The album cover for Ned Sublette's "Cowboy Rumba" album, featuring the singer looking into the camera mysteriously in a large white cowboy hat.

What is it about cowboys that is just so… gay?

There’s an inherent homoeroticism to a lot of Western imagery. And while 2005’s Brokeback Mountain certainly popularized the idea of a closeted cattlehand in the mainstream, one songwriter picked up on the subtext more than 20 years earlier.

The man was performer and musicologist Ned Sublette, who left no room for interpretation when he penned “Cowboys Are Secretly, Frequently (Fond of Each Other)” in 1981.

A waltzing, mid-tempo country tune begins, “Well, there’s many a strange impulse out on the plains of West Texas / There’s many a young boy who feels things he can’t comprehend.” Later declaring: “No, a small town don’t like it when a cowboy has feelings for men.”

Now, queer country crooner Orville Peck is making headlines for his celebratory cover of the track. But its story began many moons ago.

Although Sublette identifies as straight, he connected with the solitary feeling of being “different in any way” in a small town. He grew up in Portales, New Mexico before later moving to New York in search of something more. “Big cities are full of people who left small towns because they felt somehow stifled or disapproved of,” he told MyWestTexas.

A longtime fan of urban cowboy ballads like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Sublette was also hip to the LGBTQ+ community’s connection to Western sensibilities.

“[Where I lived in Manhattan], there was a bar on Christopher Street, at the time the epicenter of New York gay, called Boots & Saddles, which I used to walk past a lot,” he told MyWestTexas.

One day at the piano, the inspiration came together and “it practically wrote itself.”

Like its swinging contemporaries, the lyrics are largely tongue-in-cheek, with phrases like “A cowboy may brag about things that he’s done with his woman/But the ones who brag loudest are the ones that are most likely queer.”

Still, its staying power likely comes from the turns of phrases that proved surprisingly insightful. Today, lyrics like “Inside every man, there’s the feminine” and “Inside every cowboy, there’s a lady that’d love to slip out” feel prescient of current views on gender identity and sexuality.

“It’s a song for people with a sense of humor, written by a composer with a sense of humor,” Sublette explained. “Beyond that, though, I think what makes the song stick is there’s a tenderness to it … and a good moral to it: loving is better than hating.”

That being said, the unexpected queer anthem remained buried for years.

Sublette’s rendition appeared on an 1982 compilation, and indie band Lost Dakotas released a cover in 1993, before the queercore group Pansy Division recorded it in 1995.

It didn’t find a large audience until Willie Nelson cut the track in 2006 after sitting on Sublette’s demo tape for 20 years. As he told Time, “I thought it was the funniest goddamn song I’d ever heard … When Brokeback came out, it just seemed like a good time to kick it out of the closet.”

Coincidentally, Sublette originally wrote the tune with Nelson in mind. The country legend’s version was largely considered the first LGBTQ-themed mainstream country song by a major artist.

While the queer themes were enough to piss off a few country radio stations (“They’re not gonna play it,” Nelson famously said), it was mostly embraced by the outlaw hippie’s ragtag fanbase.

And it was actually Nelson’s idea to release the latest iteration with Peck, who’s carved out his own niche amongst queer and liberal country fans.

“Willie kept talking about how the subject matter in this song was more important than ever,” Peck told Rolling Stone.

“With all the rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community these days, it is so encouraging to have real allies like Willie that aren’t afraid to stand proudly next to us.”

Can we get a yee-haw?

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