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Wednesday Western: 'Don’t Fence Me In'
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Wednesday Western: 'Don’t Fence Me In'

Exploring the most American song ever written — and sung by everyone from Roy Rogers to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

The perfect Western song

“Don’t Fence Me In” is the most American song ever written, for a ton of reasons — many of which contradict one another.

It’s a magical song. Or I would say a spiritually blessed piece of music, animated by a human ache that only God can heal. In this case, He gave us “Don’t Fence Me In.”

If you regularly read the Wednesday Western series, this track should be one of your anthems. In fact, I formally nominate it the theme song of my Wednesday Western series.

If you haven’t heard “Don’t Fence Me In,” here’s a link. I urge you to give it a listen. Hold on to how you feel: We’re taking our little Corvette through the automated car wash.

“Don’t Fence Me In” isn’t a bloodless song. It’s jolly but protective. And every time you think you have it figured out, it runs off like a lizard that fired its tail into your hand.

Ella Fitzgerald added an emotional depth to the song:

For starters, there’s the head-spinning list of bands and musicians who have covered “Don’t Fence Me In,” from Gene Autry to Bob Hope and the Muppets to James Brown to the Killers. (There are several Muppet renditions.)

Jeff Goldbum has a version, sung by Kelly Clarkson with Goldblum on piano:

There’s even a live-action version featuring Goofy, Mickey, and Minnie:

Dean Martin has done a few different versions, including this duet with Lorne Green, in which they’re both on horseback on a soundstage. And then there was the time that Dean Martin and John Wayne sang “Don’t Fence Me In” on The Dean Martin Show.

Dave Alexander

Any time my kids love a song, I immediately love it also, because it brings me closer to the people I love most.

I discovered “Don’t Fence Me In” while researching for an interview with Dave Alexander at the Western Heritage Awards, Oklahoma City. His album “From the Saddle to Symphony Hall” won Traditional Western Album of 2024. It's a tidy little album at 34 minutes long.

I began reporting on Dave with a certain surgical journalistic coldness. But, man, I very quickly fell in love with his music. I kept his album on repeat. And “Don’t Fence Me In” hooked me deeper every time. It was such a liberating experience.

It’s a beautiful American song. It’s lovely. Powerful. It sings everything that an American heart ought to sing. It makes me feel unabashedly American. A frontiersman, ready to dive into the untamed beauty of American wilds.

The weekend I was supposed to interview Dave Alexander in Oklahoma City, my entire household came down with some horrible virus or bug. It was brutal — brutal enough to derail my trip to the Western Heritage Awards.

We listened to it many times — maybe three dozen. And it was like a cure, because we rose from the dead and began dancing when it came on. But then I played Dave’s cover of “Don’t Fence Me In.” The air felt a bit lighter. And for the next 48 hours, that song was sporadically on repeat.

I messaged Dave Alexander to tell him about the experience, that he recorded a hell of a version:

"I’ve listened to 'Don’t Fence Me In' about 100 — easily. It has become one of my favorite songs of all time. My kids love it. We were sick all weekend and it's one of the few things that uplifted us. I hear it, and my heart fills with hope. It captures everything I’m trying to accomplish here."

I'm still working on Dave's profile; publication date to be determined.

Bob Hope is one of the many artists to cover “Don’t Fence Me In,” with a little help from the Muppets.

The Killers also have a version.


Soon enough, the various algorithms guided me to the realization that this song is almost a century old. And, man, the downfall of musicians who have covered it nearly sank me. I assumed Roy Rogers had written it. The message and the optics are on brand.

Here’s a version by my friends Riders in the Sky:

It’s been covered by musicians from a significant number of genres and subgenres, and every time it hits the same emotional zone.

It radiates the same power in every dialect, pace, and intonation, at every tempo or sequence. The instruments don’t matter. Every time, it evokes a comfort that is surely a gentle kiss from God.

Hey. Not so fast.

Yes, “Don’t Fence Me In” has tinges of gospel. But it’s also got a confusing origin story.

Robert Fletcher, an honest-to-God cowboy, wrote the song, but Cole Porter made it a masterpiece.

As Ranger Doug, yodeling singer and guitarist for Riders in the Sky, put it in our recent interview: "Most of it was written by a rancher up in Montana. And how it ever got to Cole Porter, I don't know, but he vastly improved it and took credit for it. So the rancher came back and asked for his half of the royalties and won them. Bing Crosby introduced it."

The difference is similar to rural versus metropolitan. Fletcher had the frontier experience, the soul, while Porter had the training and equipment to shape it into the melody it deserves.

American water

At the same time, “Don’t Fence Me In” is a big fat middle finger.

This is a rowdy track. And we like that.

The America of today isn’t all that different from the America from 150 years ago. Not emotionally, not with regard to a true national psyche, uncontaminated by millennia-spanning baggage.

“Don’t Fence Me In” would not work in either German or French, Irdu or Japanese, not even throughout the variations of Spanish, even though the Spaniards are our closest relatives in westward exploration.

But no other continent, no other nation, can belong to that wide-open-sky arrogance, that ego. We’re born with it. People from everywhere else notice.

What they see and hear is “Don’t Fence Me In.” It speaks your voice, American.

This strange little country-jazz track prefigured the punk ethos, a liberation through defiance. It’s a song for America, about America, designed to fuse anyone who’s listening to the purest, most transformative part of America: artistic honesty.

But even this patriotic tone is misguided.

“Don’t Fence Me In” speaks with universals and particulars at the same time. It sings to everyone who feels the stir of light in their hearts. But it also details a very specific situation applicable to a single cowboy — “Cayuse” isn’t exactly Ebonics.

See the trip wires in this?

Pro gamer

“Don’t Fence Me In” recently got some attention because it’s featured on the soundtrack of "Fallout," based on the video game series about a post-apocalyptic world trapped in a retrofuturistic version of the 1950s.

Giant beasts prowl the radiated earth. Every one of them wants to kill you. So you shoot at them with your bolt-action pipe rifle. And as you plug these satanic monsters, you’re calm, because you hear “Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above.”

Tricky politics

It is deeply political.

But this gets confusing, because obviously Roy Rogers, James Brown, David Byrne, Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson, and Ella Fitzgerald would not share the same political worldview.

To Roy Rogers, “Don’t Fence Me In” would probably be an expression of the Cowboy Code, which includes notions of tradition and national allegiance, assumptions that didn’t used to be so forbidden. Anyway, out under the roofless expanse, you say, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

To Clint Eastwood, it would probably be more of a libertarian anthem, an Eastwood sneer at the true oppressor: the hyper-state, 'roided out on political correctness. If I wanted a fence, I would have built one myself. Now leave me alone so I can shop and shoot my handguns and think about how good each moment can be.

To James Brown? As a nonviolent leader throughout the history of racial sorrows and tensions, it would probably carry a more embittered tone. But not without lots of “GOOD GAWD YEAY!” A lot of people in this country are born with their heads already spinning, and life demands a stability that you never had. Assassinated leaders and hatred for no reason. Brown had been arrested. He knew the panic of being locked in a jail cell.

But this was not an entirely personal experience for him. It indicated something much worse. You can feel his heartache, sprinkled onto the lavish percussion of Allan Schwartzberg.

To Sinatra? Vegas, baby. America speaks through the crowd. More stylish than Paris at the edge of daylight. Look at that sky! Does it end? No, no, no, folks. It’s the sway of it. Gliding through waves on a rented yacht, tugging at spiced-up whiskey.

Other times, freedom means sitting alone at your dinner table, in a moment of silence, sipping the thoughts along. In his cover of “Don’t Fence Me In,” Sinatra feigns boredom halfway through the song. This only adds to the song’s lore and clout.

To my boys Riders in the Sky? Their devotion to “Don’t Fence Me In” is the purest of them all. They’re concerned with uplifting anyone who hears the song. When they sing it, there is no static.

As part of their live performances, they create characters for elaborate stories. What they offer is a real-life singing cowboy and the hope that his song will never end.

To Willie Nelson? As libertarian as Clint Eastwood but on the left quadrant of the political map, Willie believes in an America that defends and protects, within limits, a place where you can fight the evils of a system that forces us to use gasoline to fuel our cars. This man uses cooking oil. Fencing is whatever infringes on human rights. Liberation must be mapped out by slightly radical politicians willing to risk prestige in service to their national duty.

To Louis Armstrong? In his lifetime, the fences were more literal. So maybe Armstrong was inspired by the defiant message hidden in “Don’t Fence Me In” when he criticized President Eisenhower’s handling of segregation.

That’s seven radically different definitions of the same song.

Happy trails

Rogers even starred in a film titled “Don’t Fence Me In,” which tells the full story of Wildcat Kelly.

Here’s a wholesome examination of the song in the intro to the movie on "Happy Trails Theater" with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Dale Evans called it her favorite film, along with “My Pal Trigger.”

The only place I can find it is Tubi, and the video isn't embeddable, so I recommend checking it out.


Every differentiation strengthens the complexity of the song’s message. What is the tone, and what the message, of the phrase “don't fence me in”?

Is it the heartbroken cry of a man losing his freedom?

The whimper of junkie coming down?

The yelp of an innocent?

Is it a request? A demand?

A threat? A command?

In each case, what is it trying to accomplish?

Oh boy, this gets us jammed up. At every phase of this examination, we confront a wave of contradictions that become a united mass. Not just harmony in opposites. Unity in friction.

More proof that “Don’t Fence Me In” is the song of America.

Two hands

Yet despite this variety, there are only two versions of the song:

  1. One with a story about a man who sings the song because he’s being arrested.
  2. One that excludes this story.

The first one begins with Wildcat Kelly as he’s being hauled off to jail. He begins crying at the thought of confinement.

But it’s deeper than that. If the man can’t stand fences, he’s definitely not going like the bars of a jail cell!

I also like the humanity of this version. Here we are being lullabied by a criminal.

I often wonder what Wildcat Kelly did to get arrested. How long will he be in jail? How much more is there to his backstory?

From a structural musical perspective, I enjoy the mood shift of the song, guided by a clever sweeping key change.

This intensifies the difference between a man on his way to jail and a man gliding a horse through a prairie alone at night, listening to the murmur of the cottonwood trees.

You dream along.

This version is better from a storytelling perspective. As Shakespeare knew, adding quotation marks to an entire text or play or poem transforms it into a much different story.

The second version of “Don’t Fence Me In” doesn’t include the story, thereby reorienting the song as a first-person account of a person — you, “sinking into the breeze under cottonwoods.”

You’re no longer listening to some convict’s story. With the second version, the singer’s voice is the expression of your thought, of your very being.

This version makes sense during tough times, when your empathy levels are too low to extend to convicts named Wildcat Kelly.

But you are Wildcat Kelly. Maybe you’re innocent after all.

You finally settle down after a day of life’s brutality. Who even remembers what you lost today? Gloom emboldens gloom. Your losses double and double.

But then you hear the melody of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and you exhale. It feels like you finally heard a friendly echo. You turn loose and aim for the mountains through the country that you love. Ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze at the moon until you lose your senses.

As Roy Rogers loved to say, “Goodbye, good luck, and may the good Lord take a liking to you. See ya next week.”

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Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan

Staff Writer

Kevin Ryan is a staff writer for Blaze News.
@The_Kevin_Ryan →