catching-up on your blog….
Nice to see pics of the west decored casa!
I’m actually the result of one of those western swing musicians so I was happy to read your Top-10 list. There are too many for me to try and choose.
“Big Balls in Cowtown” gets my vote. A family thing. Not enough beer for “Beer for my Horses”. What would Andy and I and our other Brit friends do? What a fabulous trip and a great way to remember it. Mel
Your post Top Ten Cowboy Songs of All Time | Left Coast Cowboys was very interesting when I found it over google on Saturday by my search for michael martin murphey. I have your blog now in my bookmarks and I visit your blog again, soon. Take care.
Two words: Tom Russell
There is no need for anybody to ever write another cowboy song, because he’s already written it. “Tonight We Ride” is, hands down, THE BEST cowboy song ever written.
Don’t rein yourself in at all! It’s so insightful. Summarizing the story in a sentence is a great idea. Very hard to do.
Back in the 1930’s I went to a country school for a half year in Tillamook County, Oregon. 6th,m 7th & 8th grade kids in one room. For Music a couple of times a week we sang Cowboy songs. All I can remember is Strawberry Roan, Little Joe the Wrangler, and Red River Valley., And they are still some of my favorite songs. I just wish I could remember all the words.
Found your site today for first time. I noticed you have Big Balls In Cowtown by George Wills, it is actually BOB WILLS. He is considered to still be the King by many where ever you go. Hopefully you can make the correction. It is nice work you did with the site. Happy Trails. I am an old cowhand and have guitar and saddle; will travel.
Thought you might like this Cowboy Song
What were the conditions of the cattle drive for vaqueros?
awfully hard to chose one..sort of depends on my mood, but george strait,”can’t beat them cowgirls” is my biography, maybe the only song with duct tape in it..a cowgirls best friend followed by her twin..orange twine
My granddaughter thinks “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, is a cowboy song because of the seeming galloping sounds which begin a few measures in continue throughout the song.
Two of my favorite Cowboy songs aren’t by Western or Cowboy musicians, but still are very much of the proper spirit, I think.
The first is ‘Frank and Jesse James’ by the late, great Warren Zevon, for reasons that should be obvious:
The other is ‘Gil Blanco County’ by Blue Öyster Cult:
(no, really, I’m serious – once you get past the first half minute of it, it’s not traditionally western by any means, but it captures wonderfully the sort of mythical old west that never quite actually existed, except in spaghetti westerns)
Also, as much as I love Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, I’m partial to the original version by Burl Ives.
Love the site, love the music. I knew some of the very last old school cowboys who started rounding up cattle in the 1910s and they were pretty stoic. If they heard a “fancy” version of anything they would dismiss it! They worked in Some of the early Hollywood movies as horse wranglers, extras and stunt doubles. It wasn’t easy to find recording they liked but one that stands out in my memory was Pete Seeger’s album Outlaws. Still a good listen!
The Streets of Laredo by Marty Robbins is my favorite cowboy song.