I Was a Cowboy

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I want to tell you why I love the new record by Jarred McCauley, but first I need to tell you about my love for a lost movie genre: The Western.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of being forced to sit and watch ‘old’ movies despite my repeated groans and protests. My misgivings were rooted in the perceived lameness of anything my parents thought warranted “family time” (often these perceptions were well-founded…Lawrence Welk?). In my mind, the surest sign of a hellish evening of forced entertainment was the appearance of a black and white title card on a snowy UHF-band station. These title cards were often followed by equally onerous names like James Stewart, Gary Cooper, or John Wayne.

Ugh. Ugh, I’d say. Do I have to, Dad? Can’t we watch Manimal instead?

In hindsight, it’s obvious that these under-duress movie nights were instrumental in my life-long love of cinema and storytelling. The first time I realized that black and white film didn’t necessarily equal nap time was while wondering who really shot Liberty Valance. I recall Dad ordering me to sit and watch under threat of some vague unpleasantry and I was determined that I would not like it. I’ve still only seen the movie that once but strangely, I think about it all the time. I was baffled when the movie ended. “So who shot him?” I asked. Dad just shrugged and smiled. One day I need to watch it again to see if it presents a definite answer. I hope it doesn’t because that was a watershed moment in my understanding of how stories worked and what they could do. Today some of my favorite stories are those that end with a question mark.

And then there was The Magificent Seven proving that bald could be cool, and Rio Bravo (dragging Dean Martin over from Lawrence Welk thereby imbuing Welk with a modicum of cool by association), and How the West was Won, and Big Jake, and The Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon, True Grit, and Rooster Cogburn. Man, what great titles. They’re bursting with the implication of heroics and adventure.

Dad was, heart and soul, John Wayne’s man. But I was Clint Eastwood’s. I watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly every time it was on and never missed a chance to see Hang ‘Em High, or The Outlaw Josey Wales, or A Fistful of Dollars. I was also anxious to see  Any Which Way but Loose but after I did I hoped someone would advise Clint to go back out west where he belonged.

My love of The Western culminated in parallel with my maturation as a high school senior. The year was 1989 and the western was Lonesome Dove. Every western since has been a bit of a let down. There have been great films, of course, especially Unforgiven (where I finally got my wish for Clint), but after Lonesome Dove ended and Augustus McRae was gone, those that came after seemed to be missing some magical ingredient. Perhaps in Lonesome Dove, The Western was perfected. Those six hours captured all the language, wonder, romance, and confident humility that I’d dreamed about in my childhood and the world thereafter could muster only a scant chase in pursuit of that fleeting dream.

The great Westerns had a mythic quality to them that was irresistible to me as a young man. The western hero embodied something that thrived in the dreams of boyhood, a spirit of adventure, of self-sufficiency; a boldness that isn’t afraid to fight for family or land or honor, a hunger to be oneself in the world and live like a ‘man’ in the archaic sense.

The prophets of Israel went into the wilderness to receive the word of God, but a cowboy? A cowboy lived in the wilderness. And when a cowboy came across bumbling easterners and city folk with their bowler hats and shaven faces, you knew at once who’d seen the mystery on the frontier and who was merely passing through on the way to San Francisco. Sometimes the mystery burned them and turned them hard and callous, but others came back wizened by the desert sun, vagabond prophets having seen, as Woodrow Call would say, a “hell of a vision.”

In adulthood these mysterious ideals have faded behind a mist of practicality and community and civilization. But when I’m surrounded by traffic signals and ringing phones and coffee on every corner I often feel the tug of the wild. I can’t escape the longing for the frontier, the pull to seek the mystery and find out if I’m equal to it, to discover whether I’m a grizzled prophet of the badlands or just a wandering traveller through parts unknown. When I dream, I dream of the West.

So on this fertile plain falls the music of Jarred McCauley. His album “Giants Among Men” (produced by Andrew Osenga) is a Western. It’s a Western in the classical sense. Its narratives remember the purity, and simplicity, and wonder that made a boy dream of the high country. It makes me want to go to the wilderness to sit and listen for the voice of God. It makes me remember things that I once thought I’d never forget. It recalls in me the dream of boyhood. And in that dream, I was a cowboy.

[audio:IWasACowboy.mp3]

Do yourself a favor and pick up “Giants Among Men” on iTunes, it’s less than $7.

I was a cowboy
Chasing down outlaws
Across mountains in the yard
My eyes were clear and hard

Riding stick horses
I’d shoot away evil
Out there I was simple and clean
Out there I was wild and free

And it made sense to be young
To write my name in stars above

From Arizona
Up through Montana
I’d ride deserts dry and old
‘Cross canyons filled with snow

And it made sense to be young
To write my name in stars above

Out there
Oh, out there
Out there

I shot my first gun
Out there
I kissed my first girl
Out there
I took my first drink
Out there

I wrote my first song
Out there
I built my first home
Out there
I saw God’s face
Out there

I was a cowboy
Chasing down outlaws
Out there

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


19 Comments

  1. benjamin christensen

    I really loved this post.

    I love westerns and when they come on AMC I always find myself enthralled in the adventure. So often my heart yearns to be “Out There” somewhere that is not here and perhaps not even now. I find myself often dreaming of being somewhere else just wandering or exploring the world that our amazing and wonderful Creator has given to us, instead of being stuck in the same old place all the time. I guess however I will continue to dream of escaping across this world and continue to dream of the day when I can be “Out There,” living the Cowboy life!
    Thanks Pete for capturing this.
    Thought you might mention Tombstone and Young Guns and The Man From Snowy River as well, but you stuck with the oldies. Why?

    Just purchased the album! Loving it!!! Would have had no clue, so thanks for sharing.

  2. PaulH

    NICE find, Pete! Downloading now. Just hearing the first few lines I am already transported.

  3. Jill

    I can’t really get past the Manimal link 😉
    My son was watching and said, “THAT… IS… AWESOME”.
    🙂

  4. PaulH

    A sidenote, I have always thought Hugh Jackman would a killer choice to remake any of Clint’s westerns.

  5. Tony from Pandora

    PaulH,

    I’m sure you mean Hugh GRANT.

    Ha, wouldn’t that be hilarious

  6. Dan K

    Great post!
    I can’t believe you dug out a chestnut like Manimal. It held a dear spot in my formative childhood until I caught a rerun in college. It was awful.

    As they say “nastalgia ain’t what it used to be”.

    You could have gone with any of much more worthy chestnuts (and I’m intentionally avoiding the sitcoms):
    Buck Rogers, Greatest American Hero, Incredible Hulk, Fall Guy, Hardcastle & McCormick, Riptide, A-Team, Airwolf, The Master, Street Hawk.

  7. Matt

    I think the same frontier ideas/emotions are attached to sci-fi for me (the likes of bradbury, clarke, & asimov) and are the reason I went into physics and astronomy.

  8. Leanore

    You guys – I’m addicted to you and the way you think.

    My husband loves those old Westerns too. How the West Was Won, winner of all time, especially the music. Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart.

    I personally like Gary Cooper and High Noon. Thanks to AP.

  9. Kurt McInnis

    Thanks for this. Raising boys into men is a heartbreaking thrill, both tender and tough. I need all the help I can get. I think required Westerns are in my boys’ futures.

  10. Marilyn

    I really enjoyed this song and this post, and I have a new appreciation for The Western. It made me think of my husband and wonder what he was probably like as a little boy. I’m glad he still has some cowboy in him.

  11. Travis Prinzi

    @travis

    Yes, great thoughts on westerns! The setting of the frontier, of unexplored territories, or places where governments haven’t yet had a chance to impose a particular order on a place has a very mythic feel about it. It’s a type of story that’s able to accomplish fairy-tale-like meaning without having a secondary magical world.

  12. becky

    My dad was also a western fan, whether on screen or in a book. I’ve watched most of the old John Wayne films, and read some Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray. I’m kinda partial to “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.” I, too, was subjected to Lawrence Welk on a weekly basis. And if we were driving home from Grandma’s house on a Sunday afternoon, my dad would listen to The Big Joe Polka Show. TORTURE! It’s a wonder I survived.

  13. JImmie

    I feel the same way about Hee Haw. My dad would make me watch it when I begged to watch Solid Gold. I look back at those times with my dad watching Roy Clark, Buck Owens, and the whole Hee Haw gang “pickin and a grinnin” with fondness. Now that I am grown and have a son of my own, I look forward to finding our own Hee Haw, and hope to experience that father/son intimacy once again. I miss you dad.

  14. Sarah Clarkson

    @sarahclarkson

    This whole thing made me smile.

    This bit (and the parts around it): “I can’t escape the longing for the frontier, the pull to seek the mystery and find out if I’m equal to it, to discover whether I’m a grizzled prophet of the badlands or just a wandering traveler through parts unknown…”

    Beautiful! I’d love to read more. Perhaps your next novel should be a western…

    My family moved to the middle of nowhere in TX when I was about ten, and I spent most of the next four summers roaming two hundred acres of “the west.” In spite of the rattlesnakes and fire ants, I know my soul was formed by those wandering, big-sky days. Jarred McCauley’s music (already downloaded, thanks!) reminds me of some of the cowboy melodies my dad got for us to listen to during those years.

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