Publication in: Spring 2023 Issue

Outlaws and Rhinestones: The Cowboy Figure in Historical and Modern Country Music Media
Cole Pilgrim
Faculty Mentor(s):
Jonathan King
Abstract / Summary:
The cowboy is a prominent figure in country music, though as a legitimate historical entity he is largely divorced from the process of generating or influencing country music itself. Orville Peck is an example of a modern performer who utilizes cowboy themes extensively, though his interpretation of the cowboy is markedly different from some historical realizations of this character, such as Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”. Other scholars of country music isolate market factors which gave rise to the cowboy aesthetic in country music, as well as the utilization of thematic material which purports to be located in the distant past. In this paper, I reference those writings, while also expanding on them through comparison with other authors and my own conclusions drawn from analyses of country music media. Notably, this comparison suggests that the cowboy character is inconsistent with itself due to the past-oriented aesthetics of country music, but that the rigid structures of country music allow for subversive material to be created out of minor deviations from the status quo. Also notable is the time scale in which these aesthetic manipulations can take place - with some new takes on country music moving from taboo to mainstream in less than a decade.
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