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John Wayne was such a huge icon, he is mentioned in several songs. For example, Paula Cole mentioned him in her 1990s hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Cole said a popular radio host misinterpreted the sarcastic lyrics of the song.

John Wayne on a horse
John Wayne | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Paula Cole said she isn’t the woman pining for a John Wayne type in the song

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is a song about a woman who settles down with a man. The relationship is traditional and seemingly loveless. She asks “Where have all the cowboys gone?” and wishes she could be with someone like Wayne. During a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she explained the meaning of the track.

“The story in the song isn’t about me,” Cole said. “It’s about a sort of every woman, and I’m looking at her life — compassionately, I hope — and saying that, as much as we think we’re progressing, there’s still work to be done. For me, [the lyrics are] sarcastic.”

Paula Cole discussed how Rush Limbaugh interpreted the John Wayne reference in the song

During a 2016 interview with SongFacts, Cole said “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was partly inspired by the band XTC. “I was really in admiration of their wit and their humor and I thought, ‘What do I need to write with some wit and humor and irony,'” she said. “So, it’s so many things woven together: wit, irony, humor, melancholy, and gender-role examination. It’s pretty simplistic.”

Cole discussed how Rush Limbaugh reacted to “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” “Rush Limbaugh really loved this song and he would play it on his radio program because I guess there wasn’t much in-depth listening and it was just a skimming of the surface of: ‘Where is my John Wayne?/Where is my prairie son?/Where is my happy ending?/Where have all the cowboys gone?,'” she said. “That meaning, ‘I’m sitting at home and I’m pining for my masculine man.’ That’s it.”

Rush Limbaugh with a microphone
Rush Limbaugh | Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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How Paula Cole’s ‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?’ performed in the United States and the United Kingdom

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” became a hit in the United States. On the Billboard Hot 100, the track peaked at No. 8. It stayed on the chart for 21 weeks. This Fire, the song’s parent album, became a hit as well.

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was similarly popular in the United Kingdom. The Official Charts Company reports the tune reached No. 15 in the U.K. and lasted 10 weeks on the chart. This Fire peaked at No. 60 on the album chart, staying on it for two weeks.

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was a hit even if some listeners didn’t interpret it the way Cole did.