When the then-19-year-old rapper and meme-maker Lil Nas X scored a hit by sampling a banjo, pitching his voice parodically low, and singing about “wranglers on my booty,” some in the country establishment took it as an act of mockery. But most of the nation, it appears, wanted to play dress-up too. “Old Town Road” has been the Billboard No. 1 song for 10 weeks running, spurred by a meme in which workaday suburban kids suddenly zap into flannels and 10-gallon hats. The year’s most surprising smash might seem like a distinctly internet-era phenomenon, but really, Lil Nas X is partaking in one of America’s favorite pastimes: western drag.
Bruce Springsteen is basically doing the same thing on his first original-material solo album in 14 years, Western Stars. The comparison between the “Old Town Road” single art and the Springsteen album cover—iconographic images of bucking horses—is too uncanny to go unnoticed. Decades into his career, Springsteen’s all-American routine has treated locations as far-flung as New Jersey, Nebraska, and California’s Central Valley as one great heartland united in heartbreaks and hopes. The sound doesn’t quite stay the same whenever Springsteen changes locations, but the flavor of sentimentality does. Now he’s honed in on the Southwest with a super-fussed-over production approach that bears all the authenticity of Billy Crystal in City Slickers—but also with much of the emotional precision and rockerly grandeur that’s kept Springsteen beloved over decades.