Curated by Vania Kinard, the featured exhibition at the Western Folklife Center brings together folk art, pop art, historical ephemera, and contemporary photography to tell the story of a group of cowboys whose experiences often get lost in the larger Western narrative.
The exhibition also draws heavily from music. Records from Lead Belly and Cisco Houston are displayed in cases next to musicians’ articles of clothing and traditional folk instruments like cow rib bones. Two pieces of music are particularly prominent: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”—which lent the title for the exhibition (“I’m Gonna Take My Horse”) and Dom Flemons’ Black Cowboys album, which inspired the Gathering’s theme this year.
Released within a year of each other, these pieces illustrate the best arguments for our renewed interest in black cowboy culture, particularly the appeal of two Wests—imagined and real, spiritual and physical.
The imagined West, or the myth of the West, can be found in the trappings of “Old Town Road”—from the references to horses and hats and “Wrangler on my booty” to its many nods towards rugged individualism (echoey banjo notes and Lone Ranger-esque shots in the video). The performative aspects of being a cowboy are front and center for Lil Nas X, making the elements that you don’t normally find in country music (Gucci, trap beats, black people) feel like a setup for something bigger.
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