The 6 Country Songs Every Real Cowboy Should Know

After the Civil War came the emergence of the American cowboy as we know it. Born out of the need for livestock to be herded northward to different markets, these young, able shepherds became known by the term “cowboy.” Riding the trail and gathering around the campfire, music was always present. The instruments had to be portable. Fiddle, harmonica, or guitar were common instruments on the trail. Hollywood helped galvanize the idea of the singing cowboy. Ken Maynard appeared in silent films but released records on Columbia Records. When sound was added to film, it really came into focus. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Herb Jeffries, and Dorothy Page all had starring roles. John Wayne even started his career as a singing cowboy. Singing wasn’t his strength, but if you were a cowboy in the movies, you were expected to sing a song. Here are six songs that can be sung in the saddle.       

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“Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie”

Adapted from “The Sailor’s Grave,” the original version started with O bury me not in the deep, deep sea. Initially published in 1839, the song was eventually adapted to “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” The cowboy version was first published in 1910 and first recorded in 1926. The song evolved into “Streets of Laredo,” “The Dying Cowboy,” and “Oh, Bury Me Not.” Versions of the song were recorded by Carl T. Sprague, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Burl Ives, Jim Reeves, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash.

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie
These words came low and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On the bloody ground at the close of day

“Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by Sons of the Pioneers (written by Bob Nolan)

Originally written as “Tumbling Tumble Leaves,” the title was reworked to fit in with the title of the Gene Autry movie that was released in 1935. It was first recorded by Bob Nolan’s group, Sons of the Pioneers. It would be recorded soon after by Gene Autry for the movie and then by Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Slim Whitman, Pat Boone, Johnnie Ray, Clint Eastwood, Frankie Laine, Lorne Greene, The Supremes, Don Everly, Michael Nesmith, Marty Robbins, Meat Puppets, and Michael Martin Murphey.

See them tumbling down
Pledging their love to the ground
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds

“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” by Patsy Montana (written by Patsy Montana)

Released in 1935, this song was the first million-seller by a female country singer. Montana adapted the song “Texas Plains.” She was missing her boyfriend and put her woe into one of the year’s most successful songs. It has been recorded by Patti Page, Suzy Bogguss, Dixie Chicks, Lynn Anderson, Nickel Creek, LeAnn Rimes, Phish, and Cyndi Lauper.

I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart
I want to learn to rope and to ride
I want to ride o’er the plains and the desert
Out west of the great divideI want to hear the coyotes howlin’
While the sun sets in the WestI want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart
That’s the life that I love best

“Back in the Saddle Again” by Gene Autry (written by Gene Autry and Ray Whitley)

Always associated with Gene Autry, Ray Whitley first recorded this song in 1938. He sang it in the film Border G-Man for RKO Pictures. Autry liked the song and worked with Whitley to reconfigure the structure and adjust the melody slightly to the recognizable standard we all hear today. Autry recorded the song multiple times throughout his career and performed it in several movies. It became the theme song for the radio show Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and, later, the television show The Gene Autry Show.

I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again

“Cool Water” by Sons of the Pioneers (written by Bob Nolan)

Written just a year after the release of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” Bob Nolan also composed this cowboy classic that Sons of the Pioneers wouldn’t record it for another five years. They would go on to record it several times and appear in several movies performing the song. Hank Williams, Jimmy Wakely, Hank Williams, Vaughn Monroe, and Tim Blake Nelson recorded the song. 

The shadows sway and seem to say
“Tonight we pray for water, cool water”
And way up there
He’ll hear our prayer
And show us where there’s water
Cool, clear water

“Happy Trails” by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (written by Dale Evans)

Just as Autry was forever connected to “Back in the Saddle Again,” “Happy Trails” served the same purpose for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. It was used as the theme song for The Roy Rogers Show, first on radio and then television. Evans wrote the song, but they both performed it. It was later recorded by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Van Halen, and Randy Travis.

Happy trails to you
Until we meet again
Happy trails to you
Keep smiling until then

The singing cowboy popularized the guitar in the days before rock ‘n’ roll. As the music from those movies evolved into Country and Western, and then just country, these cowboy classics were touchstones that were often revisited as nostalgic throwbacks to days gone by.

Happy Trails to you …

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