Westerns Ride Again, Worldwide

Western Ride Again, Worldwide

Article by Mario J. Lucero. Photograph from the New Mexico Rail Runner Express at an acequia, near San Felipe Pueblo and Peña Blanca, nearby the area of Ball Ranch. (photo by Mario J. Lucero © Heaven Sent Gaming)

The Western multimedia arts genre is back in the saddle again, thanks to a global resurgence in the ever-growing digital space. This trend has been going on in the background since 2010, and it’s only gained momentum post-2020. Westerns now not only bolster an audience with its stalwart fans, but command a diversified presence worldwide that has only strengthened its promising future.

Harkening back to the global popularity of the 1940s to 1970s heyday of Hollywood Westerns, country music radio programs, and Wild West TV show reruns. Such as Gunsmoke, the Walt Disney Presents productions about Elfego Baca and Texas John Slaughter, and Leone’s popular Spaghetti Westerns.

While driven by pre-lockdown trends in video games and music, the reappearance of the genre in popular culture jump-started with Rockstar’s 2010 game Red Dead Redemption and its 2018 sequel Red Dead Redemption 2. Which inspired the music chart-topper “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, and it continued to ride in on a wave of the global reach of cowboy and Mexican foods.

Westerns continued to rise in popularity during the pandemic, for the same reason that country music did. Due to longing for open spaces, rugged individualism, and community. It has become a harbinger of a new foundation for Western’s newfound resurgence in the digital age. The genre is continuing to reach new audiences worldwide, with the continued theme in video games, global culinary appreciation, and streaming services. Netflix did a live-action adaptation of the Cowboy Bebop anime, and next year Orange will be doing a new CGI adaption of Trigun.

This is exemplified through the lens of the genre’s presence. To learn how the re-arrival of Westerns took hold throughout the world, including Asia, we need to examine its roots to find out where it’s been and where it’s going. Which can be found internationally in an audible, virtual, edible, tangible, and even intangible way.

Virtual Westerns

Super Mario in his cowboy costume in Super Mario Odyssey (Screenshot from Super Mario Odyssey © Nintendo)

The mythic West became evermore imperishable in the virtual world of Red Dead Redemption 2, originally launched in 2018, and it has only continued to gain momentum. The game’s publisher Take-Two Interactive reported a 124% sales increase for the Rockstar Games title, during the 2020 July-September quarter, bringing it to 34 million units sold since its release. It continues to be a regular top hit on most major platforms such as the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live, while the PC version often appears on Steam’s top game charts. Even in mainland China, where the game currently has no official distribution, it has received nearly universal praise on websites such as Bili Bili. The game follows in the footsteps of the previous Red Dead Redemption title, which is often referenced as 2010’s Game of the Year, and as one of the greatest video games of all time.

This isn’t some simple window dressing or surface-level Western-themed action video game. Nearly every review on the game mentions the genre’s trademark wide-open spaces and the virtual realization of rugged individualism.

The success of Westerns in video games dates back to PC edutainment classic The Oregon Trail, which has been ported to numerous gaming platforms since its original 1970s text-based incarnation. As that decade carried on, lightgun fast-draw arcade cabinets, such as Taito’s Western Gun, Midway’s Outlaw, and Nintendo’s Wild Gunman, became regular fixtures in arcades alongside the popular skeeball and pinball machines.

Shigeru Miyamoto: I suppose because we grew up with (cowboy) Westerns.
Satoru Iwata: Westerns used to be quite popular on television.
Miyamoto: They had a big influence over me. And the drinking spouts at elementary school always had aluminum cups. We used to flip those over and knock them against the concrete in rhythm so it sounded like a horse galloping. (laughs)
Iwata: That’s right. We did. (laughs)
Miyamoto: That’s how much we all loved horses when we were kids. That rhythm is ingrained into us. That’s why I really wanted to make it so you can ride a horse in the Ocarina of Time.”
– Excerpt from an Iwata Asks interview about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

During the 1950s and 1960s, early interactive media was developed by people that had grown up watching Westerns on TV and listening to country-western on the radio. Early traditional video games like Nintendo’s 1979 arcade cabinet Sheriff/Bandido, developed by Genyo Takeda and Shigeru Miyamoto. On Miyamoto, Nick Paumgarten wrote for The New Yorker, “Miyamoto often strikes a lighthearted crouching pose, a proto-Wii stance that seems to owe a little to the gunslingers of the first video game he ever played, Western Gun, and a little to Yosemite Sam.” Miyamoto’s youth in Kyoto most famously played a part in inspiring classic video game franchises Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Both he and the late great Satoru Iwata remarked on the influence that Westerns had on their childhood. Miyamoto famously blended traditional Japanese influence, such as the fox and torii filled Shinto shrine of his hometown, into works such as Star Fox; so too did the Westerns of his childhood inspire his work.

This influence on video games has only continued, most directly observed in games with that Western trim. Namco’s Gun.Smoke launched in mid-1980s arcades, later being ported to the Famicom/NES. Further on, the success of 1990s side-scroller Konami’s Sunset Riders, 2000s Activision/Neversoft’s Gun, and 2010s Nintendo title Dillon’s Rolling Western and indie favorites DrinkBox’s Guacamelee and Ostrich Banditos’ Westerado: Double Barreled. And, as the Red Dead Redemption franchise and upcoming Evil West title proves, Westerns are an enduring mainstay in the video game industry.

Country-Western music

Country-Western music concert posters featuring Japanese musicians by miew_yumanohikiya on Instagram.

J-Country music

J-Country YouTube Playlist

J-Latin music

J-Latin YouTube Playlist

In the footsteps of the much-lauded but defunct Charlie Nagatani’s Country Gold music festival in Mount Aso, Kyushu; venues like Little Texas in Tokyo and Armadillo in Nagoya are keeping the J-Country rhythm going.

Originating in the music of the Appalachian mountains, Cajun and Creole folk music, and moved to the campfires in the American West and the Rocky Mountains alongside Indigenous and Mexican folk music. A movement that was first popularized or recorded by people as it moved westward across the North American continent, like N. Howard Thorp, John Donald Robb, Vernon Dalhart, Gene Autry, Lydia Mendoza, Roy Rogers, Patsy Montana, and Bennie Sanchez.

The Western music style itself is alive-and-well, in the genre-defining classic catalogs of Marty Robbins or the ongoing music of Michael Martin Murphey, alive in its own sub-genres, such as Red Dirt, Tejano Tex-Mex, Texas country, and New Mexico music. Along with the relative greenhorns Shawn Brooks, Josh Grider, and Cam. It also amplified voices throughout the old American frontier, including the classic songs of A. Paul Ortega and Joanne Shenandoah, or the modern Native American stylings of Robert Mirabal, Walela, and R. Carlos Nakai. The New Mexico and Native American music styles were there before Western found their way to them, but they both grew and adapted from one another. Much the same way it was when Country-Western met Hawaiian music, which is where Country’s twangy steel-pedal guitar sound owes its origin.

Country-Western music has been on the rise in the world of streaming services. It is not only the #1 radio format in the United States, it became the most streamed genre worldwide during the 2020 pandemic, it accounted for nearly 1.24 billion streams during the week of April 9, 2020. Beyond the United States, Country-Western music styles have a major presence in Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. It is even the fourth most popular genre in China and the second-fastest-growing genre worldwide on Spotify, behind only electronic music.

Japan’s contributions to the Country-Western music genre were spearheaded by Keiichi Teramoto and Tomi Fujiyama, and kept alive by artists and creatives connected with the aforementioned Little Texas Bar n’ Grill in Tokyo and Charlie Nagatani’s defunct Country Gold festival. Musicians like J.T. Kanehira, Billy & Amex, Harley Yoshida, Eddie Chmura, Buck Kodama, and Wildwood Roses kept their brand of Country-Western music alive and growing. So too have Japanese country music artists like Manami Sekiya, Tony Nakamura, Mary Band, Dicky Kitano, Asako and Geeks, Cadillac Cowboys, and South to West.

Japanese productions featuring J-Country and J-Latin music soundtracks are an integral part of their ambiance such examples can be found in anime franchises like Cowboy Bebop’s unique neo-noir take on western, opera, and jazz by Yoko Kanno. It is also a prominent feature of SEGA’s video game series Samba de Amigo, a title which begs for a modern release, with music by composer Masaru Setsumaru and the band Bellini. The second season of the anime adaption of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid features an opening song by fhána, the song’s official music video made use of gospel choir imagery and the music itself relishes in an upbeat Latin Jazz sound; blending not only Latin music into their J-Rock sound with J-Rap lyrical delivery, but also a bit of Christian media with its gospel music style send-up in the music video, providing a distinctive soundscape.

It can be difficult to find many of these musicians on streaming services. But much like the Japanese consumers, which have been slow to embrace digital streaming services, most country-Western fans stateside have been slow to switch away from physical albums. For example, the New Mexico music genre’s primary distribution method remains the KANW music store in Albuquerque, as most streaming services aren’t properly categorizing the Al Hurricane style of Western music.

Texas Country is distinctive, take Tejano and Country crossover icons The Texas Tornados. This Tejano supergroup included Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm, and Freddy Fender among others. It was also popularized by those that charted on Billboard’s Country music charts, Freddy Fender and Johnny Hernandez, directly influenced the Outlaw Country music stylings of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, as well as the evergreen Neotraditional talents of George Strait and Reba McEntire, and now kept alive by the Texas Country juggernaut Midland.

Musicians that made their name in the Tejano field were no strangers to performing throughout Asia. Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm performed many times in Japan, there’s even a live album recorded in Japan which included Doug Sahm ending a setlist with an instrumental cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 hit “Sukiyaki”.

And last, but not least, the genre of New Mexico music was given special honors by the city of Albuquerque, with its Burqueño and Burqueña citizenry, in 2017 it named the downtown plaza stage in honor of Al Hurricane and Al Hurricane Jr. This ancient Pueblo/Hispano music style was popularized by Antonia Apodaca, Roberto Griego, Tiny Morrie, Gloria Pohl, Baby Gaby, and Darren Cordova too, as it continues to grow due to the work of Lorenzo Antonio, Sparx, Cuarenta y Cinco, Dawn Luz, Christian Sanchez, and Dynette Marie.

Japan’s Country-Western music is also fittingly tied to Latin styles. Latin music produced in Japan is often understated but has a long-storied history, including old-school 1950s stylings of Masaichi Sakamoto y Orquesta Típica and Tokyo Cuban Boys. The modern concept of J-Latin music rose into popular music, including the previously mentioned “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, which became a staple in both the Tejano and New Mexico music scenes. Even today the late 1980s and 1990s success of Orquesta de la Luz, going strong with today’s Japanese Latin scene with Minyo Crusaders, Los Oxxo Sexos, Clandestino, and even the Chicana hip-hop vibes of MoNa a.k.a. Sad Girl. In the world of video game music, musicians like Masaru Setsumaru have also done their fair share in preserving these uniquely Japanese takes on Latin music. Vaquero style Western Wear attire is similarly common across these music scenes.

Today, cowboy Western music is still riding along at a clipping pace. With the brand Western AF continually adding viral clips from Colter Wall and Bri Bagwell, Carin Leon adding a Country-Western sound to his 2021 song “Mal Necesario”, and Poor Mans Poison’s 2019 song “Hell’s Comin’ With Me” which went viral throughout summer 2022 on TikTok.

Western and Mexican Foods

New Mexico roll, a maki sushi with tempura-fried New Mexico green chile. The one depicted here is from Sushi Roller, at the Cottonwood Mall in Albuquerque has Hatch chile, cucumber, and eel sauce, though some New Mexico roll variants can come with calabacitas, red chile sauce, and or avocado. (photo by Mario J. Lucero © Heaven Sent Gaming)

“The traveling food of the dragoons in New Mexico consists of a very excellent species of wheat biscuit, and shaved meat well dried. With a vast quantity of red pepper, of which they make bouilli, and then pour it on their broken biscuit, when it becomes soft and excellent.”
– Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, during his exploration of the North American frontier, from 1805 to 1807, under President Thomas Jefferson and the Government of the United States.

The quote above describes a red chile-smothered dish, similar to the red and/or green chile eats that continue to be enjoyed in today’s New Mexican cuisine. Which is differentiated from neighboring Norteño and Tex-Mex by its regional New Mexico spices, herbs, and flavors, along with Southwestern and Norteño vaquero staples of corn and pinto beans, or the unique calabacitas (a sauteed zucchini dish) or Corrales azafran (saffron) or those aforementioned New Mexico chile peppers. New Mexican cuisine goes well beyond the peppers and spices. From piñon (pine nuts) which are snacked on during travel on the Santa Fe Trail, today it’s used in flavoring coffee from the likes of New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company. Not to mention the traditional anise/cinnamon flavored tea or coffee cookie called biscochito, or even breakfast burritos and the delectable pillows of Native American frybread called sopapillas. Dishes like the breakfast burritos grew in popularity beyond the borders of ye olde Nuevo México.

Likewise, while the New Mexican cuisine style is an ethnic cuisine for native New Mexicans, the Tex-Mex cuisine is similar but leans more into the Texan taste for steak and Tejano foods. New Mexico’s other neighbor, Arizona, has its Sonoran cuisine which combines Northern Mexican food with classic Americana including its namesake Sonoran-style Hot Dogs. But the Wild West’s food had a larger palate than that.

During the late 1800s as the Wild West raged on, pioneer horticulturists were solidifying the roots of crops in the American West. It was during this time that Luther Burbank created his Russet Burbank potato, which, when grown in Idaho is synonymously referred to as the Idaho potato. The hardiness of the Idaho potato can nowadays be attested by McDonald’s annual $136 million Idaho produce budget. As of 2020, Idaho’s potato industry regularly topped $1 billion in sales annually. Another example was with Dr. Fabian Garcia, who was busy creating the New Mexico chile pepper, which blended Nuevo México’s Hispano and Pueblo pepper varieties to create the first commercially viable 6-4 cultivar of modern New Mexico chile cultivars. Garcia’s student Dr. Roy Nakayama made a name for himself as Mr. Chile, creating numerous varieties on New Mexico chile, including the popular Big Jim variety.

The Western United States has a very real culinary history that continues to live as large as the west itself. From dishes like huevos rancheros to the various techniques of jerky such as the very thinly sliced New Mexican carne seca. Even chuckwagon oddities like the corn dodgers which were the progenitor of the modern corn dog. Acknowledging the legacy of other culinary treasures, including root beer and root beer floats which were later popularized as a treat from California originating fast food brand A&W. Bugs Bunny, taking a family friendly approach, requested Sarsparilla or Root Beer as a replacement for alcohol, during his Western-themed Looney Tunes episodes. The terms “the whole enchilada” and comic book character Deadpool’s infatuation with chimichangas can attest to these delectables. Chimichangas in particular have a cult status, popularized at the convenience store chain Allsup’s, similar to how the tamago sando was popularized at the Japanese Lawson’s convenience store. Other snacks include Mexican obleas, which is dulce de leche sandwiched between two Christian communion wafers. Newer trends in the American West that are quickly gaining traction are birria tacos, Mexican-style supermarkets like the widely available El Super chain, paleta shops like The Paleta Bar in Albuquerque, and the numerous La Michoacana ice cream and snack shops throughout the West. They will likely find their way to Asia within a matter of time.

These Mexican and Southwestern US roots are even becoming a part of the global plate, including burritos, Caesar salads, enchiladas, nachos, and tacos. Tex-Mex style restaurants have a growing foothold throughout Asia. Taco Bell in particular has made major inroads by opening several restaurants in China, as well as in the numerous vegetarian-leaning locations in India, from Delhi to Bangalore. In countries like Japan, where Taco Bell has also expanded, their food prices need to be drastically lowered if they ever hope to match their American, Chinese, and Indian counterparts in mainstream market appeal. But their presence in this market is only growing, which says good things about the future of Mexican and cowboy foods going forward. Texas Roadhouse even now has a presence in South Korea and the Philippines. While in Japan the locations for La Jolla in Kyoto, Taqueria La Fonda in Osaka, even Tokyo’s hipster spots Casa De Sarasa, Texmex Factory, Hacienda Del Cielo in Shibuya, and the Little Texas Bar and Grill honky-tonk in Meguro, offer a taste of Mexican American food tastes.

The Future of Westerns

The trailer for the 2023 Trigun Stampede anime adaption by Orange. (Video from the TOHO animation チャンネル YouTube channel © 2023 Yasuhiro Nightow / SHONENGAHOSHA/TRIGUN STAMPEDE Production Team)

The vaquero traditions of Mexico and Southwestern United States are tied to the ethnic identity of indigenous and Hispanic groups. These very real ethnic roots of these traditions are the very underpinning of the Western lifestyle.

Tangibly embodied in the blue jeans, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, headbands, bandanas, pearl snap-fastened shirts, and other Western Wear fashion. Along with the efficacy of design in ranch-style rambler homes or Hispano/Pueblo architectural styles, Navajo weaving, American/Apache/Comanche/Hispano/Navajo/Pueblo/Mexican aesthetic cues, and other elements of frontier vaquero chic. Cowboys, cowgirls, ranchers, and farmers around the world have embraced this outfit for its aesthetic and utilitarian function. All of which can be found in Western Wear outfitters, such as those that ship worldwide like Boot Barn, Sheplers, or Rod’s, as well as the numerous Wrangler shops from Taiwan to Thailand to Beijing, or smaller shops such as Delaneys Country & Western Store in Australia or J.R Texas in Singapore, or even in the formerly wild west itself, such as to the world famous like Paris Hatters in San Antonio, Texas, while in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there’s Dan’s Boots and Saddles or Zapateria Pedrito.

As with the slow growth of Mexican and other cowboy eateries, so have Westerns etched their mark on humanity’s view of itself and our future. Twists on the Western of course stem back to the Spaghetti Westerns, which turned the idea of lone hero on its head, or old-school politically incorrect comedy Blazing Saddles. Science fiction stalwart Star Trek, which was first referred to as a Space Western. The concept of which was even more literal in the post-turn-of-the-millennium television series Firefly, or as is the case with Disney’s 2020 Star Wars hit The Mandalorian. Sometimes these off-beat sub-genres can put a lens on biting social commentary, look no further than the Neo-Westerns of TV franchise Breaking Bad (which spawned Better Call Saul and El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie), or the post-apocalyptic Weird Western video play Fallout: New Vegas. Space Westerns and Neo-Westerns have seen crossover success in manga and anime, such as Trigun, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop (which is receiving a live-action Netflix adaptation), and Space Dandy. All of these are riding an even more important wave, as pop culture is reflective of our reality, both in the short-term and the long-term.

The short-term gain in popularity is, as succinctly summarized by Andrew R. Chow’s piece for TIME Magazine, “(Country-Western music is) both emotional and technological, as some listeners seek comfort in the soothing, nostalgic qualities of the genre, while others who previously disdained streaming platforms finally caved and subscribed. But while these factors might be temporary, they are also building a new foundation for country (music)’s digital-era resurgence.” And this nostalgic idea is very important during the current reality of the COVID-era.

And, as for the long-term, gains have been clearly on the rise for the Western genre and other aspects since at least 2010. The reason is the same as it’s always been for its perennial rise, a rise in optimism commonly associated with frontier spaces. NASA astronaut Don Pettit echoed this sentiment when describing the SpaceX Dragon capsule, as it docked with the International Space Station, “the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which opened up the western frontier of the United States was celebrated by pounding in a golden spike… this is sort of the equivalent of the golden spike.” Governments around the world are readying the first steps towards manned interplanetary exploration. Including the governments of the United States and Japan, as well as private companies including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

The ideals of The Western’s rugged individualism, frontier values, and wide-open spaces have become an indelible quest for the human spirit. This culture is found strongly in the very real heritage from the Hawaiian paniolo to the Mexican vaquero and New Mexican caballero, to the popularization of the genre and lifestyle in Asia and elsewhere. The various art forms for Westerns will keep reflecting that growing influence, from the aforementioned video games, music, and culinary creations, to those in film and television, as well as Western wear fashions of Ariat, Justin, Stetson, and Wrangler. Not only is it a big business, as Virgin Galactic can vouch with its New Mexico launches or SpaceX with their Texas launches, it represents something more.

In July of 2021, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos had made their successful launches into space. Richard Branson in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity from Spaceport America, the first commercial spaceport in the United States, located near Truth or Consequences in Sierra County, New Mexico. Besides Branson, the Virgin launch included crewmembers David Mackay, Michael Masucci, Sirisha Bandla, Colin Bennett, and Beth Moses. Jeff Bezos in Blue Origin’s NS-16, from the private spaceport of Corn Ranch in Van Horn, Texas, accompanied by the crew of Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen.

Billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos are making every effort in this 21st century reboot of the space race, and for good reason. Untold resources are just at our stellar doorstep, repeating the calling of other such eras of humanity. Particularly, in this case, the advanced Ancient Pueblo and Mesoamerican trade networks, which later became part of Camino Real de Tierra Adentro and its later associated Santa Fe Trail, The Oregon Trail, and The California Trail. Numerous private companies led migration and industry westward, for example, Pacific Fur Company, The North West Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, American Fur Company. While the idea of billionaires vying for spaceflight might seem superfluous in a world with a myriad of problems, including homelessness, starvation, and other social ills.

Old poster from the Cyber Rodeo at Tesla’s Giga Texas. As tweeted by Elon Musk.


The sacred Zia Pueblo sun symbol of New Mexico, next to the Virgin logo, on the side of the VSS Unity which launched from Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences making New Mexico the third US state to launch humans into space. ( Image © Virgin Galactic / Video embed from KOB )


The solutions to many of these problems can and will be found in the betterment of technology associated with space travel. Including less seen solutions, such as the improvement of hydroponics to grow fruits and vegetables more sustainably, or the potential for 3D printed homes printed using natural materials. The idea of earthen materials being used to construct homes, in and of itself, also predates this modern thinking. Rock carved structures such as those seen in Petra, in Jordan, of the adobe structures around the world such as those seen in traditional New Mexican architecture at Acoma Pueblo, Taos Pueblo, as well as buildings in and around Santa Fe Plaza or Old Town Albuquerque. These are often seen as the epitome of living with the Earth, and they even served as the inspiration for Michael Reynolds’ Earthship sustainable homes. While the Earthships are handmade from earthworks, the idea of 3D printing homes with similar levels of ecologically sound and sustainable living should prove invaluable. Like those that often get proposed in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge for future Mars missions, which are to be made out of Martian regolith, and must meet more rigorous insulating and sustaining properties than would be required here on Earth. Their advancements however should help to improve the same types of technology to improve life here on Earth.

As humanity leaps into the final frontier, the mythic vaquero frontier will forever be a scion. And this resurgence of this particular genre and lifestyle is an echo into the future of the limitless potential that humanity as a whole will soon attain.

See You Space Cowboy…

Rendering of Space Cowboy maneuver of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite with its golden lasso antennae. with the quote “See You Space Cowboy…” from Cowboy Bebop. (Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sources and dedications:

This article is dedicated to my grandfathers:

Grandpa Joe M. Lucero (January 12, 1937 ~ March 16, 2015), on my mother’s side, was a life-long trucker (long-haul cowboy) who helped to raise me. To quote his obituary, “From (the town of) Cuba, New Mexico, he started his career in the United States Navy and became a life-long truck driver for Consolidated Freightways. He had three children with his wife Antonia ‘Toni’ Lucero.”

Grandpa Horacio Pargas (May 18, 1933 ~ August 27, 2021), on my father’s side, both of whom are old-school Northern New Mexican vaqueros. The obituary for him said, “Horacio and his wife, Irene grew up together. Fell in love and were married in February of 1961. Horacio and his family worked on the Ball Ranch, south of Santa Fé for 37 years.”