Willie opens closet with 'Cowboys'
COUNTRY MUSIC: Song shows support for gay rights
12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, February 14, 2006
By MARIO TARRADELL / The Dallas Morning News
Willie Nelson's crooned cowboy songs before, from the signature "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" to "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys."
But never like this: On "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," the Texas country icon sings about love among men on the range. Available exclusively at iTunes today, the song aims to show Mr. Nelson's support for gays, particularly to conservative country-music fans.
"The song's been in the closet for 20 years," Mr. Nelson said in a prepared statement. It was written in 1981 by Lubbock-born singer-songwriter Ned Sublette.
"The timing's right for it to come out. I'm just opening the door."
Mr. Nelson recorded a song for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, the melancholy ballad "He Was a Friend of Mine." And the movie about two cowboys in love may have provided the perfect opportunity to release this new song. But Mr. Nelson also has a personal connection to the tune.
Two years ago, David Anderson, Mr. Nelson's friend and tour manager of three decades, told his boss he's gay. Last March, while Mr. Nelson recorded a batch of previously unreleased songs for iTunes, he discovered the song in a stack of demos he had tossed into a drawer.
Singing "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other" was Mr. Nelson's way of telling a longtime pal everything was OK, says Mr. Anderson.
"This song obviously has special meaning to me in more ways than one," says Mr. Anderson, who lives in Dallas. "I want people to know more than anything – gay, straight, whatever – just how cool Willie is and ... his way of thinking, his tolerance, everything about him."
"Cowboys" includes lyrics such as "I believe to my soul that inside every man there's the feminine" and "What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?" But Mr. Nelson delivers them deadpan, which gives the song an air of seriousness.
Gay-themed songs are rare in mainstream country music. In fact, Mr. Nelson's is the first by a major artist. Before that, the closest is Garth Brooks' 1992 single "We Shall be Free," a cry for peace and equality with the pro-gay line "When we're free to love anyone we choose." Though it didn't focus exclusively on gays, the tune stirred some controversy; some radio stations across the country wouldn't play it. "We Shall be Free" peaked at No. 12 on Billboard's country singles chart, ending a string of Top 10 hits for Mr. Brooks.
It may take a few days to learn the public's reaction to Mr. Nelson's "Cowboys." Programmers at KPLX-FM (99.5) "The Wolf" couldn't be reached for comment about the song, and Lorrin Palagi at KTYS-FM (96.7) "The Twister" said the station hadn't heard it.
"Garth Brooks said he didn't care what people thought of his song," says Alan Pierce, co-owner of the Round-Up Saloon, a gay country bar in Oak Lawn. "Willie is the same way. It acknowledges it as a reality in life. It could help straight America acknowledge this.
"The bottom line is we're ecstatic he's doing this."
"Cowboys" will be the guest of honor at a celebration tonight dubbed "Willie's Gay Cowboys Song Coming-Out Party" at the Round-Up. Mr. Nelson won't be there, but his spirit will.
On Sunday, a group of about 30 local cowboys spent the afternoon at the Round-Up learning choreography for the song's upcoming video. While the song played repeatedly, choreographer Darrin Davis demonstrated kicks and spins, boot stomping and slow, toe-dragging turns all in line-dancing style.
"I think it's groundbreaking," says J.D. Bay of Dallas, who works in accounting. "It's an incredible step for Willie Nelson. It says a lot about him, especially since he's from Texas. It opens a lot of doors, opens a lot of minds."
John Yancich, a chiropractor from Dallas, agrees: "I'm sure it will have some positive influence on some things."
Mr. Anderson also sees the song as a unifying catalyst.
"The whole thing is about tolerance," he says.
Over at Mr. Nelson's record label, Nashville's Lost Highway, there are no reservations or fear of controversy about releasing the song.
"Willie wants it out so we want it out," says Kim Buie, a vice president at Lost Highway. "What this song does is give credence to something that I think a lot of people have known for a long time. Being gay is nothing new. It's gone through history, whether it's out on the plains or back in Roman times. Society puts its own standards on it, but that song makes it OK."
E-mail [email protected] Willie's Gay Cowboys Song Coming-Out Party starts at 9 tonight at the Round-Up Saloon, 3912 Cedar Springs Road. No cover. 214-522-9611.
The original song was recorded in 95 by Pansy Division. I've heard both versions and they are both very cool.