In the second installment of his column about Western music and the Western lifestyle, RW Hampton asks — and answers — “What is a cowboy anyway?”
Editor's Note: Cimarron Sounds is an online blog series presented by C&I from award-winning Western artist RW Hampton. Read — or listen to — Hampton's musings on Western life and music.
What Is A Cowboy Anyway?
Well, howdy, once again friends! Greetings from “The Big Empty,” otherwise known as “cow country” and/or “cowboy country.”
The last time we visited I answered the question “The cowboy, is he still relevant?” That seems to lead to another hot button question, “Just what is a cowboy?” With so many nowadays claiming this royal title, I’ll tell you what I think it is anyway.
Listen: C&I Presents RW Hampton’s Cimarron Sounds, Vol. 2
First of all, Mr. Webster says “A cowboy is a man or woman who herds and tends cattle on a ranch, especially in the western US, and who traditionally goes about his work on horseback.”
Well, because I lived the life and I’ve drawn a check by the dictionary definition, I guard this title with pride. Yes, I was a cowboy, a sure enough working cowboy! Why do I stand guard over the title? ’Cause it didn’t come easy. No, I had to earn my spurs!
I grew up a Texas town kid. I wore boots and hats, even owned a horse and competed in high school rodeo. But a sure enough cowboy? No, not yet. No, it wasn’t until I drifted a little farther west that I found out I didn’t know nothin’!
Yes, folks, west I drifted to northeast New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, northern Nevada, eastern Oregon, Wyoming, Arizona, and a whole lot of ranges in between. Basically any place where men caught and saddled their horses in the dark, stepped on, and trotted out for a long, tall day in the saddle, riding for cattle.
“Riding for cattle?” you ask.
Yep, gathering or rounding up, moving, trailing, roping, and doctoring, looking for strays, prowling, branding, weaning, shipping — anything and everything that must be done with cattle from the back of a horse.
For me it was on the job training ’cause you can’t learn this trade from a book sitting in a lecture hall. As an old cowpuncher once told me, “There’s a whole lot more to cowboyin’ than just sittin’ on a horse letting your legs hang down!”
I had to keep my eyes open, my mouth shut, and keep up. Cowboys know mighty quick if a man is a real hand or not. A man can draw a check and work as a cowboy for a long time before cowboys will even call him one of their own, and some never make it.
I still smile when I remember the long, hard rides where we trotted and loped for what seemed like forever in the pitch-black dark. Frequent dealings with difficult horses, getting bucked off hard while making a drive, and even being plumb lost were part of the experience. Getting kicked into next week, knocked down and run over by horses and cattle, and being so stiff and sore in the morning that the slightest movement made a grown man want to cry! Sleeping wet in a bedroll that just won’t quite dry out.
I remember well the northern ranges — alone out on my “pony,” busting into snowdrifts, looking for cattle at 30 below, the snow and wind burning my face as I slowly drove a sick one back to the home corrals.
How about down South on a cloudless afternoon with the mercury climbing to a hundred. Riding hard through thick, thorny mesquite and cactus following the tracks of a critter that was missed during the general roundup. I still have vivid memories of a great horse I lost out under that Arizona sun.
I remember being with 20 riders holding the herd out on a big flat while the owner and cow boss cut out the “dries.” It was long past lunch and the only thing keeping me from falling asleep in the saddle was the grumbling and growling of my empty stomach. Then there were the sleepless nights, knowing that the horse I would saddle in the dark and ride out on was going to do everything he could to get me off his back.
So now you’re asking why. Why live the life of the cowboy? That’s a mighty good question!!
Well it’s durn sure not for the wages. No sir, it’s for the love of the life! Yes, for the freedom by gawd, the freedom! Being horseback in places that most folks have only dreamed of. The sunrises and sunsets. The changing of the seasons. The new calves, the old mares with their brand new foals at their side. The first big branding of the spring and the howdys from neighbors you haven’t seen through the long winter months.
The horse that tried to buck you off but you finally got him rode. Riding back to the wagon camp or headquarters for a meal that defies description.
The endless views that put a lump in your throat, knowing that God Almighty is right there beside you. The afternoon thunder and lightning storms that sneak up on you and then trying to out run them! The bawling of the calves at fall weaning time and loading of the trucks. The owner saying “Many thanks boys! These calves are the biggest and fattest we’ve ever shipped!” Knowing you had a big part in that.
Best of all, riding out with a crew of 10 or 12 good men. It’s first light, there’s not much said, and the jingle of spurs, the creak of leather, the sounds of horses and hoof falls are the sweetest music.
The early morning smell of dew, sage, mesquite, pinyon, and Bull Durham smoke is as intoxicating as any perfume.
Just as you’re cresting a rise at a full lope, one of the old ones, a viejo, eases up beside you, stirrup to stirrup and never breaking stride. He says, almost at a whisper, “This little bronc you started in the fall, I wondered about him, but he’s making a damn fine horse.” You smile, still at a lope. The cowboy’s eyes move from your pony to you and looking you square in the eye he simply smiles, nods, and then looking ahead without another word rides on
It’s then you know, you’ve made it. You’re finally one of them. You are a cowboy.
Yes, friends, that’s what a cowboy is and that’s what it takes to become one. In this day and age when cowboy is used to describe reckless politicians and unlicensed building contractors, or worse, I get pretty defensive because I have been the real deal. I have lived what it cost to get there — a high price but well worth it.
I could lose it all tomorrow: my home, my possessions, my awards, my youth, and even my health. But no one can ever take away the joy and pride of knowing that once I was a man who good cowboys called a cowboy.
The cowboy and the cowboy-girl, they’re still out there, alive and well, doing the same thing for over a hundred years now. It’s like in Chris LeDoux’s song: You just can’t see them from the road.
“Born to Be a Cowboy” (from RW’s The Last Cowboy, 1999)
“The Journey” (from RW’s The Last Cowboy, 1999)
“Don’t Tell Me” (From RW’s This Cowboy, 2014)
“Blue Norther” (From RW’s The One That I Never Could Ride, 1992)
“You Just Can’t See Him From the Road” (From Chris LeDoux’s Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy, 1992)