The West is a pretty big place and trying to catch up with Adrian Buckaroogirl Brannan—saddle-bronc rider, singer/songwriter, fashion designer/model, entrepreneur, and Dear Cowgirl muse—means you may catch her in the truck—if you’re lucky. I caught up with her on a Sunday evening. She had blocked calls and time—and was in a reflective place to discuss where she was right now in her life and what it took to get there. “A really lot has been going on for me right now,” she says, “But it’s exactly what I want. I have been in and out of the studio for a new album, and it’s been funny because several people—especially in the past few weeks—have written in through social media and email saying, ‘What’s the deal, lady? We want another album! Like what is going on with you?’ And of course, I haven’t released an album since 2012, but because I feel everything in life strongly, I want that reflected in my music and for a few years, to be quite candid, I was dealing with a lot of difficult things: events and relationships and a lot of trauma and hurt. Frankly, I didn’t want my music or album to reflect that. So I did a big circle and spent time with myself and my family.”
She grew up on the family ranch in Northern California, one hour from the nearest town, and shares the work ethic and values of a true Western family. Adrian is refreshingly honest and true to the culture that inspires her music, her songs, and her heart. At 14 and 15, she wrote and recorded her first record, HWY 80, with the help of Liz and Mike Vanderhoof, Utah based entrepreneurs who discovered the young songstress during a performance and immediately became her benefactors as well as her “second mom and dad.” Released in 2008, the album includes a live show favorite, “Old Time Vaquero,” resonating with the traditional cowboy culture found all over the world of the Pacific Slope region of the West. As she describes herself back then, “That period, allowed for the release of some spirits of my soul—hints of gypsy, a lot of ‘old school’ cowboy, with just a touch of cowgirl biker.” She laughs, “A lot was coming to the surface.”
At age 17 and 18, she wrote and recorded Boots & Pearls, her sophomore effort, released in 2009, which revealed her vision to do something different: the folk-rock texture and inspiration of a Bob Dylan sound along with an incredible cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” “It was amazing,” she said, “working with the multi-talented Tom Russell, and an incredible array of musicians.” The album was produced by Russell and producer-engineer, Craig Schumacher, at the Wavelab Studios in Tucson, Arizona.” During the session, Russell reminded Adrian, “When you are writing about love, heartbreak, and when you share your life in words and song, you are giving someone else a voice when they are hurting just like you. So, just write and be brave and go for it.”
Another album followed. Released in 2012, Buckaroo Girl featured a matured Adrian singing deeper of the cowboy life. She describes that her intent was to make the album celebrate that culture. “I want Cowboy/Western music to be popular. I want the world to hear it, and I want the world to understand that I live everything I write. I want the modern day Buckaroo to understand the lyrics and every hardworking cowboy to know what I feel. I will never leave my people or my cowboy/cowgirl roots.”
There are three tracks on Buckaroo Girl that have special meaning for her. Her sister, Elizabeth, who Adrian describes as “a steadfast young woman who starts her own colts and paints her own nails,” inspired “Buckaroo Barbie!” Another track, “Run Boys Run,” she says reminds us that we all are “well-saddled and just fine by ourselves,” and that we never need to “settle”—ever. Adrian and her dad, David, wrote “Branding Pen of my Father.” Adrian and cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell sang the words and she says it is about “the passing of traditions and the wisdom that keeps families together.”
Fast-forward to today, this ever-moving, young 25-year-old, who will open for Willie Nelson later in the year, continues holding close to the values she gained from her parents, David and Alison, on the merits of truth and an honest day’s work. It’s not that Adrian is sheltered from the world, as she was “raised all over,” she says, with stops in Scotland, Switzerland, the Ukraine, and Washington, D.C., as well as on ranches in California and Nevada. Today, she is happy traveling the United States, just being herself. Adrian is a throwback to her roots growing up and writing about her cowgirl life—whether she is in Nashville or Elko. She clearly has her own musical and lyrical textures, both evolving as she has grown. “There has to be a reason—as cliché as it sounds—to stay alive, no matter what gets thrown at you, because at some point you have to decide that life is worth picking yourself up again, and doing something for yourself, not for anyone else, never, ever giving up.”
And pick herself up she did. At an earlier part of her life, Adrian was subject to sexual assault and domestic violence, something she speaks about publicly, as it profoundly shaped her life. As a sexual-assault and domestic-violence survivor, Adrian has found that her music is able to reach out and touch those who have experienced the same kind of trauma in their lives.
Adrian’s voice is also heard through social media. Her website, buckaroogirl.com, and her personal blog featuring the fan favorite “Dear Cowgirl” letters, chronicle the stories and experiences she has to share with her ever-growing audience of fans, friends, and supporters. She continues to be amazed at the faith her fans have in her, and shares that it’s very humbling … yet, a huge responsibility she says she’s up to. “I think for people my age, social media is good and bad, but it does allow people to express themselves to me and it’s one of the biggest honors I have ever experienced: people, strangers, trusting me with their stories, and it’s a total honor because I want to help if I can. I’m a “fix-it” person. I really want to help fix things when people are hurting or when things are bad, I want to fix it. I want to help.”
Now in her mid-20s, she brings a distinctly millennial, experiential quality to both her new music and her approach to life. She sees changes coming within the genre that, to her, are concerning. Frowning a bit, she says, “Frankly, I dislike the term “millennial” just as I dislike pigeonholing any age group or generation.”
“I grew up hearing about a world of cowboys very different from today. I would hear of wide-open country from poets like Larry Schutte and my dad and Tom Freeman and, of course, Waddie Mitchell—and that’s what we hoped for, that’s what we love. That’s what we desperately want to cling to. But we don’t have that world anymore, and so many Western people my age are dying to have it! What do we see? Instead of this wild adventurous life we dreamed of and have heard of, as young people in the ranching and cowboy world, we are presented with: ‘You have to go to college, get a degree, (now I can’t disregard a degree because I’m three credits away from graduating—because I want to, not because I have to!) then do this and go do that, and then go work your way up the corporate ladder.’ It’s become something so different from what we grew up just dying to experience. The American West that we grew up learning about and loving has disappeared in a way. But everything changes, and frankly that has to be OK, because we’ll make it ours.”
In one of her self-shot Dear Cowgirl video blogs (read below), Adrian describes her ascent to the open road where she explains how she walked into an office situation and saw all these co-workers with their heads down looking into their mobile devices, and she decided, that it was time to hit the road–to discover herself: to take the leap to the freedom she now enjoys. “I made a choice that usually a 24-year-old woman would avoid, and that was replacing security for freedom.”
Living out of the camper shell on the back of her Ford pickup, in which she has made a “home-away-from-home,” Adrian has traversed America, writing about, video blogging, and sharing her experiences on social media, and now in the forthcoming songs on a new album.
When asked about other women in her culture that she admires or who she sees carving their own path; it’s an easy answer for her. “One person for sure is Reata Brannaman. I admire that woman so much. She’s doing something within our world that is amazing. She is teaching horse programs at an unbelievably young age, and she is at the forefront. She’s educated, she’s classy, she’s proving herself, and she’s reaching out and making a difference in the community. People like Reata and silversmith Nevada Watt are not sitting around writing pissed-off rants on Facebook. They are not just being angry, they are actively trying to change things and make the West a better place. And it’s wonderful to know there are other women out there like me who want the West to mean something, not stay the same, but stay important because a new generation cares deeply about it.”
So what’s in store for the “Buckaroo Girl?” What’s her plan? As you would expect, she has one. “I believe communication—open and honest—is essential, and as I said I am just a few credits away from my degree. As an international relations major, I focused on Middle Eastern languages and politics, and did a lot of work on different dynamics politically with the Middle East and the U.S. specifically. I did this for me, as I want to be effective in my life and working today. Funny, I’ve done most of it remotely, out of the back of my camper. It’s been perfect for me.”
After talking with Adrian, one comes away with the definite impression that anything that gets in her way doesn’t stand a chance. This singer/songwriter is not about to be ignored or held back. If something does get in her way, she’ll handle it—quoting a line from her song, “100 Pounds”—Just spur ‘em in the neck.
Dear Cowgirl: Leave It All + Live Your Life by Adrian Buckaroogirl Brannan:
Remember when you were a child?
You said that you wanted to see the world
To meet new people
To go new places
You wanted to dream
What happened to that dream?
And why aren’t you living it?
Is it fear?
Is it the unknown?
Is it the terror of failure of some kind?
Or the opinion of family, friends or a lover?
I’ll never forget the feeling of driving away that first time, vehicle packed down by a leather case filled with too many clothes. And a wish to see more, be more and understand more of the world around me.
To be brave.
This year, the road got bigger and the trip is getting better. This trip of life.
Because I made a choice, and that choice was a scary one.
I made a choice that usually a 24 year old woman would avoid, and that was replacing security for freedom.
Priorities that tied me down, for views of the open road that fed my soul. That made me feel alive. That made me feel like every mornings sun was something I couldn’t miss. Because every day was a new adventure.
I left the security of a 9 to 5, sold pretty much everything, stuck a bed and a shelf inside my ford truck camper and headed East.
Then West, then North, then South.
And now, the road and adventure and the world has got me so turned around in happiness I know I’ll never break free. And I don’t want to. I can never break away from the freedom that I found on the road.
I saw the people around me in pain, they were so sad, they lived in sadness and no appreciation for the natural world, their environment or surroundings. They walked but they didn’t see.
I thought, no. I will not be your lab rat in a thankless existence trying to get by from one weekend to the next, desperate for another Saturday.
I saw them, every morning as I walked into the office, heads bowed over their cell phones.
They all said the same thing, they said, I “Wish I had.” And I realized that when I wake up and am 80 years old, I didn’t want to say “I wish,” I decided I am going to say I have.
I did. I AM.
Adventure is out there waiting for you, you just have to be brave enough to meet it halfway.
Photos by Ken Amorosano