So, I wrote a western. The Bull by His Horns, as much as it a sci-fi/paranormal/weird story, has elements of westerns. It features cowboys, Texan drawls, men riding horses (and bulls), and even a plot about a man wrongly accused and in danger of mob violence.
Some of the elements that are present are also part of the history of America’s west too—like the background genocide. (Oh, what, you thought this was a fun book? This is me we’re talking about, folks—I don’t do fun.)
Now, one of the reasons I thought I was never, ever gonna write a western was because …
I hate country music.
And let’s face it, if you have a western—with cowboys and horses—pretty much everyone is going to think of country music. I mean, cowboy boots and spurs and cowboy hats! Those are staples in country music videos, aren’t they? And there’s always the cowboy playing his six-string around the fire, caterwauling about his lady love.
So, the two kind of go hand in hand. And my hatred of country music is pretty pathological. I’ll listen to almost anything.
Except that. People ask me, “Oh, what kind of music do you like?” and it is so much easier to tell them what I don’t like. Give me rap, give me blues, give me rock, give me jazz, give me pop. Give me classical.
Just no country.
So … it was a bit of a problem trying to put together a playlist that really represented this book. It was written back in 2019, and I’m pretty sure I just used the Main Squeeze playlist to get ‘er done.
I don’t think I can get away with putting the same playlist up twice (I think someone would catch on), so … here’s my attempt at something approaching a playlist for The Bull by His Horns.
A Theme Song for The Bull by His Horns?
Confession: I hadn’t heard Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” before I started putting this playlist together. I live under a rock and I’ve heard of it, so if you haven’t, I’m not sure what we can do for you.
I remember tons of controversy about it … because country music. And I went, “Huh, well, I doubt I’ll like that much,” and moved right on.
With Lil Nas X’s recent release, “Montero,” though, I was much aware of the artist in recent weeks. And I went, “Oh yeah, that song.”
So I finally broke down and listened to it. And, in some ways, “Old Town Road” is the best possible pick I could make to open this list: a “country” song by a gay Black rapper for a book about a couple of gay cowboys? Yup. I mean, the lyrics even mention bull riding.
Next up, I slapped “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” by Big and Rich on here. Why? Because it’s a vaguely countryish song I remember being popular in my youth (ahhh, back in the stone ages of the early 2000s). Plus, it’s ridiculous. It’s funny. And it’s about riding cowboys, which is exactly what Ro does throughout most of the book.
Rock Is as Close to Country as I Get
Rock ’n’ roll evolved out of blues (and R&B, actually – rhythm and blues). But it often shares some sensibilities with country, especially older or classic rock that predates the arena era. So we naturally have some selections from two of the biggest “rock” bands of the 1960s: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The Beatles had a few songs I might have put on here, but the leading contender was “Rocky Racoon,” which is a kind of quirky song about a “young boy” from “the black mining hills of Dakota.” Rocky is jilted by the girl he loves, so he ends up in a shoot-out with her new lover. It’s a funny song, but it tries to emulate a more folksy feel. It also plays on some “wild west” themes, like the love of a good girl and a shootout.
I had a much lengthier list of suggestions for the Stones, if only because I’m a bigger Stones fan than I am Beatles fan. But ultimately, some of their “country” sounding songs weren’t the right fit. I narrowed it down to two: “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Miss You.”
The latter doesn’t really emulate the twanginess of other songs like “Tallahassee Lassie,” but the lyrics really are a better fit for Ro and Ferr, who spend a good deal of time apart during The Bull by His Horns.
More Rock, Less Twang
Keeping with the theme of lovers being separated, I also chose “I Miss You” by Blink-182. This definitely moves us firmly away from country or blues, into post-punk pop-rock. But I felt the lyrics had something to say about Ro and Ferr’s situation, even if they don’t want to live “like Jack and Sally.”
The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” is a fun song from the punk era that speaks to Ferr’s dilemma throughout the novel. If he goes, there’s going to be trouble; if he hangs around with Ro, though, he could “double” it by getting Ro mixed up in things.
I also added Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” because it seemed to be Ferr speaking to Ro, to a degree. DJ Champion’s “No Heaven” is a bit of an outlier here, taking us into pop-electronica from the early 2000s, but the “chain gang” lyrics suggest a potential outcome for Ferr if he gets caught.
The Cure’s “Gone!” is one of my favorite tracks from the band, and I thought it was very fitting, given how much moping Ro does over the course of the book. The tune and the lyrics really felt like they fit for some of the scenes when Ro’s knee-deep in his heartbreak.
A Jumble of Thematic Rock
And then I started just pulling songs that spoke to bits and bobs in the story. “White Wedding” by Billy Idol isn’t much of a country-sounding song; Idol’s punk-rock persona almost couldn’t be further from that image. But the lyrics have always suggested a “shotgun” wedding to me (although Idol denies that’s the correct interpretation), and that’s something mentioned a couple of times in the book.
“Knocked Up” by Kings of Leon should not be a surprise here. Kings of Leon feel, to me, to toe the line between rock and country at times. “Knocked Up” is definitely one of the tunes that brings that sensibility to life—and it definitely applies to Ro and Ferr’s situation, so long as we switch some pronouns around.
“Boots or Hearts” by the Tragically Hip is another song I’d say plays with that line between country and rock (Gord Downie’s voice always had a sort of “twang” to it). This song, which we’ve seen before, speaks about someone not being able to resist a potentially problematic lover when they get back to town. I could have picked almost any Hip tune, but this was the one that seemed to fit.
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” doesn’t really fit in here for any reason other than I like it. I used to not like it. I hated when my dad put the Tom Petty record on. But when I was older, I finally took a good listen to the lyrics. That changed my outlook on the song entirely. So, here it is, because I can and because I want to.
The Genre Smorgasbord
I’d totally forgotten about Canadian pop trio Dragonette’s “Giddy Up,” but in my limited collection of tunes that sound even vaguely like country, it was a great find. It’s not particularly great as a representative of The Bull by His Horns, but it is a fun song—and we might draw a connection between Ro marching “off to war” and the song.
Avicii has been one of my favorite house artists for a while now, ever since I heard early versions of “Levels.” And while he got some backlash over what he was doing with some of his tracks, I really appreciated his willingness to walk up to country music and say, “Yeah, we can work with that.”
“Wake Me Up When It’s All Over” didn’t really fit with Bull, though. “Hey Brother” is still a bit of a stretch—but I thought it might be a better fit for this book. I could imagine Ro and Jeevan here, asking each other this. Their relationship is definitely strained by the end of the book, but perhaps there’s reconciliation for them somewhere in the future.
Anti-War, Anti-Imperialist Messaging Fits with The Bull by His Horns
One of the great things about a lot of music is that it’s actually speaking back to real world politics. Many of us don’t realize that in the moment—we hear a catchy tune, we tap our toes. And then we misinterpret the lyrics—like GOP politicians seemingly not understanding that Rage Against the Machine is very specifically against their particular machinations. Or people not understanding that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” isn’t exactly a patriotic song.
I’m not sure you can be more openly political than “Boom!” by System of a Down, a song I remember listening to when I was in high school, during the early days of the Iraq War. “Boom!” is blunt about humanity’s hypocrisy: allowing children to starve while we spend on bombs to kill even more people.
I felt that explicitly spoke to Ro and his situation: he’s part of the military, but he disobeys orders to abandon innocent civilians, refugees.
Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” isn’t explicitly anti-war like “Boom!” is, but it does ask us to question the ruling classes. One can take it as an anti-elite, anti-capitalist, and even anti-colonial anthem. It’s also one of the only Bob Dylan songs I can stand—yeah, my dad’s still disappointed that I haven’t realized the “genius” of Dylan yet. Sorry, Pops.
The Rolling Stones make another appearance here with “Gimme Shelter,” which is another anti-war song from the Vietnam War era. The lyrics tell us that’s war’s “just a shot away,” but at the same time, love is “just a kiss away.” Although it’s lyrics are perhaps incidenary than “Boom!”, it does ask us to think on this. If either of these outcomes are so close at hand, could we not choose love instead of war?
To close out the list, I picked “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” I picked the cover by the Barenaked Ladies. The original Bruce Cockburn version is also a powerful statement, but the BNL version is the one that made me familiar with the song in the first place. Written in the 1980s, Cockburn’s lyrics contrast the innocence of teenage love with the backdrop of the Cold War—“lovers in a dangerous time” indeed. Ro and Ferr aren’t separated by anything like the Berlin Wall, but they are often separated by politics, militarism, and other circumstances.
The lyric that sticks with me is “you’ve gotta kick at the darkness/til it bleeds daylight.” I think that’s an apt line, not just for this book or “lovers in dangerous times” but for all of us right now. The world might seem very, very dark at the moment, for a number of reasons. We have to keep kicking it, and eventually, we’ll see daylight again.
There were a couple of songs I really wanted to include, but they didn’t make the cut. While I could have added them (to pad the playlist and this post), it didn’t feel right. “Hurt,” which was originally a Nine Inch Nails song, was masterfully covered by Johnny Cash. Cash’s rendition is so powerful, even Trent Reznor said the song belongs to Cash now.
It’s an odd tidbit showcasing where rock and country sometimes overlap. But the song’s lyrics aren’t right for this book. So, as much as I wanted to tip my hat to the late country legend, this song—one of my only points of contact with country as a genre—couldn’t make the cut. (Nor could “Ring of Fire.”)
I also wanted to include Peggy Lee’s “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” I became familiar with Lee’s rendition of the song when I went through my “jazz” phase a few years ago, and whew. What a weird song. It incorporates some folklore from the west and, yes, it is about cowboys. (Johnny Cash covered it too.) But again, the lyrics just didn’t jive with this book. Maybe someday I’ll write about ghostly cowboys who made a deal with the devil …
In the meantime, you can enjoy The Bull by His Horns!
Track Listing for The Bull by His Horns
- Old Town Road
- Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)
- Rocky Racoon
- When the Whip Comes Down
- Miss You
- I Miss You
- Should I Stay or Should I Go?
- When I Come Around
- No Heaven
- White Wedding
- Knocked Up
- Boots or Hearts
- Free Fallin’
- Giddy Up
- Hey Brother
- All Along the Watchtower
- Gimme Shelter
- Lovers in a Dangerous Time