“Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was perhaps the most important song of Toby Keith’s career. The song was his debut single and was greeted with open arms. The song tells the story of a man, the narrator, thinking about what life would be like if he had pursued other ventures. He thinks that life as a cowboy in the old west would have been more adventurous than the life he is currently living. This upbeat tune was easy to enjoy and was a popular dance song.
Keith’s single, released in February 1993, was among singles from other prominent artists of the New Country era. The success of the song was outstanding since he was a new country artist. His main competition was pop music. Country-pop crossover songs made their way onto the music scene throughout the 1990’s (Boehlert). Keith’s honky tonk sound accompanied by his deep voice gave off the idea that his masculinity would not be affected by any of the current changes in music.
The audience takes a front row seat in the story of his hit song. They get to look into the mind of the narrator and imagine this scenario as life as a “cowboy.” Keith provides a mental image by using stereotypes and allusions of television shows and key figures that create the “cowboy” image. This method helps listeners understand the imagery of what can be understood as a simpler time of life in the west. This stirs up nostalgia and a sense of longing.
The show Gunsmoke is heavily represented in the first verse. Keith sings about the relationship shared between two characters, “Marshall Dillon” and “Miss Kitty.” This not only connects to the audience who watched the show, but expresses an underlying theme. Since Dillon “never hung his hat up at Kitty’s place” he did not stay put in one place. Even if the listener has never seen the show, he/she understands that he didn’t want to settle down. By not being tied down, Dillon is living in freedom to go and do whatever he pleases. Keith’s lyrics rely on the nomadic lifestyle of a cowboy and the masculinity that accompanies that idea.
Keith continues to reference prominent western figures throughout the song. He relies on the idea that the people who are listening to his music know who Jesse James and the Texas Rangers are. He also pays tribute to two important people in country music; Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. These two were singing cowboys who were very iconic. In the chorus Keith sings that these two were “stealing the young girls’ hearts,” and he imagined that his life as a cowboy would give him the same effect.
The image of the cowboy that Keith presents is not the entire picture of what life in the west was life. He sings as if the whole lifestyle is exciting and does not feel the need to mention any of the challenges a cowboy would face. When he references “Gene and Roy” he is calling on the listeners to imagine a cowboy whose life is like theirs. The desirable life of these “cowboys” is what Keith is wishing for. This character plays off on the idea that life include guns, horses, and campfires. Three things that may accompany life in the west, but are no where near all that a cowboy does. By casually leaving out any mention of struggle, Keith’s image is highly romanticized.
The structure of the song is a simple verse-chorus and is sung in a first person point of view. The verses are similar in the sense that they reference commonly known figures and provide details about what life would be like as a cowboy. The chorus follows a similar idea but stays the same throughout the song. It is repeated twice at the end of the song, separated by an instrumental break.
Keith’s delivery is strong and his deep voice gives it a rough edge, one that would nicely accompany a modern “cowboy” demeanor. The tune is upbeat and stays that way throughout the duration of the song. When singing the verses, Keith’s voice sounds almost as if he is adding some spoken word throughout. Every second line starts off with more exclamation than the line before it. This progressive structure keeps the song interesting and grabs the attention the listeners.
The breaks through the song are short and warranted between each verse and chorus. Keith adds much enthusiasm to the word “cowboy” throughout the song. Obviously this is the whole idea of the song and worthy of emphasis. The instrumentation of the song is backed heavily by the drum beat and keyboard. The indicator of the first verse is chords on the keyboard, framing the tune of the song throughout. In the chorus the steel guitar is prominent in the chorus. In the instrumental break before the final chorus, the electric guitar is featured. Contrary to the reliance on acoustic guitar in the new country genre, this song is heavily influenced by electric instruments. This it forgets about the cowboy image he is going for which would rely on only an acoustic guitar if anything else. However, Keith’s use of strong instrumentation presents a strong character. It gives the song a tough image which creates a masculine character overall.
This single from his debut album obviously made a connection to country music listeners. The Dallas Cowboys even adopted the song as an “anthem” for the team in the 1990’s (Shelton). The relation of the song to his life might be more true than he thinks. His nomadic lifestyle touring across the world draws the hearts of country music fans. His songs are more lively than those “campfire songs,” but he is freely sharing his music with anyone willing to listen.
Boehlert, Eric. “Warner’s Little Texas Takes Country to Pop Border.” Billboard 19 Feb. 1994: n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web.
Shelton, Pamela, and David Freeland. “Keith, Toby.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2008. Web.