wide open mindscapes

July 9, 2009

so, you know, there’s been drama of late, and it’s been making me feel sort of generally crappy and unhappy. in an effort to counteract that, i’ve decided to deconstruct one of my very favorite songs.

Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone.
Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on.
When that sun is high in that Texas sky
I’ll be bucking at the county fair.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo I’ll be there.

They took my saddle in Houston, broke my leg in Santa Fe.
Lost my wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way.
Well I’ll be looking for eight when they pull that gate,
And I hope that judge ain’t blind.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s on my mind.

Amarillo by morning, up from San Antone.
Everything that I’ve got is just what I’ve got on.
I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine.
I ain’t rich, but lord I’m free.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s where I’ll be.
Amarillo by morning, Amarillo’s where I’ll be.

this song is my favorite way to start off a road trip, at least a solo road trip. the words and music are perfectly complementary, and they always paint me a very vivid mental picture of driving out across the high plains in a beat up truck (which i have never done). there’s something about putting it on that makes me take a deep breath, settle back into my seat, and just ease into that road zen. also, being in a car for several hours gives me plenty of time to deconstruct the song, which i do every time i hear it.

ultimately, this song is part of a larger category of songs (“mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” and “much too young to feel this damn old,” among others) that continue the classic american archetype of the tragic, lonely cowboy.* the cowboy and associated archetypes (high plains drifter, noble gun fighter, etc.) are staples of american mythology, simultaneously portrayed as lonely and tragic and celebrated as essential components of our history and national character. 

of course, this discussion can’t really happen without circling back to frederick jackson turner and the frontier thesis. turner basically said that the frontier experience created americans out of europeans; that rough men like miners and trappers and explorers played a necessary function in creating civilization from savagery. there’s been tons of debate on this over the past century, but here’s what it boils down to: turner’s thesis is not, in and of itself, an accurate explanation of the development of the united states and its advance westward, particularly since it assumes an essentially empty continent, but it is not without value, as it beautifully encapsulates the way that americans think about their national origin stories and the development of an american identity, even today. 

turner declared the frontier closed in 1890, which wasn’t quite true, but in the context of the second industrial revolution and america’s shift from a rural to urban society, turner’s declaration points towards greater concerns about american national character. if the frontier is no more, if the frontier experience can no longer be relied on to create americans, then how do we differ from the decadent, depraved, old-world europeans we cast such aspersions on?

national parks were one way to preserve and extend american character through nature, but that’s another issue for another day. what i’m primarily concerned with here is the glorification of “frontier” men, particularly cowboys. they’re seen as noble, part of what made america great, but also tragic; with the close of the frontier, they have little place in modern american society, and so exist outside of modern life. they are rebels, men with an internal code of honor that functions independently of laws and rules. they represent, for many people, a freedom that is quintessentially american but impossible for most of us to achieve–which is actually fine with us, as we’ve all internalized the idea that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” while we sit at our desks, irritated over TPS reports and ridiculous middle management, we can play out a bit of escapist fantasy, where we can also ride the range, unconstrained by 9 to 5 jobs, mortgages, and children.

because that’s really what this song, and others like it, celebrate: “I ain’t rich, but lord I’m free.” it’s the american ideal of independence and liberty, and that one line perfectly sums up two centuries of debate over the difference between americans and their european ancestors. small wonder, then, that the cowboy archetype is regularly employed by politicians on the right. it’s a quick, easy shorthand, a way to show a person as a rough, rugged individual, a common guy, the kind of person who helped carve america out of the wilderness–regardless of whether that guy was, in fact, a Yale grad with a shit ton of family money or a former Hollywood actor. 

what’s ironic is that the cowboy was not the lonely, rugged drifter of our cultural stereotypes, but an employee. i read an interesting article a couple years back, which i now cannot remember the name of–and quick searches of both JSTOR and google didn’t bring anything up–about socialism and the labor movement among cowboys. particularly as the ranching industry became more industrialized, cowboys were just as much a part of the proletariat as any other working group. they worked long hours and received shitty pay. to quote sandman, “the cowboy’s life is a very dreary life, it’s a-riding through the wind and the cold.” but even cowboys like to hold onto that ideal, the nobel, tragic loner of american myth.

*yes, i am aware that this song is specifically about rodeo-ing, but the rodeo rider has become a modern version of the cowboy, and the same cultural ideas are hooked on to both of them, to a certain extent. certainly i don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that while the song, specifically, is about a rodeo rider, it generally evokes images of cowboys and cowboy culture in listeners.



  1. I love that you have ‘manifest destiny’ as a tag.

    Something that is missing from your critique is the cowboys themselves, and how, like George Strait, they have perpetuated and illustrated the cowboy idea. The interesting thing about cowboy lore is that it is a living tradition, that, despite its recent suburabanization, still has its roots in a viable way of life. Every ranch that raises all the ridiculous amounts of meat we eat has cowboys– there are rodeos in every state. So, tho Hollywood did a lot to create the image and the archetypes, I think the songs, which are mostly sincere and authentic, have really perpetuated the culture.

    It is also very interesting that cowboys are, essentially, shepherds. Not usually a respected position. But they had the good luck to be herding grazing animals when Samuel Colt was alive, and so the legends were born. (Guns, tho, have very little to do with cowboy life in songs…)

    Rodeo-ing songs, including this one, are, despite the surface meaning, usually not about freedom, but obsession. The rodeo man gives up everything for one more ride, he can’t stop, if he stops, he loses meaning and purpose, purpose he can’t find in normal life or even in love. I think the lines “I’m not rich, but Lord I’m free” are meant somewhat ironically, or as prayer, not as a genuine description of his physical or mental state, which is not free in the slightest.

    On a separate note, when do I get a coded nickname and do I get any say in it?

    • do you have suggestions? i’m willing to hear them. and yes, i agree with all your points. i didn’t mean to imply that cowboy culture is all a construct – it is of course based in reality, and it still exists. and i realize that i perhaps conflated rodeo culture and cowboy culture a bit too much, and that there is a whole genre of songs that are all about rodeoing and obsession (in fact, i think i was going to make a playlist of such songs at some point).

      i also find your point about “glorified shepherds” very interesting, and there’s a vague point i kind of want to make about the different types of farm/ranch work and how cowboying got so glamorous, but it’s early and i haven’t had any coffee and it’s a topic i don’t know a terrible lot about, so i guess it will just remain vague in the back of my head for now.

  2. […] of george strait can avoid mentioning “amarillo by morning.” i discussed this song before, in a way that really didn’t work out too well (weird, considering how much i’ve […]

  3. […] book or whatever, i struggle to write about it in any sort of coherent way (as some of my previous attempts prove). i can’t even really explain why i love it […]

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