I was watching Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece of western violence, The Wild Bunch, on a lonely Saturday evening recently and found myself thinking about the schism between western film and western music. At one time the two were deeply intertwined. Stars like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry sang the songs and starred in the movies. The plots were simple: a corrupt cattle rancher extorts small town folk or pushes around a peaceable neighbor. Maybe a loud mouthed rustler cownaps some cattle. Enter Roy or Gene who bloodlessly zip a few shots over the bad guys head as he turns tail and runs or better yet, gets placed in a dang blame jail cell.
The music matched the colloquial feel of films with songs like When It’s Lamp Lighting Time In the Valley, Echoes of the Hills, and Buttons and Bows, reassuring the viewer (and listener) that nothing was really wrong here that couldn’t be resolved with a clean round-house punch to a deserving jaw in ninety minutes or less. There would be just time enough then for Happy Trails as the hero rode toward a backdrop with a pretty little miss by his side.
By the 1950s though the music and films began to stray from the script. The singing cowboy began to fade as five o’clock shadows grew. Today, traditional cowboy songs are still sung. The bands dress the part and yodel happily over jaunty barre chord rhythms. They tell tall tales of the Strawberry Roan and ghostly round-ups. But their west remains a place of painted sunsets and smartly cocked hats, far removed from the violent films and gritty music of the post-silver screen western.
A series of restless films like The Searchers (1956), 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Rio Bravo (1959) pointed the way. They began exploring darker themes of revenge and greed and stared complicated anti-heroes who’s odds of survival continued to fall until finally bottoming out with the inevitable endings of films like the Long Riders. These new films had heroes, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Here, John Wayne playing a Confederate veteran with too much un-accounted for gold, shows up at his estranged families doorstep and ultimately finds himself searching for his Comanche kidnapped niece, not to rescue her, but to kill her for becoming one of the Chief’s wives. These new characters were no longer simply good or bad. The films of the 1960s and 70s, like Corbucci and Leone’s spaghetti westerns continued into the existential wastelands while others like Bonnie and Clyde and True Grit stretched the genre with modern tales and female leads. The above mentioned film The Wild Bunch, plays out as a knowing nod to the changing genre by following middle aged outlaws during their last ride in the twilight of the old west. Finally, all roads lead to Robert Altman’s beautiful and sad elegy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Set to the disenfranchised voice of Leonard Cohen, here a gambler gambles and loses. What else?
The pure western ended at that moment. Everything after, even the great films like Silverado and Unforgiven, have been heavy with the weight of self-consciousness. It’s the curse of the post-modern world. We’re ironic without even trying.
At some point in those middle years the cowboys stopped singing and the western song had its own migration of sorts, too. Music remained an intensely important part of the genre, as anyone listening to Ennio Morricone soundtrack will tell you, but the trail songs were gone. Leaving behind the trappings of the musical, the symphonic scores took on a haunting omniscience over and around the action.
The cowboy singer, no longer on the screen, and unable to lazily swing into Tumbling Tumbleweeds seemed to gain inspiration from these new films. Perhaps the change began with the wonderful 1959 Marty Robbins’ record Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The songs played out like their film counterparts with their devilish women and gun-slinging men. They are lengthy for the time as well. Some stretch to four and five minutes long. An unheard of length for country music radio. Songs like El Paso and Big Iron though were no ordinary cowpoke tunes. They are pure links to the old with their soaring harmonies while pointing toward the new with gritty themes and foolish and doomed narrators.
This new western sound’s peak must be Willie Nelson’s 1975 sparse masterpiece Red Headed Stranger. It’s one of the great pieces of 20th century American music; a visceral, violent tale of hearts “screaming like panthers in the middle of the night.” It sits in that weird netherworld where the folk process ends and transitions to art. With that in mind it acts as the musical equivalent of The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly. Both take all the pieces that went before it, stole liberally from the shoulders upon which they stood, and yet succeeded in creating something, not just new, not simply fresh to the ears and eyes, but something that spoke to their times as reflection and commentary.