In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking some of our favorite songs about cowboys.
Like Sean, I grew up in Texas and listened to a lot of George Strait and Randy Travis (unlike Sean, I actually liked them). My dad listened to a lot of older country music, too, most of which I hated at the time—particularly a country and Western singer named Marty Robbins, whose smooth, trained voice sounded bland and cloying even before I knew what “cloying” meant. One of my dad’s favorites was an old cowboy ballad called “Streets Of Laredo,” a simple, bittersweet tune that tells the story of a dying cowboy who knows he’s done wrong (though what wrong, it’s never said).
The dying man spies the narrator and recognizes him by his clothes as a fellow cowboy; before this moment they were strangers, but now they are bound together as the dying man makes his final requests: “Then go write a letter to my gray-haired mother / An’ tell her the cowboy that she loved is gone / But please not one word of the man who had killed me / Don’t mention his name and his name will pass on.” It’s the sort of cowboy bravery and swagger that predates modern country(-pop) music about pickup trucks and cowboy boots, the kind of ballad you could actually imagine being sung while herding cows or cooking tins of beans under the wide Western sky.
Although I grew up listening to the overly slick Marty Robbins version, it’s been recorded by everybody from Willie Nelson to Prefab Sprout. It wasn’t until I heard the Johnny Cash recording that I realized what a lovely little tune this was, hiding a story of murder and cowboy camaraderie and even hope. Cash’s rough edges outpace Robbins’ polish by a country mile; this stripped-down version easily evokes the Man In Black tending to a dying man wrapped in white linen, dying on the cold clay streets of southern Texas. When Cash’s crackling voice swells to the chorus of “beat the drum slowly / play the fife lowly,” and Cash and his comrades take the young cowboy to the green valley to bury him, this cowboy’s lament becomes a hymn to both cowboys and the dying frontier.