Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other
"Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other" (1981) is a song by Latin country musician Ned Sublette, whose music, according to Howard Cohen, features a "lilting West Texas waltz (3/4 time at about 60–90 beats per minute) feel". It is, according to Gene Tyranny, "the famous gay cowboy song". The lyrics satirize the stereotypes associated with cowboys and gay men, such as in the lyrics relating western wear to the leather subculture with the line: "What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?"
Country musician Willie Nelson's cover (iTunes single 14 February 2006) is the first LGBT-themed mainstream country song by a major artist. The song has been recorded and released by Sublette (GPS: Life is a Killer 1982), Canadian alternative country band Lost Dakotas (Cargo: Sun Machine, 1993), and queercore band Pansy Division (Lookout: Pile Up 1995).
Sublette stated that the song is based on his experiences growing up in Portales, N.M.: "I sat down at the piano and … remembered what it felt like to feel different as a teenager, and the culture at that time, and I started to put those two things together and the song wrote itself". The song was written during the Urban Cowboy fad while living with his wife in Manhattan next to a gay country bar on Christopher Street called Boots and Saddles. He explains, "Gay life in 1981 was very vibrant in those days. It was part of the culture of the city and cowboy imagery is a part of gay iconography." He wrote the song with Nelson's voice in mind: "I was at the beginning of my songwriting career … and used to like writing songs for my favorite voices. I've been a Willie fan since the '60s."
In 2006, Ann Northrop of Gay USA described the lyrics as "the language of thirty years ago." David Nahmod, however, stated that he felt the lyrics maintain currency and say "a lot about gender identity and heterosexual elitism"; "The song aims to show Mr. Nelson's support for gays, particularly to conservative country-music fans," and suggests that, in addition to other causes, he supports gay rights.
The reception of Sublette's recording is hard to determine as the song was originally only available through the Dial-A-Poem, through which one could literally dial up a poem and listen on the phone. However, AllMusicGuide gave the album on which the song eventually appeared 4½ out of 5 stars.
Willie Nelson's version
|"Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other"|
|Single by Willie Nelson|
|Released||14 February 2006|
|Willie Nelson singles chronology|
Nelson received a tape of the song from Saturday Night Live Band bassist Tony Garnier after performing on the show in the mid to late 1980s. According to Sublette, "Willie took it from there" though Nelson recently found that demo in a drawer among a stack of his own while recording unreleased songs for iTunes at his Spicewood, Texas home studio. Nelson says, "I thought it was the funniest goddamn song I'd ever heard. I had it on the bus for 20 years, and people would come in and I'd play it. When Brokeback Mountain come out, it just seemed like a good time to kick it out of the closet".
There were plans to release the song on a future album and filming for the video featuring Broken Lizard Comedy Troupe occurred at Dallas' gay cowboy bar, the Round Up Saloon (in Oak Lawn), in February 2006. Nelson's publicist describes the release of the song, which debuted on Howard Stern's satellite radio show: "Since everyone is talking about the acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain and its Academy Award nominations, Valentine's Day seemed like the right time to let [the song] be heard." Nelson appeared on the movie's soundtrack with the traditional "He Was a Friend of Mine", which made the US charts at number 54.
Nelson himself described the release in a prepared statement to The Dallas Morning News: "The song's been in the closet for 20 years. The timing's right for it to come out. I'm just opening the door." The song's release was encouraged by the coming out of his friend and tour manager of thirty years, David Anderson, two years ago. Says Anderson: "This song obviously has special meaning to me in more ways than one. I want people to know more than anything—gay, straight, whatever—just how cool Willie is and … his way of thinking, his tolerance, everything about him."
Nelson's version of the song is his highest charting solo single since his 1984 duet with Julio Iglesias "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (number 5), debuting at number 52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which Nelson last appeared on with the Toby Keith duet "Beer for My Horses". The song was also well received by critics. Pitchfork Media's Stephen M. Deusner rated the song four out of four stars despite calling it "even more of a stunt than his reggae album" (2005's Countryman). Saying that the song sounds written by Nelson, and that his performance raises the piece above the level of a cheap gag, he felt that it adds "a whole new level of complexity to the outlaw mythology Willie helped to cultivate in the 70s."
Nelson also says that he has received very few negative reactions: "Every now and then somebody might get a little offended. It's got bad language in it, so I just don't do it in my shows. Anybody wants to hear it can hear it on iTunes. But you know people are listenin' to it, likin' it. Every now and then somebody don't like it, but that's okay. Similar to years ago, when the hippie thing come out and I started growin' my hair and puttin' the earring in, I got a little flak here and there."
However, some sources speculate about the potential success and reception of the song. Nelson explains that he didn't think "it took a lot of balls to put the song out", saying, "first of all, I didn't think anybody would play it. I didn't think it would get on the air, but sure enough it did", though not on country stations: "Oh no, they're not gonna play it".
WXBX, a country station in Johnson City, Tennessee, devoted one morning show to a listener discussion of Nelson's release, concluding that "the audience was disappointed in [Nelson]" and, as Nelson thought, that they "probably wouldn't be interested in much airplay". PlanetOut offered the opinion that Nelson's fan base is secure and broad enough (including "hippies, rednecks and outlaws young and old") to take risks with LGBT-themed songs and soundtracks, while the WXBX station manager pointed out that Nelson has not been a mainstream country star for a while. Nelson's broad audience, and part of the appeal of the song, may be that "Willie speaks his mind about any subject ... That's one of those things that has made him so endearing to so many generations of fans".
The song has been described variously as "deadpan", "straight-faced", and "pointedly poignant". Sublette, as expected, approved of Nelson's performance and its potential impact, saying, "It's supposed to be funny, that's what gets people's attention, but to get people to listen to it a second time [you] have to have something going on, and Willie beautifully brought out the tenderness there … [It's] nice to have a funny song out there—it is challenging people to laugh. Everybody is so angry now." Sublette speculated about the song's reception: "Willie's smart. We talked about recording it in the '90s but we needed some kind of context. It wouldn't make sense to just put this on some normal Willie album … The movie provided the context. I don't know if the public is any more or less ready than they were but I think the media is more ready."
The song was featured in a Boondocks comic strip on 27 and 28 February and mentioned until March 2006. According to Sublette, "the Monday and Tuesday strip consisted of my lyrics and dramatizing listeners' response to my lyrics. What a compliment!"
The reception of Nelson's song may be compared to that of Garth Brooks' 1992 single "We Shall Be Free". The song's line, "when we're free to love anyone we choose" caused some radio stations to refuse to play the song, contributing to its peak at number 12 on Billboard's country singles chart and marking the end of Brooks' string of top ten hits. Nelson's song has been lumped together with contemporaneous LGBT-friendly country releases: his and Emmylou Harris's appearance on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and the Dolly Parton's song "Travelin' Thru" appearing on the Transamerica soundtrack, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
When the song appeared as the penultimate track on Nelson's 2009 compilation Lost Highway, it was followed by a previously unreleased version of Willie singing Ben Hayslip's "Ain't Goin' Down On Brokeback Mountain", which includes the lyric, "... that shit ain't right."
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