Randy Newman

Cowboy

Song Review by

A literate, compressed song poem, “Cowboy” dramatizes the fading grandeur of the great American west. Assuming the voice of a cowboy, Newman sings of “cold gray buildings / where a hill should be” – the city rising on the lands where the cowboy once roamed free. Newman covers similar ground as Joni Mitchell’s ”Big Yellow Taxi” (“they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”), but where Mitchell takes the sentiment in a wry and frothy pop direction, Newman guns for sweeping, theatrical effects. The verses are rendered in a minimalist chord structure strummed on a cowpoke guitar. The chorus adds significant harmonic complexity and orchestration that recalls the grand tradition of Western film soundtracks and Aaron Copeland’s folk inspired classical music. The singing on the chorus works as a commentary on the first person perspective delivered in the verses: “cowboy / can’t run, can’t hide / it’s too late to fight now / too tired to try.” Newman’s gift for pastiche is often used for satiric effect – here it is gorgeously rendered in service of a touching tribute to the demise of an American icon – the free spirit, lone ranging cowboy. Also impressive is how Newman’s songwriting was in a fully mature state, even on his debut album. Harry Nilsson covered “Cowboy” on his acclaimed Nilsson Sings Newman accompanied by Newman on piano, with a new coda affixed that quotes directly from the “Midnight Cowboy” soundtrack theme.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman 1998 Rhino 2:37
Toy Story 3 [Original Soundtrack] 2010 Walt Disney 0:00
The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 2011 Nonesuch 2:23
Original Album Series 2011 Rhino / Warner Bros. 2:41
The Randy Newman Song Book [Box Set] 2016 Nonesuch 0:00