Cowboy Culture

John Wayne
John Wayne


The American cowboy has become a symbol in the United States and around the world. Ever since the Spanish brought over their practice of herding animals to America there have been a group of men, now referred to as cowboys, who have created a culture of it. It was not until the end of the Civil War that the number of cowboys really began to rise. With this new group of individual came many new cultural traits. These traits included a new style of dress, new genre of music and film, and new recreation and entertainment activities. With the new country western genre in the music and film industries came a following of fans. Through the outsourcing of these mediums of entertainment the fans were not just American but International as well. Groups of young adults all over the world began to dress and act the way they saw cowboys portrayed in theaters.


early 1600s Spanish bring herding technique to America
1779 Nashville, TN is settled
1864 In Arizona, the first rodeo is documented
1865 Civil War ends
late 1800s Cowboy attire begins to spread from the South
1920s The Western genre gains popularity in the film industry
1920s Country music begins to spread
1930 John Wayne has his first starring role in a western "The Big Trail"
1939 John Ford directs and John Wayne stars in Stagecoach
1947 Gene Autry begins promoting the "Cowboy Code"
1948 Red River is released
1950s Youth around the world create subcultures based on the style and
outlook depicted in the cowboy of Hollywood
1956 Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" released
1959 Rio Bravo is released
1966 The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is released

Topic Breakdown:

The cowboy culture has been a part of the United States for centuries and the cowboy has been deemed a “national self image—the conqueror of wilderness, savagery, and villainy” (Rushing, 15). He is heroic, selfless, and an adored figure that is often associated with America’s history (Rushing, 15). However, the cowboy culture has changed along with our country’s development. The cowboy struggles throughout the century with the concepts of independence and being a part of a community (Rushing, 17). In the 1950s, the cowboy culture is considered “Classic Westerns” and movies such as Rio Bravo and Red River makes their debuts (Rushing, 19) . John Wayne also becomes an iconic image of the traditional western cowboy (Rushing, 20). It’s at this time that individualism clashes with the concept of community and the cowboy “struggle is difficult and his success is wrought from sacrifice” (Rushing, 19). The cowboy culture continues to parallel the ever-changing society throughout the 1960s and changes in order to attract a broader audience. Society is the new enemy and the cowboys mirror society’s uneasiness with the law (Rushing, 21). Movies such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly come out during this time (Rushing, 21).
The cowboy phenomenon has affected nearly all aspects of our culture and has influenced many trends throughout the decades. In the 1980s, the Urban Cowboy became widely popular in the film industry, songs from Nashville and Texas increased in popularity, western stores brought in more profits, and more Americans were participating in country dancing (Rushing, 14). The cowboy has also been used to sell products such as “beer, pickup trucks, cereal, and cigarettes” (Steckmesser, 64). On a more negative note, the cowboy has also been used to promote “sexual immaturity and ‘reinforced juvenile prejudice against women’” (Steckmesser, 64).
Gene Autry
Gene Autry
The cowboy culture affected two specific aspects of our culture: the music industry and the film industry. Country music became popular after World War I and was traditionally of “the white, Protestant, working-class Southerner…”(Raines, 44). The songs generally depicted the musicians’ dreams, pain, struggles, dilemmas, and change (Raines, 44). Some songs were based off of what was going on in society at that time, such as the song, “The John. T. Scopes Trial,” songs about the Great Depression and the urbanization of society (Raines, 44-45). World War II helped spread country music around the world and allowed it to “[yield] a more sophisticated sound…” (Raines, 45). After the war, artists continued to write songs about their “attitude and lifestyles” (Raines, 46). Like other aspects of the cowboy culture, the cowboys’ music paralleled the changes in society.
Western movies not only appealed to Americans, but also were viewed widely across the world. Historians have stated, “the cowboy images were among the earliest moving pictures to appear in Africa” (Reynolds, 401). Africans began to wear western clothing, which was a symbol of sophistication, manhood, and gave them a sense of having “common ground” with other people around them (Reynolds, 407). Many of the films “[justified] westward expansion as a fundamental component of the nation-building process…”(Reynolds, 408). The movies primarily starred male actors, which created “novel male identities” that influenced many young boys (Reynolds, 400). The cowboys were usually depicted as wearing “a colorful handkerchief tied around the neck, cowboy hat perched on the head, and pants tied just below the knee…” (Reynolds, 401). He was clean cut, cheered for widely, and came riding in on a white horse as to distinguish him as the hero (Reynolds, 402). The movies often involved aspects such as: gunslingers, Indian attacks, family feuds, horse thieves, gambling, abduction of females, and much more (Reynolds, 402). The cowboy is “the brave hero, always on the side of the good people, fights hard, sometimes infatuates a girl, and always triumphs through his manly strength” (Reynolds, 417).


"If you truely want to understand the whole United States of America during the 20th century, you need to understand country music..." ( Jennings, 12) Cowboy culture an undeniable societal movement that has shaped both the internal values and external appearance of the United States. From the inception of the original “cowboys” during the late 19th century cattle drive boom; the culture of the frontiersman has become woven in to the very fabric of our society.
Through years of romanticizing the “western” lifestyle, a distinctive and socially relevant culture has emerged into mainstream America. Today western music, movies and apparel have become a multibillion dollar business. The question then arises, “ How did the appeal of the harsh and dirty life on the range become the romanticized pop culture monster that it is today?”. I will give a brief history behind each aspect that dominates the “cowboy culture of today” and how it has morphed, from humble beginnings, into the aggrandized construct that it is today.

Country western music is today one of the top selling music genres in the United states. Over the years it has produced some of Americas most prolific musicians. Artist such as Elvis Presley, whom started w
ith country music and later moved on to define early rock and roll, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and top selling solo artist Garth Brooks, selling approximately 128 million albums ( Billboard, 2009). The roots of Country music, however, are much more humble.

Country western music can claim to be a distinctly American creation, derived from instruments of the different nationalities of the frontier. In rural communities of “the west” it was common for peoples of different cultural heritage to play music together; all bringing their own unique style and instruments. Much like American diversity; this particular diversity in instruments created the distinct, “country sound”. The twang of the African banjo mixed with Spanish guitar, complimented by the Scottish fiddle. Over time these instruments would be accompanied by drums, electric guitars, steel guitars, pianos, etc.

Country music was a niche category until the Hollywood’s popularization of the western film genre, in the 1920’s. With an introduction into mainstream American society cross over acts such as Bob Wills gained a foothold by combining country music with the recently popularized Big Band Swing music. With the rise of western swing other subgenres of western music were developed including Boogie, Bluegrass, and the popular Honky Tonk. The 50's and 60's is considered by many to be the golden age of "twang," the iconic sound of country music (Jennings, 86). Classic Artist such as Jonny Cash and George Jones defined this era with such classics as Folsom Prison Blues and Gotta be My Baby. However as the movie industry of the late 50's and 60's began to shift away from the classic western movie, Country music, though in its "traditional prime," fell out of mainstream, pop-American music.

This continued along until the late 1960’s and 1970’s when crossover acts, combining traditional country music with rock and roll influences of the time.
Bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Eagles found massive mainstream success, recording some of the most influential “rock” music of the era. With a more aggressive style reflective of the chaotic times, including societal revolutions and the Vietnam war. With this resurgence country once again found its way into the American household.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century; Country adopted a more traditional sound after the popularity of Southern rock waned. This can be attributed to the shift in popular culture away from the "swinging sixties," to the more socially conservative era of the 1980's and 90's. The 80's brought on a neo traditionalist movement from artist such as George Straight and Randy Travis. This style was a return to the traditional "Honky Tonk" style. In the 1990's western artist, influenced by pop music, began infusing their songs with sensible catchy choruses and dancible beats. This led to the rise of the popularity of country western line dancing. Throughout the nineties bands released numerous "pop-country" songs attempting to keep the craze alive. During the 90's Artist Garth Brooks experience to most mainstream success of any recoding artist to date, becoming the top selling country artist of all time.

Occasionally brief forays into pop country, such as the notorious Honky Tonk Badonkadonk from Trace Adkins, still occur. However, most popular country today holds to its traditional roots with artist like Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Carie Underwood, etc. Country music often covers universal subjects such as love, loss, reminiscing, age, parties, relaxing, etc. The universality of these subjects is what is accredited to the broad appeal of the music, making it relatable to most listeners. This is what has been attributed to the steady growth into the behemoth, that the Country music industry has become.

As the popularity of Country music grew; Country Western was taking the nation by storm through a completely different medium, film. 1903. Early in the infancy of the American film industry the Great Train Robbery, a western movie, was filmed that would shape the landscape of American film for generations to come. The night of the debut; the movie was such a hit that it was demanded, by the audience, that the film be replayed that very night, three times. This explosive success of this movie signified the beginning of the rise of the Western film genre.

Western genre films continued to gain in popularity and proliferation through out the early 1900’s to 1930‘s. The conservative values of the times resulted in the development of the cowboy as the romanticized hero of the wild west. Gone was the dirty, harsh life of the American west and in were chivalrous, handsome, wholesome characters. In this classical western era several American icons were born. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy and John Wayne, the most famous western actor, and cultural phenomenon, who began his prolific film career as the lead character in the 1930 western The Big Trail.

In the 1940’s, with the onset of WWII, the Western film genre began to shift into darker territory, as compared to the romantic westerns of the 1930’s. Development of film noir westerns, psychological westerns and cult westerns. These westerns introduced heroes with darker motives and stories that mirrored social issues of the time.

As western movies of the 1940’s were breaking new ground, a return to the traditional form of the 1920’s and 30’s style was being implemented in the growing market of television. In 1949 The Hoppalong Cassidy Show, the first series of the western television explosion, was aired.Through the 1950’s numerous, iconic, western shows were developed including, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and the Lone Ranger. The number of prime time western show peaked in 1959 with 26 different series airing during prime time slots.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly
The Good the Bad and the Ugly
With television westerns dominating the popular market it was a natural correlation for a massive influx of western movies during the 50’s and early 60’s. Such classics as Rio Grande, High Noon, Shootout at the O.K. Corral, were produced in this time.The overplaying of the traditional western, accompanied with the rapid change of the 1960’s and 70’s, led to the development of more contemporary western movies and television. This change went hand in hand with the dramatic change affecting the music scene.The emerging American counterculture shook the foundations of the traditional western by attempting to de-romanticize the “classic” cowboy narrative. A new darker anti-hero was the replacement for the suave, chivalrous lead in the older westerns. A direct reflection of the violent times; westerns of the era displayed violence and themes of revenge and selfishness. Acid westerns, Horror westerns, Revisionist westerns and of course Spaghetti westerns.

The most famous Spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, had a profound effect on film. Notably darker and bleak that many westerns of the time; it was received with mixed reviews due to gratuitous violence. The movie took a minimalist perspective simplicity in attire and directoral values. The stylistic influences brought on by this movie affected directors for years to come. Pulp fiction director, Quentin Tarantino has refered to it as "The Greatest Movie of all Time." (Sight and Sound, 2002) the movie has been viewed in retrospect, by many other critics, as one of the greatest movies of all time.
Another notable film of the era took nearly the opposite approach, delving into the humorous side of the western genre. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, staring icons Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Ranked by the American Film Institute as the 50th greatest movie of the past 100 years. (AFI, 100 years 100 movies, 1998)

Tom Mix
Tom Mix

Conservative values became a staple of the 1980’s culture, with the stabilization of the Vietnam incident and the election of conservative Ronald Reagan. In direct correlation Western film and television took a step back from the artistic, liberal, anti-hero construct of 60’s and 70’s. A return to traditional form came about with television series such as Little House on the Prairie. The series exemplified the popular values of the by promoting chivalry, family values and good triumphing over evil.

In the 1990’s,with the critical success of movies such as Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven and Last of the Mohicans, a compromise of traditional westerns with the artistic westerns of the 60’s was achieved. This kept the western genre alive throughout the 90’s and into the present. However Western television was stuck in the 1980’s, form wise, that is. Shows reflecting distinct conservative values were populating the airwaves. Walker Texas Ranger and Dr. Quinn Medicine woman were the staples of 90’s daytime television. The monotony of nearly two decades of the same plots rehashed led to the decline of western television programming, until the emergence of violent raw western programming, such as HBO’s Deadwood.

Western clothing’s evolution has been more subtle in comparison to the drastic evolution of the country western music and film scene.
Born out of functionality, to deal with the harsh life of the west, western clothing has remained relatively unchanged for the better part of the past one hundred and fifty years, despite brief forays into the flamboyant, or romanticized. Through analyzing pictures of style since the 1870s; it has been found that the typical cowboy wear of boots, hat, jeans/pants and long/short sleeved western shirts.

external image 544170052_33c8e77b9f.jpgDuring the 1920’s a brief dabble into the eccentric occurred. This is accredited to the early film industry being influenced by the traveling “cowboy shows” such as the “The Wild Bill Show,” which were more flamboyant than functional. For example, “ More than any other star before 1930, Tom Mix had the greatest influence on western wear as an emerging style for the masses…E.H. Bohlin gear, flashy boots with high heels and solid silver jeweled spurs, sweeping “Montana Peak” Stetson hat and silk and satin corded and embroidered shirts with western yokes and bib fronts.” (100 years of western wear, Beard, Arndt, pg21,1993)

In the 1940’s and 50’s singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers influenced the development of “Rhinestone cowboy” fashion of the era. Similar to rodeo clothing, shirts adorned with embroidery, boots with designs, and chaps with rhinestone patterns, were staples of the time. In the 50’s a fashion fad arose that would take the nation by storm. The coonskin cap, popularized by the Disney television shows “Davy Crocket,” and “Daniel Boone,” captivated young boys of the time. At the peak of the craze, over 5000 caps were being sold per day. The coonskin cap, for Americans has become an iconic representation of the simpler time of the 40’s and 50’s, continually referenced by popular media, such as the movie “A Christmas Story,”.

Cowboy fashion observed another change with the rise of the Spaghetti western of the 1960’s and 70’s. The minimalist directorial and costume style, in movies such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” shifted cowboy style from the flamboyant back to a functionalist style. Jeans, hat, shirt, boots, and the occasional vest once again became the staples of cowboy attire.
Due the surprisingly conservative dress of 60’s cowboys the attire has not changed much to present day, for their has been no significant cultural movement to shake the traditional, functionalist style.

Country western music, film and style have been an integral part of American culture for the better part of 150 years. Born out of the harsh west, popularized by romantics, deconstructed by counter-culture and rebuilt by conservatives; the American Cowboy has shifted along with society itself. The influence it has had upon our culture is undeniable. Whether it be artistic, idealistic, reminiscent. Popular through music, being one of the greatest selling genres, film being popular and endearing, and clothing being a staple though the years. Cowboy culture is Americana at its best

Side By Side Comparison of Cowboy Styles
Old West Cowboy
Old West Cowboy
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Modern Day Cowboy/Rancher



Poll:Question 1: Do you own cowboy boots?
Yes- 52.8%
No- 47.2%

Question 2: Do you know who John Wayne is?
Yes- 83.3%
No- 16.7%

Question 3: Do you believe the cowboy is an iconic image of America?
Yes- 72.2%
No- 27.8%

Question 4: Have you ever been western dancing or have a desire to try?
Yes- 80.6%

Question 5: Do you believe that the cowboy culture has as much an impact on today's society as it did in the 1970s?
Yes- 33.3%



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Reynolds, Glenn. "PLAYING COWBOYS AND AFRICANS: HOLLYWOOD AND THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF AFRICAN IDENTITY." Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 25, no.3 (2005): 399-426. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2010).

Rushing, Janice Hocker. "THE RHETORIC OF THE AMERICAN WESTERN MYTH." Communication Monographs 50, no.1 (1983): 14-32. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2010).

Steckmesser, Kent L. "The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture." Western Historical Quarterly 12, no.1 (1981): 63-64. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2010).

Dana Jennings,Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music

Michael R. Pitts, Western Movies

Richard Aquilla, Wanted Dead or Alive, The American West In Popular Culture

(1990-2010). The Internet Movie Database, Inc. Retrieved from