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I Was a Cowboy

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

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