Willy Nelson’s poignant “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses share a number of thematic qualities. Chief among them is the shared sense of misplaced nostalgia that pervades both the song and the novel. Indeed, both pieces emphasize their respective protagonists’ hero-worship of a romanticized old West and the cowboys that populated the rough region. Nelson writes:
”I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy,
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes,
I burned up my childhood days.”
This song seems to perfectly portray John Grady Cole and his adoration of the old West. At Abuela’s funeral, the young man reflects on a romantic reverence for horses and ranching:
“What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise” (6).
McCarthy's language reflects the nostalgia of young Grady. Interestingly, both the song and the novel acknowledge the danger of romanticizing the hard-scrabble lives of cowboys. Nelson’s lyrics are evocative of the weary fate of cowboys and their search for something unattainable:
“My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are it seems
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.”
John Cole Grady is himself after something unattainable: he desires to be a cowboy at a time in which it is no longer a feasible lifestyle. Grady’s father reflects that the cowboy lifestyle is quickly dying, and is certainly not for everybody, least of all for somebody like Grady's mother:
“Son, not everybody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in west Texas is the second best thing to dyin and goin to heaven. She dont want to live out there, that 's all. If it was a payin proposition that'd be one thing. But it aint” (17).
Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses share a major thematic motif: the hero-worship of Western cowboys and the sad realities associated with romanticizing the past.
I pulled my textual evidence from the liner notes of The Essential Willy Nelson.