A country girl at heart, I’m partial to one classic country music motif in particular: The Cowboy. Swashbuckling classics like Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Beer for my Horses” run parallel to darker tones of Garth Brooks’s “Rodeo” and Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Like most good country songs, The Cowboy theme intertwines with The Girl, and all the complexities that relationships bring with them. Modern artist Jon Pardi proposes that it “Aint Always the Cowboy” who does the leaving, despite George Strait’s earlier assertation of the fact in “The Cowboy Rides Away.”
The relationship between cowboy and lover is seen in a unique light in Randy Houser and Brice Long’s 2014 song, “Like a Cowboy.” For me, this song is even more powerful and emotional in light of a modern context reimagining: cowboys as soldiers, and the struggle of long-distance relationships in military families.
It’s clear that Houser knows and relates deeply to the themes of reunion and longing, as he concretizes emotions of regret, courage, fidelity, transience, and wanderlust with the audience. “The work of art has been pondered before being made,” says Maritain (p. 8, Art & Scholasticism), “has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, and matured in a mind before emerging into matter.” This song is a beautiful coloring of a unique relational reality faced by many people across the expanse of time.
What makes this piece beautiful? It possesses “a vision, that is to say an intuitive knowledge, and a joy” (Maritain, 24). In the case of “Like a Cowboy,” we receive a front-row seat to the Cowboy who comes and goes, driven by duty and desire, and the woman who loves him. We see, we know, and we respond: we rise and fall with both the lyrics and the crescendos in the music itself. As a piece of art, the song has integrity, proportion, and a sharp clarity (Maritain, 25) into the joys and brokenness that comes from loving over long distances.
The beauty of this song is objective in itself, as a unified whole within the genre, but when understood through personal experience of a lived reality of long distance love, it becomes all the more beautiful. Maritain says it well: “It is beautiful only under certain aspects which some discover and others do not see” (Maritain, 31). Those of us who have endured the reality of months of separation know both the joy and the heartache more intimately than others who have not.
The quality of an artist’s work is in proportion to the amount of love it receives.”The artist must be in love, must be in love with what he is doing […] so that beauty becomes connatural to him, bedded in his being” (49). While it’s apparent that Randy Houser loves the music he makes, the same can be said for the Cowboy and his way of life. The lovers in the song are always chasing each other but are never free of the lingering transience that comes with working away from home. This sense of incompletion is also felt by the artist: “He is on the tracks of wisdom and running upon the scent of its perfumes, but never possesses it” (37).
There is an eternal tension between the Cowboy’s two loves: the road and his relationship. He desires both, but cannot have them together. As he chases them both, will he ever truly possess either?
One might initially think, in the case of military family life, that you cannot possess both. You can either be at home, or you can be out and serving your country. Even as your family lives in transience and moves from base to base, they are never truly entirely with you, physically or psychologically. This black-and-white mentality, along with the dangerous kinds of work and the high-stress of distance, is more than many families can withstand.
However, I do believe that it is possible to possess both: the love a soldier has for his or her family drives the individual to be a protector and provider, and the nobility of this call gives the family some small, partial satisfaction to help them endure the longest nights and hardest days. Both the family and the soldier need to be willing to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of the other, but it is possible to survive and even thrive in this world. Soak up the joy of presence while you have it, and keep fighting the good fight until you’re together again.