This is the last cowboy song.
The end of a hundred year waltz.
The voices sound sad as they're singin' along.
Another piece of America's lost.
-"The Last Cowboy Song", The Highwaymen
Someone asked me recently what I mean when I say I'm a Western girl. Like a lot of people, I think she was picturing what I was missing as a liberal oasis full of organic food and good pot and possibly naked hot springs. And yeah, that stuff all exists in my West, but it's so much more than that. Much of it is counter-intuitive to that vision.
One of the reasons Texas has been able to feel like home to me is that, however it differs from home in the Umpqua Valley, there is some of that same Westerness. Austin is a city, but around the edges there is that little bit of cowboy. And I think I'm going to miss that on the East Coast.
Boots and jeans make a lot more sense to me than black tie. I grew up on classic country music and I love it relentlessly. I've bottle-fed a calf; I know the difference between bear shit and bobcat; I've seen a bald eagle in its natural habitat. There is this whole world that was almost lost by the time I was born and is even more lost now. I am privileged enough to have caught that last little bit of it, and to have it in my blood. And my God do I miss it.
I never thought I would. When I lived in that world, I couldn't wait to get out. In part, I didn't know the rest of the world was different. I expected everybody to know who Gus McCray was. And, in part, I thought I was too good for it--too smart, too cultured, too experimental and wild and outlandish. Even as a pretty young kid, I consciously steered myself away from anything to "country." I wanted to do more.
Now I've done more. I've lived in cities for a dozen years. I've been to New York and to Europe. I've worn formal clothes, gotten a graduate degree, and read a whole lot of really important books. I taught myself not to say "pop" or "crick" or "rig." I learned to like effeminate men and to use multiple forks to eat the same damn meal.
And some of it, I was right about. It's a big, diverse, strange world, and I love that. I love knowing people who didn't all come from the same place. I really do like Indian and Thai food more than venison and boiled potatoes. But mostly, I was completely wrong. I haven't seen everything, but nothing I have seen is nearly so impressive and summer on the river where I grew up. I've read a lot of books, and I keep coming back to Larry McMurtrey and E. Annie Prolix and Pam Houston. I've been to probably hundred concerts, and nothing has ever beat the time Willie Nelson played for three and a half hours at the county fair.
It should have been obvious all along, I guess, but I just figured it out. I'm not just homesick because I'm far away geographically and getting farther. I'm homesick because the way I grew up is fast becoming extinct. Even if I were a different person, one that could live full-time in a small town or on a rural ranch, it's unlikely my kids could grow up the way I did. I couldn't be the parent my parents were not just because of my different personality, but because the world has irreparably changed around us all. The West in which I grew up is, mostly, dead. What is left is so hard to find and so hard to maintain that I hold out very little hope it's going to stick around.
Country music illustrates exactly what I am talking about. The great country was mostly already recorded before I was born, but even when I was a kid there was some real country music being produced. ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was the number one song the year I was born.) People were still, at least occasionally, making music about drinking and fighting and trains and Mama. Today's country music is just like today's pop music--it's about marketing and money. (Personally, I blame Garth Brooks.) It can't go back. The greats are mostly dead, and the ones who aren't are retired to Hawaii or making reggae albums.
The whole thing is enough to make me cry into my beer. But I won't. Instead, I have to focus on how incredibly lucky I am to have caught even the end of the West. I didn't grow up in Remington painting, but I at least I recognize what is going on in one. It is important to me--more so every year, and with every mile further away I get--to preserve that little bit of the West that I inherited. How one does that, in the world in which I live, I'm not exactly sure. I think it's safe to say, though, that's it isn't about fashion or music choices, or even where you live. It's about respect for the land and for the past. It's about loyalty to your loved ones. It's about valuing hard work and not being afraid to get your hands dirty. And I can hold on to those values. After all, I am a Western girl.