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Ian Munsick Talks Corralling the Spirit of the West in New Single ‘Long Live Cowgirls’

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It’s a love song and a history lesson, presented as an audio version of a classic Western movie.
And it’s already rustled up a gold single for Ian Munsick and collaborator Cody Johnson.

Now, in the spirit of an authentic American cowboy, Munsick goes it alone as he trots off to country radio with “Long Live Cowgirls,” a ballad that captures the unique mix of trail-rider lonesomeness and rodeo grit that inhabits his Wyoming-bred vocals. The Paramount+ Western series Yellowstone recently expanded into CBS’ prime-time lineup, and there’s good reason to think “Cowgirls” might similarly find its way from digital platforms into over-the-air audio.

“I’m really excited about it,” Munsick says. “People are fascinated with the West and the Western lifestyle and cowboys right now, so for me to come from where I come from and have the background that I have, and taking along ‘Cowgirls,’ in my opinion, it’s the return of Westerns in mainstream country music.”

“Cowgirls” is a remnant of pandemic isolation, created during a Zoom writing session in August or September 2020 with one of the three participants, Aby Gutierrez, working from the bedroom in Wisconsin where he wrote his first song as a teenager. The other member of the trio, Phil O’Donnell (“Back When I Knew It All,” “Doin’ What She Likes”), came prepared with the “Long Live Cowgirls” title. He doesn’t know where it came from — it had likely been living in his list of hooks for a couple of years — but he knew when the date popped up on the calendar that it was a good setting to introduce it.
Munsick was emphatic about chasing that idea, and he started creating a mood for it by strumming a lazy pattern on guitar in 6/8 time.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, not a waltz. You’ll never get anything on a waltz. You have to have arena rock’n’roll,’ ” recalls O’Donnell. “That just goes to show you how wrong our thinking can be.”

O’Donnell didn’t voice his reservations. Instead, he chipped in the opening lines: “She’s a gooseneck on a dually/A longneck at the bar.” To many listeners, that first image is likely a head-scratcher, but to anyone who grew up in or around modern cowboys, it’s an instant sign that the singer is authentically engrossed in the subject. O’Donnell’s daughters competed in rodeos, so he definitely knew the trailer-hitch lingo.

“I had a green dually Ford and then a Featherlite trailer, and I pulled those girls — Alabama, Georgia, around Middle Tennessee, Murfreesboro — you know? We went to a lot of a lot of barrel races,” he says. “The older cowgirls — and when I say ‘older,’ I mean the 18- and 20- and 30-year-old ones — they would have their own and be driving themselves. But I had [daughters] that weren’t old enough to drive yet, so I towed my girls around to a good many barrel races and rodeos.”

They built the song on Western images — John Wayne, saddles, canyons and mustangs — sometimes used literally, sometimes as metaphors for a woman who’s both tough and desirable. The first verse portrays an individual cowgirl, though the chorus breaks into a recognition of covered wagons, embracing a historical sweep of the cowgirl as a societal role.

That lyrical shift is accompanied by an uptick in the melody, driven by Munsick to take advantage of a vulnerable spot in his tenor range.

“I always like to make sure the chorus musically elevates,” he says, “so for this tune in particular, it was a pretty obvious choice to go to the minor [chord] for the chorus to really make you feel that heaviness. And musically, it kind of goes lower melodically [at the end of the verse] for the lyrics to go higher. And that’s always just a cool trick that I like to incorporate.”

Hitting the “long live cowgirls” punchline was tricky. Gutierrez wanted to avoid rhyming “world” with “cowgirl,” finding it a little too predictable. An alternative was available in Western fashion. “Philbilly actually came up with ‘snaps on her pearls,’ and then we went the whole song without rhyming ‘girl’ and ‘world,’ which is probably the go-to rhyme in most songwriting,” says Gutierrez.

They did revisit it, though, in the second chorus. They had determined that “Cowgirls” didn’t need a bridge, but for a slight deviation, they wanted to insert an extra line into that last stanza to bring it to a lyrical peak. They came up with “She’s been there, and she’ll be here/’Til the end of the world.” It brought a weight to the song’s finale that exceeded the usual “world”/“girl” rhyme scheme. “The way we use it makes all the difference for me,” Gutierrez says.

He also pictured the cowgirl through a seasonal filter, characterizing her as “tough as December … Make you fall like September.”

“That’s some true cowboy poetry,” notes Munsick.

“I was happy that they dug that line when I threw it out there,” Gutierrez says. “Growing up in Wisconsin, knowing what it takes to get through winter, I feel like Wyoming’s a pretty similar place. Not only do you have all of these pressures from the world, like trying to pay bills and trying to keep everybody happy, there’s also six months out of the year where Mother Nature is coming for you as well.”

Munsick documented “Cowgirls” with a simple voice-and-guitar iPhone recording, which he presented to producer Jared Conrad (Randall King) ahead of a February 2021 tracking session with a full band. Fiddler Ross Holmes revamped a section of the chorus melody and turned it into a burning intro lick, but other parts were a little too much.

“With the lyrics, it really felt like cinematic cowboys sitting around a campfire, in the middle of a field singing a song,” Conrad says. “So I came back in and muted the drums and electric guitars.”

Conrad overdubbed a banjo and nylon-string guitar, labeling the results the “campfire version.” And he used Foley sound effects to include the crackle of burning logs and the howl of a distant coyote. He actually expected Munsick would have those sounds removed, but they provided some continuity with his debut album, Coyote Cry, so they left them in. Meanwhile, the unconventional structure — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, done — influenced the song’s arrangement.

“In a traditional song, when you’re focusing on the dynamic build, it’s usually biggest at maybe the solo and/or bridge section, and then the very biggest is the third chorus,” Conrad notes. “With this song, obviously, I had to kind of reapproach that. The last chorus is still the biggest section. It’s just kind of more of a gradual ramp the whole way through.”

Munsick toured with Johnson, who ended up singing on the version that appeared on Munsick’s sophomore album, White Buffalo, released April 7. Once “Cowgirls” went gold, Warner Music Nashville targeted it for terrestrial radio, though it conflicted with Johnson’s own plans for a single and they resurrected the solo version. Munsick resang a couple of sections to better reflect how he was performing it live, and some of Johnson’s harmony parts remained uncredited in the background. WMN released it to radio via PlayMPE on Oct. 9.

“I’m actually glad that we waited as long as we did,” says Munsick. “It’s allowed it to reach an audience organically, that I think, if we would have taken it to radio out of the gate, it wouldn’t have had the time to find its audience. I think having that audience already behind it kind of proves to the mainstream that this song already is a hit.”

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