In June 1981, sitting at a piano while visiting my ex-hometown of Portales, New Mexico, I started playing a good old West Texas waltz feel. In the key of C, of course.
It was the era of the great urban cowboy plague, when every song on country radio was cowboys this and cowboys that. I was inspired that day, and a song wrote itself as I plunked:
There's many a strange impulse out on the plains of West Texas
There's many a young boy who feels things he don't comprehend
Well, the small town don't like it when somebody falls between sexes
No, the small town don't like it when a cowboy has feelings for men.
Cowboys are frequently secretly fond of each other
What did you think all them saddles and boots was about?
There's many a cowboy who don't understand the way that he feels for his brother
Inside every cowboy there's a lady who'd love to slip out . . .
No one had heard of AIDS in 1981. "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other)" took on a life of its own, as songs will do. It's been requested at my shows for 25 years and recorded various times. I tried to place it in Brokeback Mountain, but the word I got was that it was too funny for a tear-jerkin' movie.
In 1988, I think it was, my friend Tony Garnier handed a cassette of the song to Willie Nelson when they coincided on Saturday Night Live. After living with the song all this time (reportedly it was a band-bus favorite), Willie recorded it last year.
When I first heard Willie sing "Cowboys," it was an indescribable feeling. Since I wrote the song with him in mind, I feel like I already heard it, way back when. But Willie as an interpreter is always surprising, and I learned a hundred things about my own song hearing him give it back to me. Plus, his guitar part is perfect.
On February 14, it was released as a download-only single on iTunes (and eventually shot to #8). The next day, I found myself singing the song on CBS Evening News, along with Willie. And, as if all that weren't enough -- there's going to be a "Cowboys" ringtone.