The Story Behind “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” by Paula Cole and How It Was Influenced by XTC

Paula Cole’s first hit single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” brought some disparate musical influences together, including The Beatles and Prince. Given the country-tinged flavor of the song’s lyrics and music, that may come as a bit of a surprise. Yet the band who arguably left the biggest footprint on the tune may be an even bigger revelation. If not for Cole being a fan of the English rock group XTC, she may have never written or recorded one of her most popular songs.

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What did the band known for “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Mayor of Simpleton” have to do with a song replete with Western references, like John Wayne and the Marlboro Man? And how did The Beatles and Prince figure into it, too? Let’s explore Cole’s 1996 song and how it came together.

How XTC Inspired a Cowboy Song

In an interview for Music & Musicians magazine, Cole said her process of composing “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” began with the lyrics. She was consciously trying to blend the lyrical style of XTC—and their principal songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding—into the song. She explained, “I love their wit, humor, and catchy choruses. I thought we don’t hear enough humor and wit in a catchy pop tune from women. I’d like to do something incorporating that.”

Cole’s song wound up being a tongue-in-cheek take on traditional gender roles in a relationship, but the humor was lost on many listeners. Cole sings of an affinity for old-fashioned things in the opening lines Oh, you get me ready / In your ‘56 Chevy, and she ups the ante in the first pre-chorus by singing I will do the laundry / If you pay all the bills. Much to Cole’s chagrin, many listeners took the lyrics literally, assuming she was supportive of traditional roles for women.

Still Being Misinterpreted

In a 2021 interview with Yahoo Entertainment—25 years after the song’s release—Cole said many people still misinterpret the lyrics. “Oh, yes. And they still [believe] that—there’s still those folks holding out!” Cole explained. ‘It was so bizarre. You put out a piece of work and you know what it means, but then you let it go out into the world and it’s like witnessing, I don’t know, like an anthropological study.”

For those who thought Cole was fully on board with doing all of the housework while leaving the finances to “her man,” the chorus could be heard as further validation of that view.

Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie song?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?

Barely Disguised Disgust

As the song progresses, it becomes increasingly clear Cole’s character is not content to be unseen and unappreciated. In the bridge, Cole sings, I am wearing my new dress tonight / But you don’t, but you don’t even notice me. Cole’s tone moves from disappointment to disgust in the final pre-chorus, when she sings, I will wash the dishes / While you go have a beer, facetiously drawing out the word “beer,” as if it had three syllables.

Cole put an even finer point on the song’s trajectory when she recorded a new studio version for her 2016 live album This Bright Red Feeling. She changed the lyrics in the last pre-chorus to You go wash the dishes / While I go have a beer. Cole also remade the video for the song, which was directed by actor Melora Hardin, who is perhaps best-known for her role as Jan Levinson in the U.S. version of The Office.

Other Artists Who Influenced “Cowboys”

While XTC helped Cole get the ball rolling on the song’s lyrics, a couple of other renowned artists helped to shape the music. Cole initially envisioned “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” with a rumba feel, but when she recorded the demo, she looped a sample of Ringo Starr’s opening beat to the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The rendition drummer Jay Bellerose played on the version that appears on This Fire is largely faithful to Starr’s beat, but with an altered hi-hat pattern.

Greg Leisz plays several different guitars on the track, but there is no bass. Cole made a conscious decision not to include bass in order to replicate the sort of high-end-heavy sound Prince achieved with “When Doves Cry.” Most of This Fire, including the follow-up hit “I Don’t Want to Wait,” does feature bass and Chapman stick. King Crimson bassist Tony Levin—who shared the stage with Cole as a fellow member of Peter Gabriel’s touring band—provides the low end on This Fire.

The Impact of “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is Cole’s only Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 8 in May 1997. It also registered on six other Billboard charts, highlighted by Top 10 placements on the Adult Pop Airplay, Pop Airplay, Adult Alternative Airplay, and Dance Club Songs charts. It is also Cole’s only song to make an appearance on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart.

Thanks to “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Cole had a busy night at the 1998 Grammy Awards. The song was nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, This Fire was nominated for an additional two Grammy Awards—Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album—and Cole won the Grammy for Best New Artist. She also received a nomination for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and was the first woman to be nominated for the award without a male co-producer.

The connection between “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and XTC may not be immediately obvious, but the band is clearly important to Cole. She even name-checked them on “The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.” from her 2024 album Lo. Cole’s many inspirations led her to create a song that is not only one of her two biggest hits, but one that still holds up incredibly well nearly 30 years after its release, despite the confusion it still causes for some listeners.

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Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

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