Every No. 1 Country Single of the Eighties: Willie Nelson, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

Willie Nelson

Written by Sharon Vaughn

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

March 7, 1980


#1 (2 weeks)

March 8 – March 15, 1980

Willie Nelson entered the eighties as one of the genre’s biggest stars and as the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year.   Leading up to “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Nelson had visited the top five with a cover of “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”  His first No. 1 of the eighties had already been featured on a landmark Nelson album, The Outlaws, with Waylon Jennings as the artist performing it.

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” is Nelson at his interpretive best, delivering a thoughtful ballad with his signature guitar playing as his primary accompaniment.  It’s a celebration of cowboy as hero on the surface, but it reveals the sad and lonely lives such cowboys often lead, making careful listeners reconsider just how heroic the lifestyle is:

Cowboys are special with their own brand of miseryFrom bein’ alone too longYou could die from the cold in the arms of a nightmanKnowin’ well that your best days are gone

Pickin’ up hookers instead of my penI let the words of my youth fade awayOld worn-out saddles, and old worn-out memoriesWith no one and no place to stay

If imploring mammas to not let their babies grow up to be cowboys didn’t quite do the trick, “Heroes” might be just enough to convince those babies to choose a more viable path.

Nelson pulled another top ten single from The Electric Horseman: the top ten “Midnight Rider.”  We’ll see him again with two singles from another soundtrack: Honeysuckle Rose.

“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. This song captured the emotional dangers of what being a cowboy meant in 1980 beyond just the stereotypical trappings of the west, allowing modern-day drifters to touch, and be inspired by, a venerable tradition without being hobbled by the mythology and cliches. Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me” would mine the same vein twenty-one years later.

    I am always surprised that Sharon Vaughan wrote this. A quick Wiki dive revealed she penned many other great songs in the 80’s and 90’s from the Oak’s “Y’all come back Saloon” to Keith Whitley’s “Lady’s Choice” to Mark Chesnutt’s “Broken Promise Land” to Patty Loveless’ “Lonely Too Long” to Randy Travis’ “Out of My Bones.

    Tyler, I know where you are coming from. I feel the same way about it.

    • I had no idea that Sharon Vaughn’s writing even went back this far! I always think of “Out Of My Bones” immediately whenever I see her name. Love all the other songs you’ve listed, as well, especially “Broken Promise Land” and “Lonely Too Long.”

  2. This is probably one of my top favorite Willie songs of all time. I’ve loved its cowboy theme ever since I was little, and as I got older, I grew to also appreciate its darker tone. I also simply love the arrangement and old western feel of the song, featuring not much more than Willie’s signature guitar and the lonesome sounding harmonica. It’s absolutely perfect for the song’s theme and message.

    Strangely, much of my earliest exposure to this song involves the 1991 film starring Scott Glenn, which is also called My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys. During my early tape recording days in early 1991, there were more than a few occasions in which I’d get totally excited to be hearing this song coming on the radio only to soon find out after Willie sang the first line that it was a commercial instead. It turned out to be an advertisement for the movie I mentioned above, which I actually haven’t even seen yet (but would love to). I even still have the ad recorded on one of the tapes, which mentions other country artists being on the soundtrack.

    Your mentioning of Willie’s version of “Help Me Make It Through The Night” also reminds me that it was another one that was still in rotation for us in early 1991, as well, with it being on another one of my tapes. I enjoy that version just as much as the original.

    While I enjoy a good amount of his 70’s music, especially Stardust, I also love a lot of Willie’s 80’s stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing which other ones made it to the top.

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