The Dreaming Cowboy has been away from his home and his woman for 20 years, riding in rodeos. After his body breaks down he stays where he is, far from San Antone, riding a barstool each night until the lights come up. Amazed at how the years have flown.
The woman singing “Dreaming Cowboy” in a BBC-ready accent has been performing for 20 years too; appeared first on a Pete Shelley record, then enlisted with the country-punk Mekons. She lives in Chicago now, far from En gland, and she’s forward about noting that she just turned 40. Inside her new album there’s a photo of her holding the baby boy of her ex-lover, Mekon Jon Langford—a prairie godmother. That’s Langford crooning “she’s a dreaming cowboy,” making sure no one is confused. Those Mekons: hearts of steel.
Of course, Sally Timms isn’t alone at all. Besides Langford, who’s cowritten four new songs with her, her pals in the Handsome Family added two more, including a fine one about a milkman hopelessly in love with the oblivious moon. Robbie Fulks’s murder ballad sounds like a page from a collector’s songbook. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco brought a genuine folk lyric, with music initially intended for the hallowed Mermaid Avenue sessions; he’s probably also playing acoustic guitar under the name Celine on most tracks. That’s John Herndon of Tortoise on drums. The good people of Chicago have put more effort into their adoptive sister’s album than outsiders might have feared.
Tinted with Hawaiian guitar, the Timms-Langford “Sweetheart Waltz” is so measured and beautiful that something must be wrong. “I, I, I believe, I believe, I believe,” Timms sings breathy and soft, stretching the notes out like a dream she can’t part with, like her true love left years ago and she’s waltzing in a room filled not so much with men as venereal diseases. The song is repeated twice save for a single verse in the center, a terse summary: “Take me down/Spin me ’round/’Til my feet don’t touch the ground.” We’re hearing an incantation, a masquerader’s spell against self-awareness.
Which makes “Sweetheart Waltz” a cow boy song too, by the current definition. We know the cowboy mystique has only the loosest of ties to the herders who had a few good years before barbed wire closed off the ranges. On this year’s Rounder collection Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls From Texas, featuring 1940s field recordings by John Lomax, one such cattleman makes his feelings clear: “The cowboy’s life is a very dreary life…you better stay at home with your kind and loving little wife.”
But cowboys, famously, can’t stay at home with the little woman. In classic westerns they were tortured about it, but since the 1960s they’ve stopped apologizing and joined all the other swingers. Midnight cowboys, rhinestone cowboys, Village People cowboys, Bon Jovi cowboys: This year it’s Kid Rock’s turn. When he sings “I’m a cowboy,” he means he’s a pimp, and a rock star, and mostly the second coming of rapper Big Daddy Kane circa “Ain’t No Half Steppin’.” In a different light we’d call that minstrelsy. The Kid slips the charge by adopting a safer form of dress-up.
Hipsters also have their cowboy fetishes; they’ve moved from Serge Gainsbourg’s sub lime saddle frolics on to Lee Hazlewood reissues, most delectably 1970’s Cowboy in Sweden. Over some jaunty easy listening, cornpone philosopher Hazlewood duets on “Hey Cow boy” with a Swedish blonde who taunts: “You’re just a toy.” As he defends himself—”You wind me up and watch what I do to you/I may be small but…no big cowboy can do the little things I do”—I start to wonder if he’s actually her vibrator.
Unable to resist an exploded trope, Stephin Merritt cuts in with “Papa Was a Rodeo,” the 69 Love Songs song that got the biggest cheers the night I saw him. “Papa was a rodeo, Mama was a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Merritt deadpans to his lover, Mike. “Never stuck around long enough for a one night stand.” Turns out the exact same is true for Mike, so they settle down for 55 years. Why play the field when everyone else is a cowboy anyway?
Don’t suppose that only outsiders tease—the wink is the essence of the genre. Chris Ledoux, a former bareback champion who’s Garth Brooks’s favorite singing cowboy, has “This Cowboy’s Hat,” rereleased this year on 20 Greatest Hits. An old cowboy gets hassled by some bikers, who try to take his hat. As the music goes beyond “Ghost Riders in the Sky” hokey, the cowboy explains that his nephew skinned the hatband off a snake before he died in Vietnam, one of many corpses the hat represents. Humbled, the bikers shuffle off. Then the cowboy flashes “a big ole Texas grin.” Then you grin.
Then you think, well, actually, there are some corpses there. And you put the Sally Timms record back on. Let it all stir together. Damn. Whole lotta cowboys going on.