By Will Groff, Contributing Writer
I was born into the heyday of female-led country crossover. Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and, above all, the Chicks gave voice to my nascent desires. A part of me feels sorry for the kids growing up with today’s country radio, who are tasked with inscribing queerness onto songs like Luke Bryan’s “Knockin’ Boots” and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad.”
I was three when the Chicks released “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a song that — perhaps more than any other — sounds like my childhood. Even twenty-plus years later, whenever I hear it, I’m immediately transported to an idealized space that resembles both late-90s suburbia and a vaguely Brokeback prairie fantasy. It’s intense.
In hindsight, I had only a few golden years with the song, before Natalie Maines’s infamous comment about then-president George W. Bush effectively ended the Chicks’ careers as country stars, and my mom hid all of our Chicks CDs in the garage to keep my dad from destroying them. (Wish I was joking.)
It wasn’t until I was in high school, after I said the words “I’m gay” for the first time to a close friend, that “Cowboy” and I reconnected. Something about coming out, even privately, freed me to dig my mom’s CDs out of their hiding place and explore the soundscape of my early childhood. Like many closeted teens, I found a safe space in my car stereo, and screaming along to Chicks songs with my friend felt like the most radical thing I could do.
For a long time, I understood the song as a straightforward paean to a particularly rugged and American masculinity. (To be fair, I was also very into Lana del Rey at the time, whose songs were straightforward paeans to American masculinity.) It stood out on an album that also includes the noncommittal anthem “Ready to Run,” the Capote-referencing “Don’t Waste Your Heart,” and, of course, “Goodbye Earl,” all songs that not-so-subtly flip the script on traditional gender roles.
But listening to it now, it’s obvious that the song, despite being written by Martie Maguire and Marcus Hummon in honor of Emily Strayer’s marriage to real-life cowboy Charlie Robison, is about cowboys as much as “Wichita Lineman” is about electric power transmission. The song is less interested in romantic love than in the prospect of escape.
I said, I wanna touch the earth– Martie Maguire and Marcus Hummon
I wanna break it in my hands
I wanna grow something wild and unruly
The first few lines of the song capture a desire that is intensely physical, but not necessarily sexual. Maines’s narrator desires absolute freedom from all the things that make modern life unbearable, from the daily agony of a dead-end job to the banal torture of commuting.
Apart from a line about sleeping “in the comfort of your arms,” the titular figure is barely mentioned in the first verse, and remains blissfully non-specific throughout. Even in the chorus, the word cowboy is almost a throwaway, necessary throat-clearing before the harmonies kick in and the song ascends. The narrator, and her relationship to the world, are the stars of the show.
The cowboy is completely absent from the music video, which locates the Chicks not on the Texas prairie but in what appears to be an empty loft in Downtown Los Angeles. Sporting blonder-than-blonde hair and effortlessly chic lewks, the Chicks mill about the building before wonderfully dated CGI transforms the loft into a forest and DTLA into a mountain landscape that resembles an iMac background. At one point, Strayer and Maguire lock arms and perform a folksy jig, injecting radical sisterhood into a song that, on its face, is more Rodeo & Juliet than Thelma & Louise.
Watching the video now is both acutely nostalgic and strangely aspirational. Like many queer people, I spent my early years yearning for companionship, to a degree that often felt painful. But as I settle into my first adult relationship, with someone who isn’t exactly the cowboy I pictured (he’s gay, for one), I find myself drawn to the Chicks’ cowboy for a new reason. He is an ideal partner in that he offers a degree of security, even a sense of escape, and then steps out of the way.
“I wanna be the only one, for miles and miles,” Maines belts in the second verse. “Except for maybe you and your simple smile.”
The maybe is essential.