Country music can trace its roots back in myriad directions, with influences hailing from Appalachia, the British Isles, Africa and south of the border. But the thread that pulls all of country music together is the lonely cry of the western cowboy.
From the earliest years of television and radio, the ideals of cowboy life filled American imaginations with fantasies of open ranges and high lonesome wanderers, always yearning for the next horizon. Images of good guys in white hats and sinister men in black have remained with us across the years.
Painted ponies, worn-in saddles and long, winding trails far from civilization can be found througout in the rodeo-chasing, heartbreaking tunes of the country music genre. Read on for 10 of the most well-known western country songs, from the beginning of the genre to up-and-coming artists who walk in the dusty bootprints of cowboy legends.
Toby Keith brought a new generation back to the whimsical cowboy lifestyle with this record-breaking 1993 hit, romanticizing the rough-riding outlaw style that his country music predecessors handed down.
An icon of Hollywood's cowboy era, Roy Rogers and his glamorous cowgirl wife, Dale Evans, sang their way into the hearts and homes of Americans coast to coast, painting a picture of the western ideal for generations to come. "Don't Fence Me In" became the cowboy's theme song.
Upstart Colter Wall embodies the spirit of Old West music in his fresh take on throwback country. In this cover of a traditional ballad recorded by country greats throughout the years, the Canadian-born singer-songwriter channels the cowboys of yesteryear in his stripped-down, open plains style.
A traditional tune also known in many versions as "Cowboy's Lament," this song has been recorded by numerous country stars through the years, but perhaps most famously by Marty Robbins on his album More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
The Chicks swept a whole new generation off their feet with the romantic notions of wide open spaces and soaring western love affairs. "Cowboy, Take Me Away" captured the cowboy's sweetheart's side of some tough-as-nails gals who would have fit right in with predecessors such as Patsy Montana and Dale Evans.
"Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" (1978)Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson tell the tale of lonely woe to which cowboy life leads in their iconic 1978 cover of a song written by Ed Bruce in 1975.
"I'm an Old Cowhand" (1936)Bing Crosby
Originally composed by Johnny Mercer and recorded by Bing Crosby for the film Rhythm on the Range, this song became iconic in country music and has been covered by many country artists over the years and included on the soundtrack to several movies. Crosby's version topped the charts in 1936, but the tune enjoyed a resurgence over the years as it was re-imagined by cowboy singers throughout time.
Gene Autry defined the cowboy culture of the 1950s for generations coast to coast with the emergence of television and radio entertainment, romanticizing life on the open range in songs such as this one.
No one has escorted the cowboy culture forward through generations like King George. The superstar passed along a passion for the unfenced world from the rhinestone cowboys of earlier eras to the neo-classic western stars of today.
Johnny Cash's otherworldly baritone sets his version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," another classic recorded by more than 50 artists throughout the decades, apart from the rest. Written in 1948 by western music and movie legend Stan Jones, the song is based on a Native American legend told him by a tribal elder.