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Jason Mellard’s Progressive Country Asks Where the Cosmic Cowboys Went

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Progressive Country
University of Texas Press
Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture
By Jason Mellard
University of Texas Press
288 pages; $29.95

By the end of the 1970s, the mythological image of the Texan was no longer secure and simple. The television show Dallas, which premiered in 1978, and the 1980 film Urban Cowboy were presenting glitzy reinventions of the cowboy image. Austin had become known for the redneck-meets-hippie styles of Willie Nelson and the Armadillo World Headquarters. In 1975, a Texas Monthly cover had asked, “Is The Texas Cowboy Extinct?” At the end of the decade, such a figure was far from monolithic, if it still existed at all.

Jason Mellard, a professor of history at Texas State University in San Marcos and assistant director of the school’s Center for Texas Music History, explores this cultural flux in his sprawling new study, Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture. In an attempt to encompass “how the idea of Texas operated” within “the frames of local, regional and national imaginaries,” Mellard leaps impressively from the intellectual culture of early-20th-century folklorists like J. Frank Dobie to Austin’s “cosmic cowboy” subculture to the ways that Chicano, black and feminist movements challenged the “Anglo-Texan masculinity” that had always defined the state’s political and social culture. Mellard also contextualizes these cultural movements in relation to the rise of Barbara Jordan and the death of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Mellard has a particular nostalgia for the Austin culture that championed country “outlaws” like Jerry Jeff Walker even as it spawned psychedelic acts like Shiva’s Headband. “Progressive country,” a term broadly referring to the Austin scene’s fusion of country music with hippie culture, was born in part of young people’s migrations to the capital, where they “began to yearn amid the decade’s disorientations for a rootedness that, for at least some, led to a mining of country music for authentic Americana.”

The book’s strength is in its breadth. Mellard ties wildly disparate elements into a massive network of intellectual, social and cultural connections, but he avoids gluing them as tightly as some readers might like; narrative neatness may equal simplification, and simplification is the academic historian’s blight. Clearly indebted to postmodern cultural studies, Mellard writes much of “tropes,” “valences” and “resonances” over the course of long, winding sentences. He does not weave his subjects into a cohesive story like, for example, the journalist Jan Reid, who wrote about many of these same musicians in his 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. Mellard is more interested in complexity and inclusivity, and the result is less narrative to chew on.

Still, he ambitiously attempts to link the decade’s shifting political alignments to the culture that paralleled them. “The cultural nationalism of Black Power and the Chicano movement, the gendered consciousness of feminism, and the authenticity discourses of the counterculture,” he writes, contributed to a “reappraisal of the forms of Anglo-Texan masculinity” that “erupted in aural and visual fashion in Austin’s progressive country scene.”

As the 1970s wore on, the cosmic cowboy symbolism faded away, replaced by a new Reagan-era backlash to the social unwindings of the 1970s. Mellard calls this new figure “Texas chic,” a reinvention of the Texan image in conservative garb.

Few readers will have connected the decline of a particular Austin subculture to the rise of a larger national iconography. Mellard has built an impressive, if occasionally untidy, archive of the political and cultural associations that describe the arc.

  • GT90ford

    “Progressive country” as you put in was something Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and many others who were considered outcast’s in Nashville decided to all move back to Texas to do their own flavor of Country Music. Progressive in music is not Progressive in the liberal sense.

    Trust me, the ole Texas Cowboy is still around, not to be messed with and best left alone, look in all the right places, we’re there simply wanting to be left in our own world. In the true fashion of the Texan, is not one who may watch modern girly cowboy movies, yeah we have our big screen TVs and enjoy the old good real cowboy type of movies the once great country used to make, ending with the Outlaw Josey Wales (that is when and if we turn those things on at all), we work our land, take care of our stock and live like the good Lord intended for us and our families.
    You will not see most of us in the big cities, out on the farm it is quiet and peaceful, no one bother us. But our neighbors are always welcome, it’s a life, our life livin’ off the land. When we need goods or tools, the nearest town in some 40 miles away, they have a feed store, grocery store and load up for the month. We home school our children, but allow them to also go to public schools to see how dumb the teaching system has become, by the time they are in the 9th or 10th grade, they could put any college graduate to shame. All I have to say about schools, is get the government out of them, before they all become stupid. Sometimes they will do math or algebra the old way and get it done before the rest of the kids are done with the ignorant way, and they get in trouble for doing it the right way, or as the teacher of my grandson said, the teacher told me not to tell others how they get their answers. Want to keep’em dumb is all I can figure.
    Farming doesn’t pay like it used to, hell, the government wanted to pay me not go grow some crops, geez, with all the hungry people in our own country, we would give it to them, we get our money off the oil and gas wells we drilled years ago, our deal with them was, make is so it doesn’t ruin our land, shoot, can’t even smell it, and check on it every day, but they did good, those fellows who actually did the work were good people, working two 12 hour shifts, that’s good for a man. But, I didn’t care much for the drilling company, they thought they could pull one over on us, so I had them come over to the house one day and I had all the data, costs, revenue, price per barrel, and gas by the metric ton, they didn’t like it too much, but agreed to settle for a fair amount. Just because we live a simple life doesn’t mean we are hicks.
    I figured we were paying way too much money for diesel fuel to run our equipment out there, so I converted all the engines to propane, not that hard if you know what you’re doing. No more of that black crap coming out of the smoke stack.
    But that’s what happened to your real cowboys, we are still around, and many more than you might think, we just stay away from you city folk. Y’all done ruined your cities, and what you all think you need to make you happy, with gadgets and expensive crap, not to mention covering up all the good land you build on that quite a lot of people never buy or rent.