gamut (2006-32)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cowgirls. What’s in a cowgirl’s job description. What kind of beer cowgirls drink. Where they’ve been hiding out, because with the Bush administration trampling all over women’s rights, this country sure could use some.

I wonder if the term “cowgirl” is even PC anymore in this post-feminist age: Wouldn’t “cowperson” be more inclusive? Then again, when you look up “cowgirl” on Wikipedia, you get automatically redirected to the listing for “cowboy,” so maybe the whole gender-equality movement never made it into cowgirl country in the first place. Maybe Gloria Steinem and the rest figured that cowgirls, being cowgirls, could fend for themselves.

I’d ask a cowgirl about the nuances of her trade, but her kind is conspicuously absent around these parts. You hardly ever pass a cowgirl on the street, or find yourself in line with one at the bank. So far as I can tell, they’re an endangered species: part reality, part myth.

There’s no shortage of pseudo-cowgirls, of course. If you want to see grown women prancing around in snakeskin boots and miniskirts and not much else, all you have to do is turn on CMT or stop by Cotton Eyed Joe’s on ladies’ night. However, if you took a survey of how many of these know how to hitch a tractor to a manure-spreader, you’d probably be disappointed. I’d lay money that Carrie Underwood, the blonde girly-girl whose single “Don’t Forget To Remember Me” is currently No. 3 on the Billboard country music charts, wouldn’t know a manure-spreader if it rear-ended her in the mall parking lot. (Although to her credit, she could probably wear the heck out of a tight-fitting pair of Wranglers).

But times are changing, and it seems reasonable that the concept of “cowgirl” should morph in synch. Perhaps sweat and grease are no longer applicable to the modern cowgirl paradigm. Maybe that mechanical bull at the Rush is as good as a real one, less the risk of serious injury or death; maybe that lasso is better for reeling in the hot guy at the end of the bar than it is for roping an unruly calf. Certain skills—shooting up bandits, for instance, or knowing how to ford a river—just lose their relevance.

What I want to know, then, is what has become of the real-life cowgirl, if she even still exists. And if she does, deep down I want to know if there’s any room in her corral for me.

The first step to becoming a cowgirl, of course, is to act like a cowgirl. That’s what I keep telling myself in the food vendor aisle of the Williamson County Fair, held a few miles south of Nashville each August. Sweat rolls down my face as I survey lunch options—either a Thai grilled chicken sandwich and iced green tea from the vendor on my left, or a monster turkey leg and jumbo lemonade from the vendor on my right. 

Which one would a cowgirl pick ?, I ask myself, and shudder at my gut response. “If you order a Thai grilled chicken sandwich and green tea at the county fair, we’re going back to the car,” says my companion in today’s wild-cowgirl chase, who’s eying the bronze-hued drumsticks on the grill. He turns to the woman inside the window. “Two monster turkey legs, please.”

Watching him rip chunks of meat from the bone with his teeth is inspiring, in a strange, carnal sort of way. After peeling the blubbery outer layer off and depositing it in the nearest trash bin, I attempt the same—burying my face in the greasy, pink meat and chewing it slowly, with my eyes closed, like a cowgirl savoring a hearty meal after a long day on the range. After a few bites, though, reality sets in. I’m gnawing on a bone covered with muscle and cartilage and fat that once belonged to a very live bird. Tofurkey , I tell myself, but it’s a self-defeating delusion. Everyone knows that cowgirls do not eat tofurkey.

After washing the grease from our hands, we make our way past the boiled peanuts, pony rides and chicken races to the event we came here for: the 2006 Miss Rodeo Tennessee coronation ceremony. For starry-eyed cowgirls across the state, it’s the oversized silver belt-buckle of the year. The pageant takes place over the course of four days and includes a series of grueling competitions ranging from riding horses to impromptu question-answer sessions on current affairs.

I can already tell that these are my kind of cowgirls—not only do they have to be accomplished at performing home-on-the-range activities, they have to know their politics. I make a mental note to introduce myself to them after the ceremony. Maybe we can talk shop over veggie corndogs. Maybe they’ll invite me to come visit their ranch, offer to teach me a thing or two about manure-spreaders.

I gaze out into the sea of cowboy hats surrounding us, most of which are shading the faces of nerve-wracked parents. The stage is decorated with assorted potted plants and red, white and blue stars, and a pair of flower-stuffed cowboy boots is propped up on the podium. The announcer scurries to the microphone: It’s time to begin.

After a short speech about how exciting the week has been, the Miss Rodeo candidates file onto the stage. Whoa , I think to myself. They’re so sparkly . And their hair-dos are so very large. You can’t judge a cowgirl by her outfit and all, but that’s about where my awe dead-ends.

The lineup, for all the sequins and hairspray it contains, doesn’t seem very authentic—not a speck of mud or stray horsehair amongst the lot of them. Most of them are wearing long, un-saddle-friendly skirts and about a pound of makeup, and they each hold the same pose: hands on hips, feet in ballerina third-position, grinning from ear to ear. The fringe on their jackets quivers as they pause for a photo op, sequins twinkling beneath the camera-flashes.

I’m a little confused. I wasn’t expecting to behold cowgirls fresh off the farm, but I wasn’t expecting a scene from the 2006 Delta Delta Delta Cowgirl Mixer, either. I later find out that the horsemanship requirements are fairly limited, and the intellectually challenging Q&A session I’d envisioned was followed by a fashion show. I’m sure the Miss Rodeo pageant contestants are all bright and charming young ladies, but are they cowgirls ?

After the winner is announced, my companion and I turn to walk away from the hugging, squealing aftermath. For distraction, we pick up a pink, pickled egg from a vendor outside and each take a bite. It’s disgusting. I feel like barfing, but I resist.

When cowgirls eat something raunchy, they don’t barf. They wash it down with beer.

Robert’s Western World, a bar on Nashville’s Lower Broad, is a funny corner of the world. A whole side of it is lined with shelves of cowboy boots, and there’s always some country-fried act crooning onstage, no matter what time of the day it is. This afternoon, it’s a five-piece ensemble fronted by a guy who looks like a country-western Ken doll with double-jointed hips. He dips and sways and thrusts his giant belt-buckle at the audience to emphasize key chord progressions in his song, some sad-sack ballad about whisky and heartbreak. I scan the audience quickly—not a cowgirl hat in the house.

“Two High Life’s, please.” The bartender, a tattooed woman with punk-rock hair and confident eyes, nods imperceptibly and slides two bottles across the bar. As she resumes processing an endless stream of drink orders, I observe her unflustered dexterity, a cool that seems impervious to the over-amplified honky-tonk music coming the stage. “Do y’all think it’s too loud?” the Ken-doll frontman asks in between songs, lifting up his sunglasses to peer at the audience. “I didn’t think so.”

A couple songs later, he lets his band take over and slides behind the bar, past the sign that says “No Musicians Behind the Bar,” to say something to the bartender. She frowns and says something back, and though I can’t tell what they’re talking about, it’s clear that their conversation is growing into an argument. Eventually, she pushes him out from behind the bar and turns away, shaking her head in disgust. I want to ask her what he said, but our beers are empty and we’re already on our way out the door.

We stop into another bar a couple doors down, where the music seems a little quieter. Still no cowgirls, but there’s a special on PBRs. Once again, I catch myself admiring the female bartender’s handiwork—this time, the speed with which she flips off beer caps. And once again, the Ken-doll frontman appears out of nowhere and slides behind the bar. Must be one heck of a show they’re getting back at the Western World.

He reaches for the bartender and pushes a strand of curly blonde behind her ear. She giggles a little, and he moves in closer, hands encircling her waist, fingers in her hair, whispering something close to her face.

Suddenly, she backs away. “Oh, you’re just tryin’ to get a free beer,” she says, then shoos him away. “Get the hell out of my bar.”

As the frontman backs away, the bartender winks at me and shrugs. Hey, it’s just another life in the day of a… cowgirl ?

It dawns on me that this is what cowgirls are all about, and that I’ve been surrounded by true cowgirls this whole time. It doesn’t matter where you live, or what you wear, or your familiarity with manure-spreaders. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a man or a woman. It’s about gender equality, and standing your ground, and thinking and acting independently—and not letting cowboys push you around. It’s about blazing new trails, and fighting the good fight. True cowgirls wear their spurs on the inside.