by Kevin Chong
Back when I was preparing the trailer for my new book, My Year of the Racehorse, I came upon a great version of Stephen Foster’s classic ditty about horse racing: “Camptown Races,” sung by Johnny Cash. (You’ve heard the song even if you don’t know the title.)
It made me think about the way horses are written about in country music.
While working on the book, I saw first-hand the multiple roles that horses play in the imaginations of humans. While some people saw thoroughbreds as pets or status objects, others recognized them as a livelihood and way of life. To some, horses are embodiments of nobility and grace; to others, they are farm animals like pigs and cows.
Much in the same way, the treatment of horses varies wildly in song. If, in rock music, horses are seen as symbols of uninhibited freedom (e.g. from art-rocker Patti Smith’s “Horses” to Canadian crooner Gino Vannelli’s "Appaloosa”), the horse in country music represents tradition, old-fashioned values and fidelity.
Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” (also covered by Johnny Cash) is emblematic of country music’s esteem for the horse. The faithful, reliable stallion in the song saves its narrator from an outlaw and unfriendly natives: “He had the nerve and he had the blood/ And there never was a hoss like the Tennessee stud.” The song ends happily when the lonely cowboy and his “hoss” meet a cowgirl with a mare.
While a trusted steed is the best friend a cowboy could have, an unbroken horse can be a metaphor for infidelity. The chorus to Garth Brooks’s “Wild Horses” plays off the Rolling Stones’ song – a foray into country twang inspired by Keith Richards’s friendship with singer-songwriter Gram Parsons – of the same name: “Wild horses keep draggin’ me away.” While the Stones song paid tribute to enduring love, Brooks’s ballad uses the image of an unbroken equine to lament a rodeo rider’s inability to keep his promises to settle down with his sweetheart.
In Pam Tillis’s "Let the Pony Run,” a horse is a metaphor for both betrayal and freedom. The first half of the song’s narrative concerns a woman with a cheating husband – the first “pony” she lets run. Mary gets a divorce and finds release in the chestnut horse she buys in West Virginia.
In Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson’s "M.C. Horses,” it’s not a relationship being mourned but the vanishing world of the cowboy.
A herd (or “remuda”) of 100 horses is being sold by a legendary family-owned ranch that no longer has any cattle. “Saddle 'em kids let's get her done/ By the time that Oregon sun goes down/ This outfit's history – this outfit's history.”
More a call to arms than a lament, Toby Keith’s “Beer for My Horses” urges frontier-style justice as a remedy to the “dirty deeds” of gangsters in the modern world: “When the gun smoke settles we'll sing a victory tune,” says the conservative new-country artist – who owns more than 20 racehorses – in a duet with Willie Nelson. “We'll all meet back at the local saloon/ We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces/ Singing whisky for my men, beer for my horses.”
(While beer might be an acquired taste for some equines, Breeders’ Cup champion Zenyatta would get a can of Guinness after a workout.)
In this song, the invocation of horses adds down-home quality to Keith’s ode to vigilantism, while he reaffirms the horse’s versatile and enduring role in country music.
Vancouver-based writer Kevin Chong's latest book is My Year of the Racehorse.
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on Jul 31, 2012