By Marlena Hartz
In a house on the dry, windy plains of New Mexico, the first gay-themed country song performed by a major artist was penned.
Lubbock-born singer-songwriter Ned Sublette wrote “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” when he spent time in his parents’ Portales home in the summer of 1981.
His instrumental guide was an old piano. His inspiration, life in eastern New Mexico and the raspy voice of country music legend Willie Nelson.
Now, nearly 25 years after he wrote it, the song has been recorded by Nelson and has pushed Sublette into the spotlight.
“I really did write that song imagining (Nelson) singing it. It fits him like an old shoe, and he sings it like he’s comfortable with it,” Sublette said of Nelson’s shaved-down version.
Nelson was performing on “Saturday Night Live” when a mutual friend passed him a copy of Sublette’s “Cowboys” on the set, Sublette said.
The choppy, honky-tonk tune was an instant hit among Nelson and his band members, who often played the song on their bus for comic relief, Sublette said. But the country star waited to record it until after the release of “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie about two gay sheepherders who fall in love. Nelson also recorded the song “He Was a Friend of Mine” for the “Brokeback” soundtrack.
“Cowboys” has so far received mostly warm reviews, according to Jim Flammia, a spokesperson for Nelson’s record label, Lost Highway.
“It wouldn’t have made sense for him to stick it on a normal Willie Nelson album, whatever that is. The song needed a context in terms of the media and the music business,” Sublette said. “I don’t know the public is particularly more or less ready for the song than they were 20 years ago. But I think the media is.”
Sublette spent his teenage years in Portales, where his father was employed as a science professor at Eastern New Mexico University. He attended Eastern for a year, and graduated from the University of New Mexico with degrees in classical guitar and musical composition.
The small college town of Portales, with a population of little more than 10,000, provided plenty of fuel for the cowboy song.
He said the musical heritage of the region impressed him at an early age.
“Those old cowboy songs really musically represent me better than anything else,” said Sublette, 54, who began his musical career playing at bars in Clovis and penned the song to honor some of his favorites, such as Nelson’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
But the region also made him feel out of place at times.
“This song is a reaction to growing up in the place I grew up,” Sublette said.
“I didn’t like to play football. I was the kid who always got ground into the dirt. I was a book reader. I came from somewhere else,” he said, with a faded Southern drawl.
“Although (‘Cowboys’) is a funny song, with a lot of tenderness, it is not about being sure or unsure of one’s masculinity. At some point, everybody feels there is something about them that is a little different,” Sublette said.
In the song, he writes, “Well, small town don’t like it when somebody falls between the sexes.” And in another line, he says, “No, small town don’t like it when a cowboy has feelings for men.”
Sublette traded the never-ending sky and land of New Mexico for the skyscrapers of New York nearly 30 years ago, settling in Manhattan. But from the irrigated farmlands of Portales to the vibrant streets of New York City, Sublette found a mutual obsession — cowboys.
“In Clovis, where we actually do have real cowboys, it is a little different because people do have some connection to the historical reality of that image, but … for most others, cowboys are something you learn about from movies,” Sublette said.
“The cowboy has became some kind of American ideal of fantasy masculinity,” he said.
Unfortunately, Sublette said, the image is pushed upon males, and the price of nonconformance is steep.
“(Being gay) is something a lot of people can agree to look down upon,” the singer-songwriter said.
“Cowboys” rattles the traditional cowboy image in lighthearted manner, Sublette said. But the song also has some heavy intentions.
“The point of the song,” Sublette said, “is loving is better than hating, and everybody has the right to love, however it comes to them.”