a very cowboy christmas

by elizaligon

I know we’re all getting really fucking sick of Christmas music already, and December has hardly set in. Beyond that, I know that we’re all thinking the same thing: Christmas is cool and all, but I just wish there were more cowboys, y’know? I do know. I know more than you know I know. 

Before I was even a twinkle in the eyes of my parents, my dad’s parents had met Andy Wilkinson at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, of which they were frequent attendees. If you’re uninformed about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, allow me to give you the greatest understatement of all time: you are missing out. 

Elko, Nevada is the home of the Western Folklife Center, where the Gathering takes place. Here, for a week in the dead of winter, the community enlivens one another with music, art, and poetry about the American west. It was here that my grandparents uncovered the artist who would produce the world’s greatest Christmas album. The album was released in December of 2000, I was born in January; erego, I have been listening to this album since I was in the womb.

The album begins in October, “When the Cottonwoods are Yellow.” This song brings us into fall, when the leaves change and the days turn chilly. Between each song, there is a pause wherein we are given a taste of the kind of poetry one might hear at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Between this song and the next, we are told about “the Letting go of Leaves.” Wilkinson prepares to set out for a winter’s journey– what will it bring?

The next song, “Both Sides of Living,” relays the idea that the winter holidays are a time for gratitude. We are told about the sources of joy beyond money– though they’re few and far between, one can still revel in these moments. After all, Wilkinson tells us, “we swear lean times are leaner than fat times are fat.”  By this, he means that enough will never be enough for the rich man. (Wilkinson basically said “eat the rich” which is kinda rad.)

To a similar tune, “the Morning Side of Winter” is the song which rings in the winter season. Though the speaker is still struggling to let go of the mild spring season which is long since gone, but the indication of winter means that spring might be just around the corner. This could also be allegorical to the concept that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Truly a song which could cure even the worst cases of seasonal depression. 

“The Day of the Christmas Ball” is the odyssey of a hero who makes a ride through a snowstorm when a doctor cannot reach the town. The children are sick with diphtheria, so the cowboy goes to the doctor in order to retrieve the medicine for the town so that they may celebrate Christmas with their yearly ball. The song concludes “let a cowboy make your glory ride on the day of the Christmas Ball,” and for some reason I just really love the term “cowboy” when it’s used self-referentially. I’m a cowboy, are you?

We are subjected to a few Christmas medleys, as is customary, but then comes the banger of all Christmas songs: the Tumbleweed Christmas Tree. This song makes me fucking feral. Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with this song. 

We open: “‘twas a rough year for rough-necks children. Hard times, harder living. We moved when the rent came due and it came due once a week.” Truly nobody understands hardship like Andy Wilkinson.  “He [the father] drove to town in the company pickup, but when he didn’t have a sawbuck, for the price of a Christmas tree he brought back a tumbleweed.” (A sawbuck is a $20 bill, something I learned from this song.)  

The chorus rings, “Christmas eve in No-Trees, Texas, wind blowing through the cactus. Santa Clause was a rich kid’s saint and a poor kid’s dream. But I’d trade every fancy present I’ve ever had or ever will get, for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.” As we can tell, Andy Wilkinson is a cowboy who cherishes the simple things in life. Is this not, after all, what Christmas is all about?

The album concludes with “Snowin’ Again in Lubbock,” a song which indicates the similarities between the mercurial nature of the Texan weather and the changes wrought by the winding paths which life brings us down. The setting is laid; post holidays, there’s less mercy in the hearts of people, and also less work to be found. The speaker laments the fact that “more than money, I need something to do, when it’s snowin’ again in Lubbock, and the snow blows in like trouble with nowhere else to go.” With the final song, we are reminded that the cowboy lifestyle, glorified though it may be, is not for the faint of heart.

We know that Christmas is severely lacking in cowboys, there’s no need to argue on that subject. The question is how to move forward. How can we make this holiday more cowboy-centric? I have one proposal. This album may save large swaths of the American population from Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani’s “You Make it Feel Like Christmas.” We should never have to hear that song again. Instead, take a break from the invasive Christmas pop, to indulge in some cowboy Christmas music. 

Categories: dec 7, eliza ligon, side bar, tunes, vol 25

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