If I’m honest, I kind of already thought Miranda Lambert was a cowboy…
I haven’t been the biggest fan of Lambert’s work over the last few years, but her previous single “Settling Down” felt like a marked improvement from the tired, uninspired songs she had been throwing out onto the radio, even if the radio preferred the inferior “Bluebird” (“Settling Down” only made it to #6 on Billboard’s airplay chart, compared to “Bluebird” reaching #1). The track ended up being the last off of Lambert’s Wildcard album, which is not a terrible thing given the improvement shown and that final album singles can server as a bridge to the next album. Sure enough, Lambert has returned with the presumed leadoff single to her eighth major-label album “If I Was A Cowboy,” and it might be the best song I’ve heard from her since the Korner’s establishment. It’s an easy-on-the-ears fantasy trip through the Old West that also makes some subtle points on gender-based double standards along the way.
There isn’t a ton to the production here, but it at least pass the context test and sounds like something suitable for a day out on the range. The ominous, deep-voiced electric guitars that are often associated with the Old West are only show up on the bridge solo and outro, but the song is drive by mostly acoustic guitars (the video doesn’t credit any banjos here, but there’s definitely something that sounds like a banjo strumming on the verses and rolling on the choruses) and real drums, and the higher-pitched steel guitar notes act as a serviceable stand-in for the classic whistling that defines the “Western movie” sound. The frequent minor chords and overall tone of the sound give the track a dark and melancholic feel that hint at the song’s true nature: The lyrics focus a lot on the wilder side of cowboy life, but there’s also a thread of pain and solitude running through the lifestyle that the sound brings to the forefront. Despite this mild darkness, however, the sound feels incredibly relaxed, making the song easy to listen to while helping put the focus squarely on the writing where it belongs. Overall, it’s a sold effort that keeps the track focused and avoids making the song feel out of place.
Lambert made her name as a singer with some serious attitude, and there’s definitely still some attitude present here, but it’s much more subdued that what we’re used to from the person who gave us “Kerosene” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” It’s not a technically-demanding song and Lambert breezes through it was ease, but this allows her to fine-tune her delivery and apply just enough of an edge to the lines that need it. I called her out for sounding tired and lifeless on tracks like like “Keeper Of The Flame,” but she seems to have found her spark again and does a nice job capturing the dichotomy inherent in the track. Her vocals come across as clear and even energetic, but they also convey a sense of longing and world-weariness that give the listener the sense that despite the song’s hypothetical framing, Lambert has been riding the range all along, and she knows exactly what such a life entails. (Her “outlaw-esque” persona and willingness to forge her own path in an overly-homogeneous Nashville helps her sound believable in the role, but she’s got something extra in her delivery that allows her to own the Western motif; I couldn’t see an artist like Eric Church and Dierks Bentley pulling off a song like this quite as effectively.) This is a song that makes a lot of demands on the artist’s voice and charisma, and the fact the Lambert pulls this track off and makes it look easy gives you an idea of how she’s managed to stay relevant in this business for so long.
The lyrics here depict the narrator’s fantasy of living the cowboy life, and while it mostly trades in clichés, it’s at least a tempered version of the dream and brings both sides of the gunslinger stereotype into the equation. Cowboy songs are nothing new in the genre, but they’ve become a bit of a rarity over the years (although Garth Brooks has his own version of the story on the radio right now), but most of you can picture the scene: A smooth-talking, gun-toting drifter whose nightly exploits in drinking and lovemaking seek to fill a hole in their soul that can never truly be plugged. There’s the usual bravado (“I’d be lookin’ mighty fine on a poster,” “I’d be a legend at loving and leaving,” etc.), the occasional glimpses of the emptiness (“Nipping on a whiskey and numbing up my feelings”), and of course the sly nods towards nefarious behavior (“never begged, never borrowed, but I stole some”). What’s most interesting to me, however, is how the narrator frames the fantasy in gendered terms: They indicate that they would be male in this story, giving lines like “wanted by the law but the laws don’t apply to me” a bit more bite considering that men and women are often treated very differently for the exact same behavior. (For example, when it comes to having many romantic partners, men are called “players” and even “a legend in loving and leaving,” while women are branded as “loose” or “cheap.”) There’s even a call out of the “boy” part of cowboys, with the narrator declaring that there’s nothing wrong with a woman filling the same role and “if your daughters grow up to be cowboys, so what.” (Note to every other writer in Nashville: This is how you call back to a star of yesterday. You can name-drop Willie and Waylon without name-dropping Willie and Waylon.) The song gives the audience a lot to think about as they ride along the prairie, making this an enjoyable and perhaps even enlightening listen.
“If I Was A Cowboy” is a solid effort from Miranda Lambert that lets us indulge in a cowboy fantasy while inviting us to think critically about the assumptions that underpin it.The production sets the mood and stays out of the way, the lyrics give us both the good and bad surrounding stereotypical cowboy behavior and pushes the listener to spend the time thinking about it, and Lambert delivers a performance that strikes a perfect between conveying the machismo and the weakness of the solo gunslinger. Lambert has really stepped up her game in the last two years, and while she’s an industry veteran who’s earned the right to release whatever she wants regardless of commercial viability, I wish a few more artists would blaze a similar trail. Take a few less-traveled roads, don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and give the listener something to ruminate on in your song—it will make your music stand out, and though there’s a chance it may fall flat, there’s a chance it might resonate with people too, and make your work stand out from the crowd. You may stand alone in your convictions, but sometimes cowboys have to stand alone for what they stand for.
Rating: 7/10. This one is worth hearing.