Sounding the American West: Nostalgia, Patriotism, and National Identity in Rodeo’s Musical Landscape
Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Santa Barbara

Sounding the American West: Nostalgia, Patriotism, and National Identity in Rodeo’s Musical Landscape


In this dissertation, I utilize a mixed-methods approach consisting of ethnographic research, archival and historical work, media analysis, and virtual fieldwork to lay out the constellation of music, media, identity, and sport that defines rodeo in the twenty-first century. To accomplish this, I first outline a brief musical history of rodeo, beginning with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and ending with the present day, the first compilation of rodeo’s musical history in print to date. I discuss the foundational relationship between rodeo and popular music that began with Wild West shows and continued throughout the twentieth century. This history reveals both a reliance on nostalgic whiteness as a foundational identity marker for audiences and the prevalence of military and hyper-patriotic influence in rodeo’s inception as a sport. I further argue that the rodeo cowboy, increasingly the only “real” cowboy left in the United States as the proverbial frontier continued to disappear in the twentieth century, came to represent this nexus of influences and sentiments, both in the rodeo contest and in the music accompanying it. I also argue that country music, the genre most consistently associated with rodeo through its history, plays a particularly important part in how that identity has been constructed and maintained.I also undertake a close analysis of the 2020 National Finals Rodeo as the central case study in this dissertation. Using a selection of the opening ceremonies, I argue that these rodeo rituals work to define a specific iteration of cowboy—and, by extension, American—identity that is rooted in patriotism and a willingness to act to protect (or use) individual or national freedoms. This is accomplished through visually collapsing the distinction between cowboy and soldier in rodeo media during opening ceremonies, and through the deployment of differing styles of music to incorporate audiences into the spectacle of the rodeo. The overlapping values and audiences between rodeo and country make this ritual legible for participants, and both spheres’ histories of patriotism and invisible, nostalgic whiteness link them together in a shared performance of the Old West that stakes a claim to a particular iteration of cowboy identity as the most authentic. I further trace this thread of performativity in my final chapter to examine how the figure of the rodeo cowboy has continued to circulate in popular music more broadly, both affirming and contesting the rodeo cowboy’s cultural relevance. To accomplish this, I discuss the subgenre I call rodeo country alongside recent manifestations of the Black West, known as the “Yeehaw Agenda,” in popular music (Malandro 2018). I analyze multiple case studies to discuss how the symbols and trappings of cowboy identity are utilized by artists in both country and non-country genres to varying effects. Both types of performance serve to give us insight into how the cowboy figure maintains its relevance in the twenty-first century, and what alternative sets of values might be poised to infiltrate the sacred space of rodeo in the years to come.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View