Okay, for the (first and) last time: here’s what the cowboy thing is about.

After my last post extolling the virtues of country music, now seems like as good a time as ever to put down on record an explanation of my current presentation/performing identity of Shareef Ali, the cowboy poet.

Although many of my new friends on the Bay Area songwriter/performer scene have rarely seen me out of a wide-brimmed hat, well-worn jeans and a shirt with snaps, the truth is I wasn’t always a cowboy, nor am I always one at every moment of my present life. I put on my first cowboy outfit before diving back into music in mid-2008 (a Thursday night open mic at Bazaar Cafe), and since then I’ve very seldom been without it when I’m playing. A few people have even failed to recognize me when seeing me in my civilian garb. But why do I do it?

Of course a large part of it is in homage to the oft-disregarded role of country in our musical history. It’s also about laying claim to an identity, perhaps the most quintessentially American cultural identity that exists. There are some who might object to whether my claim is legitimate, to whom I contend that the cowboy image has been so widely disseminated/appropriated by many that have little to do with ‘authentic’ cowboy culture that the entire notion is as much defined by this ether (including a good deal of popular country culture) as it is by bona fide modern cowboys working in the cattle industry. For my part, I’ve spent the greatest part of my twenty-seven years living in Middle America and feel pretty well acquainted with what the heart of this country is all about. A lot of people I know, especially here in California, have a similar feeling about America as they do about country music: disdain or at least mild embarrassment (though admittedly this has abated some since Bush left office). I won’t say I’m unfamiliar with this myself, but I refuse to disown either my country or one of its most significant styles of indigenous music. To me they’re like family, and even if some of your family embarrasses you sometimes or acts like an ass, they’re family all the same (sorry, family; much love to you). And for a Man Of Half-Asian Half-Middle Eastern Descent (MOHAHMED, if that helps you remember) like myself, with a name like Shareef Ali, who at times has to fight tooth-and-nail to be recognized as being as American as the next chump, putting on this hat and boots is something of a radical act. Plus I do enjoy the way that it resets people’s expectations, so that when I finally get up in front of that microphone, there’s a nice, “Huh. Didn’t really expect to hear that” effect.

At least, that was what was going through my head when I decided to suit up as a cowboy a year and a half ago. Now, it just feels comfortable; I’m not quite myself if I go out to play without my colors. Whether I’ll stick with it, time will tell. Let me leave you with a little bit from my recent song, “Golden Birthday“. It’s probably the most self-referential and time-specific song I will ever pen; super-rough demo here, recorded on my actual birthday shortly after finishing it. It basically says most of what I just related here, in more flowery language.

Twenty-seven this day my dad gave me a name:
Shareef, and like his dad, Ali.
Although he didn’t know twenty-seven ago
you can guess from my garb what I be.

Give a cowboy some company
on this day of his birth.
For though he’ll always be lonely,
at least he won’t know what’s worse.

Rule number one among cowfolk:
you don’t ask what he is, where he’s from.
If you’ve never seen that in heels and a hat,
trust you’ll see plenty more ‘fore he’s done.

Chorus

Don’t tell me the day is still young, miss;
ten men mean to kill me at noon.
Though I don’t pretend I’ll escape in the end,
they might wait if they see me with you.

Chorus

Truth is, I wasn’t born beneath this brim,
and I ain’t gonna die in these boots.
Mine is a vine that you can’t unentwine,
stolen sunshine and borrowed roots.

Chorus

And we each got our burdens to shoulder,
and we each got our trails to keep on.
And it’s easy to forget how to chase a sunset
when you know you have to get up at dawn.

Chorus

Give a cowboy some company
on this day of his birth.
For though he’ll always be ornery,
trust he knows what it’s worth.

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