The Story Behind: Cowboys From Hell by Pantera

(Image credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Pantera’s 1992 Vulgar Display Of Power stands as the band’s masterpiece, but it was that album’s predecessor, 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, that was Phil, Dime, Rex and Vinnie’s original statement of intent – the moment when Pantera first started to become the Pantera we all know and love.

But Cowboys… was more than just a sign of things to come or the sound of a band finding its stride. Pantera’s major-label debut is a classic in its own right, rife with essential metal anthems, from the stomping Psycho Holiday and epic Cemetery Gates to the crushing Domination and, of course, the commanding title track, which features one of the genre’s most identifiable guitar riffs.

Cowboys was a natural progression for us from 1988’s Power Metal, which was catchier and not as heavy,” bassist Rex Brown says, referencing Pantera’s fourth album and their first with vocalist Phil Anselmo. “I’ve thought about this a lot. If we had come out with Vulgar right away instead of Cowboys, it would have been a complete change, and I think Pantera wouldn’t have lasted that long.”

Although Cowboys From Hell may not have been “a complete change”, it was pretty damn close. The album completed Pantera’s transition from glam-metal-inflected hair farmers into street-tough headbangers, incorporating the more crushing influence of hardcore and thrash.

“I’d had it with the formula of what metal was supposed to sound like, and what a heavy metal dude was supposed to be,” Anselmo says. “I thought the whole thing was cheesy. Look at MTV. Instead of calling their show The Heavy Metal Hour, they called it Headbangers Ball. That’s really cheesy, man. The whole scene was gut-wrenching, which is why I went against the grain as much as possible.”

Pantera’s first cut across the grain turned 20 years old in July 2010, and in September, Rhino reissued the record as a triple-CD set including the remastered original album, demo tracks (some with different lyrics), live versions, new liner notes, and a bonus song, The Will To Survive, recorded during the Cowboys… sessions.

“I didn’t even know that existed until I heard it,” Brown says. “I think it’s probably one of the first ones that was written for Cowboys From Hell that just didn’t make it. The vocals are a little out there. It’s definitely different sounding. And that’s probably the reason it didn’t make it on the record. And I think if it was up to Phil, it wouldn’t make it on this one either. 

"But it’s cool to have on there because as a band, it just shows us evolving. I guess it has historical value so you can see the progression of the band and where it was heading. After we knew we weren’t going to use that thing, we took little parts and used them even in demo mode for [Vulgar Display Of Power song] This Love. So it served its purpose.”

In commemoration of Cowboys’ 20-year reign and never-ending celebration of the late Dimebag Darrell’s legacy, all three surviving members of the band – Anselmo, Brown, and drummer Vinnie Paul – shared with Classic Rock the story behind the legendary Cowboys From Hell

VINNIE PAUL: After we finished Power Metal, we looked at ourselves and said, “You know what? These fancy clothes and all this crazy hair ain’t playing music for us, we are.” So we decided to drop the image and focus more on the music and kick as much ass as possible.

PHIL ANSELMO: The thrash movement was tremendous at the time. And I was a collector, man. I was into it all. And hardcore – oh, my god. As a vocalist, I was so into Henry Rollins from Black Flag and Roger Miret from Agnostic Front. They shaped what I was doing in so many ways.

REX BROWN: We were really into Voivod, Faith No More’s The Real Thing and Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love. There were all these bands doing something different, and I think that really inspired us to do something different in our own way, but make it way heavier.

ANSELMO: I showed them the fucking path, man. Dimebag came over to the first house I lived at in Texas in early ’88, and I said, “Look here. We’re gonna smoke a bowl and you’re gonna sit down and listen to a song.” So we smoked, and then I put on the vinyl version of At Dawn They Sleep from Slayer’s Hell Awaits. Dime sat there and stared at the turntable, and by about the middle of the song, that big, curly head started to move a little, and by the end of the song, he’s like, “Damn, son. That’s badass!” So right then and there, I had really broken some headway.

PAUL: A lot of people think that Phil was the driving force behind the heaviness, but that’s not true. My brother wrote the guitar riffs. I wrote the drum parts. We were fans of that kind of music. Fuck, in ’83 when Metallica were opening up for Raven in Tyler, Texas, me and my brother drove 120 miles to see them. There were, maybe, 20 people there, and we were standing up against the stage going crazy. Then James and Lars came back to the house and hung out with us for a couple days. It was a great time and they were always a big influence on us.

ANSELMO: I think the real kick in the ass was Slayer, not so much Metallica. And the biggest thing there happened was when I befriended Kerry King right at the very beginning of the South Of Heaven tour. Slayer played Dallas and arrived the day before their show on a night when we had a gig. So Tom [Araya, Slayer vocalist-bassist] and [guitarists] Jeff Hanneman and Kerry [King] came to our show, and Jeff and Kerry played Reign In Blood with us.

We exchanged phone numbers and Kerry called me a few months later, and we invited him down and he hung and partied with us. Then he calls me again during their next break and said, “Hey, I want to come down, but I don’t want to come down for nothing.” And I said, “Really? What’s on your mind?” And he said, “I wanna jam, man. You got a gig this weekend?” And I’m like, “Fuckin’ A.” So Kerry came down and we ended up incorporating him into almost our entire set. He and Dimebag sat in a little room and jammed for hours and that was a big time experience for everybody and a major turning point.

PAUL: While we were pounding away, Megadeth called Dime and asked him to audition for them. Dave Mustaine actually offered him the job. They offered him health insurance, a Nike endorsement, and lots of money. But he came back to Texas and said, “Look man, I would only join Megadeth if they wanted to hire you, and they already got a drummer. So let’s fuckin’ knuckle down and make this thing happen.” I think that really made everyone focus.

BROWN: We were writing almost continuously at that point. The first songs we did were The Art Of Shredding, Heresy and Domination and we were actually writing ’em at this club called Joe’s Garage and playing ’em during sound checks.

ANSELMO: We wrote the album from late ’88 all through ’89, and it was a four-way effort. We were as dedicated as you could be. If someone was slacking, Vinnie and Dimebag would not let you off the hook. I usually tried not to get completely annihilated until after we were done writing for the day. The very first song we did was The Art Of Shredding and the first demo had that, The Sleep and Cowboys From Hell.

PAUL: A lot of thrash bands are sort of limited in what they can do, and we always felt our musicianship allowed us to do more. And the groove thing was something we didn’t want to lose even though we got heavier. So we really focused on that because we really wanted people to be able to move to the music. Being from Texas, we were always fans of ZZ Top and bands that had really big grooves. And Cowboys From Hell is a good example of that.

ANSELMO: Dime and Vinnie’s dad was a Country & Western musician-producer, so they’d been around that kind of music growing up. So the fact that Dime wrote Cowboys was not all that surprising, but it was very clever and demanded a signature. Vince had been pushing for that title for while, and when we heard the riff I went, “OK, Vince, Cowboys From Hell. It fits. There you go.”

BROWN: That whooshing noise at the beginning was a loop we made for Dime to play over, and it was very repetitious and very fuckin’ annoying for a long while. He developed that whole riff over that. And that riff is a little form of in-the-box blues scaling. We were always down the street watching all these great blues guys in the studio because Vinnie and Darrell’s dad was an engineer there. We’d sneak in the studio and sit way underneath the board and listen to these amazing players. And I think that’s where Dime got the bluesy groove.

ANSELMO: _Cowboys From Hell _is an anthemic statement that’s a bit cheesy. It’s the kind of thing I tried to avoid in the future. Shattered is the same way. It was like, “OK, nuclear war, great.” It’s been done before. So I decided to take the realistic route – to sing about circumstance that other people can relate to. That, to me, was the way to get to people, instead of writing about dragons or serial killers.

PAUL: We wrote Domination in the practice studio. Some people think it says, ‘Art stinks like a motherfucker’ in the beginning. Actually, it was me going, ‘First take like a motherfucker.’ It was the first time we were gonna actually lay it down after we’d been jamming on it. And we used the first take. It’s full of energy and it’s very raw.

BROWN: That’s really where we started getting the essence of the power groove. And the end part was just as choppy as could be.

ANSELMO: The first riff is real punky. I had been playing The Misfits all the time and it just rubbed off on everyone. And Dimebag was on a chugging mission, so we said, “OK, let’s write something for the verses where the vocals breathe a little bit.” And then the ending to the song was totally influenced by the riff right before the last riff of [Slayer’s] Raining Blood.

BROWN: After that first demo, we realised Phil was a fuckin’ mess, and his temper was out of control. He’d fight anybody at the drop of a hat. He really needed to go home and see his folks and friends [in New Orleans]. So I was sitting there and I wrote on a pad Psycho Holiday because he was psycho and he was going on a holiday.

ANSELMO: I was a New Orleans boy that done moved to Fort Worth, fucking Texas. Every now and again there was a mixture of being a little homesick and just a lot of drinking too much. I went through a big LSD phase. I quit washing my hair. I put peanut butter in my hair when I was tripping, and I didn’t take a bath for the longest time. This one time I was in a very volatile mood and the band got together and they said, “OK, look, let’s take this weekend off.”

So Rex arranged a flight for me back to New Orleans to clear my head and get my shit together. So I did that, which I needed. And then I got back to Texas. Rex and I were living together at the time, and when I came back to the house, I looked next to the telephone and written on this pad is Psycho Holiday scribbled out with all these flight times. It was Rex trying to get my ass out of fucking town. I was the psycho. It became an inside joke, and Vinnie Paul said, “Man, that’s a great fucking song title.” I was always sceptical, and then finally it just culminated and made sense.

The New Year’s Eve before we were signed fell on a Saturday night. We played on a Friday and after the gig we went to a friend of ours, whose mother owned an apartment complex, and I guess we thought that meant we could do whatever we wanted. I walked straight into the bedroom and there was a Marshall half-stack there. And I just turned that motherfucker on and started playing on 10. The people next door were sound asleep. 

They freaked out. Next thing you know, the place is crawling with cops. So I turn around and Darrell and Vinnie are in the parking lot and they’re down on the ground. I was upstairs in the apartment and this cop told me to stay put or I was going to jail. Then I look outside and I see this fucking cop whip out a steel baton, make a run at Darrell, and start beating on him. Well, I fuckin’ tore my ass down the steps, and I can’t go into detail, but me and Dimebag spent the night in jail.

PAUL: We had been turned down by every label 23 times, but we kept grinding away. We had all the Cowboys songs done, and this one guy we knew, Derek Shulman, [an A&R rep at PolyGram] had been watching us and was very interested, but he had his hands full with Cinderella and other bands.

In 1989, an A&R man named Mark Ross, who worked under Derek Shulman, was flying to North Carolina to see a band they had just signed called Tangier. And then Hurricane Hugo hit, and his plane had to land in Dallas. So Mark called up Derek and said, “Hey, I’m stuck here. I can’t go to North Carolina. Are there any bands you want me to see?” And Derek says, “Well, I’ve been following this band called Pantera. Why don’t you see if they’re any good live.” So I got a call from Mark and I giggled because I’d met with so many of these A&R guys and was just ready for the same old bullshit. So I said, “Well, dude, we’re not really playing a gig tonight. We’ve got a birthday party that we’re playing for this chick at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth. Feel free to check it out.”

So we get to the gig, and I see this big tall guy with curly black hair who looks really out of place. And I go up to him and say, “You’re Mark Ross.” And he says, “Yup, I just got here.” So I grabbed the guys and said, “Hey, let’s all just go up there and do our thing and see what happens.”

ANSELMO: Normally we played on the weekends, but Dimebag called me on a Wednesday, and he’s like, “Yo, dude. It’s this chick’s birthday and we’re her favourite band and she’s gonna pay us the full guarantee if we play her party. I was like, “Really? Well, OK.” Next thing I know, we’re in this tiny Mexican décor club. Word had it that this guy Mark Ross was coming out from Atco Records. I didn’t know if he was even there. It was a party show, man. 

We weren’t even really taking shit seriously. And to add to the ridiculousness of it, there were only about 40 people there. We were set up in the corner on this slick dance floor. The girl had her cake, it was smashed all over the floor and there’s icing all over, so it’s slippery as shit. We were scared to take a step ’cause we thought we were gonna slip and break our necks. At the end of the night, I remember Dimebag saying some shit like, “I don’t even think that motherfucker showed up.” It wasn’t a great show. It wasn’t even Pantera at 60 per cent.

PAUL: About four songs into it, everybody looks up and goes, “Hey man, Mark Ross left.” And we’re like, “Ah, fuck. There goes our big shot again.” So we just started drinking and partying, throwing birthday cake all over the place. Dime and them are sliding all over the dance floor. Four songs later, Mark comes back in, and as soon as we get done, he comes walking over to me and I said, “What’d you think, dude?” And he said, “I loved it. It was incredible.” And I said, “Well, why’d you leave?” And he said, “I went out to the car to call Derek and tell him we’re signing you guys.”

ANSELMO: Within a month after the party, Dimebag shows up to the apartment I’m living in, and I’m like, “What’s up, Daddy-O?” And he says, “Well… how about a seven-record deal?!”

BROWN: After we were signed, we had to wait about six months before we actually started recording. And during that time, we were still doing gigs. We had to. And we had little odd jobs to make some cash. Finally, we went into the studio in February 1990 and spent two months recording.

PAUL: We were such huge fans of Ozzy’s Diary Of A Madman and this band Malice, and they were produced by Max Norman. So he flew to Houston to see a gig and he loved us. We were all ready to go. But our recording budget only allowed for $30,000 for the producer.

About two days before we were supposed to start recording, Max got offered $50,000 to do Lynch Mob. So he calls us up and said, “Guys, I need the money. I’m out.” We were like, “What the fuck?” So Mark Ross calls up and goes, “OK, we gotta find another producer. I got this guy named Terry Date who just finished doing Soundgarden and Overkill.” And we were like, “Man, I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, let’s find out.”

ANSELMO: Terry came out to a show we did in Muenster, Texas, which was kind of a hick town, and afterwards he comes back and says, “This is way different than I originally thought.” I think he had it in his head that we were gonna be this power metal act when in reality we were in mid-air going fucking bananas and crushing. So he was impressed. We liked Terry a whole lot, and he’s the only cat we really tracked with.

BROWN: We did the heavy hitters like Heresy, Domination and Art Of Shredding all at one time. But we had already had ’em on tape anyway, so it wasn’t hard, and we’d get bored easy. So Dime would say, “Dude, let’s go wig Terry Date out real quick.” And we’d just get out there and fuck his rental car up somehow or play practical jokes on him.

ANSELMO: That was just my second time in the studio, and I fuckin’ hated it. There’s one note that comes up twice in Cemetery Gates that I could not do for hours. I broke a chair, I was so goddamn frustrated. Everybody’s beggin’ me, “Don’t smoke any weed. Have your best voice.” And I went, “You mean I have to do all this shit bone sober?”

So Terry said, “Well, Chris Cornell from Soundgarden used to drink port wine because it warms the throat.” And I thought, ah, good idea. Bingo. So I’m sitting there drinking all this sweet fuckin’ wine trying to catch a little buzz. I still don’t know if that helped me hit that fucking note, but I finally did it.

BROWN: There were never any fights. Our way of arguing was if one guy was down, the other three picked on him to, like, try to boost his morale. One night Phil came into the studio and [boxer Mike] Tyson had just gotten knocked out by Buster Douglas. Phil was outside of himself crying. We couldn’t even get through to him or joke with him. He was just like, “Fuck y’all!” It was just so crazy to see this guy lose it completely over a fucking boxing match. But he was so into boxing and Tyson. That’s where a lot of the strength that he was grabbing was coming from.

PAUL: Primal Concrete Sledge was the last song we did and we actually wrote that in the studio. I think they wanted an extra song. So I came up with this crazy drum part and we went from there.

BROWN: That was like the bridge to Vulgar Display Of Power. Vinnie just hammered this pattern out, and each one of the drums was tuned differently. So we tried to figure out what to play over it. We ended up dropping [the tuning for] this thing down and then it just flew out of the fucking seat of our pants. It was groundbreaking.

PAUL: We were almost done with the record when our manager calls us up and goes, “I got you a tour with Suicidal Tendencies and Exodus.” And we were like, “Whoa, those dudes are heavy.” We knew that if we went out there and didn’t fuckin’ kick ass 100 per cent, those fans were gonna kill us. So we made sure we fuckin’ destroyed every night.

ANSELMO: The Suicidal and Exodus tour was tough. No one had heard of us. And I remember [ex-Exodus vocalist] Steve Souza saying loudly, like he was some tough guy, “Man, last I checked I thought Pantera was a glam band.” So it was a pleasure blowing their fucking asses away every fuckin’ night. It was like a war.

Being able to pull our own on those gigs was real important. And in bleak cities, where nobody had heard of us and there were just a few people sitting at the bar tables. I would charge them and kick their fucking tables out from underneath them and scream in their fucking faces. There was no way they were getting out of there without remembering us one way or another.

PAUL: It was all for one, one for all, the true meaning of it. We all loved what we did. We loved the music that we made and we loved playing live. And we had a lot of fun, wrecked a lot of hotel rooms and drank a lot of booze, and it’s amazing we lived through it.

BROWN: We toured 300 dates on that first run from Cowboys From Hell. It was a long, slow process of us playing from everywhere from Providence, Maine, to Tijuana to Seattle to the Florida Keys. But it was definitely a word-of-mouth, grass-roots kind of thing. It was, like, our first time playing anywhere. I would say between 500 to 1,000 kids a night came on the Cowboys tour.

ANSELMO: The first time we went to Canada, me and Dimebag had been up drinking and laughing. We were touring in this piece-of-shit RV, and Dimebag, of all people, was driving. We knew we had to quit drinking a little while before we got to the border so we could sober up. And when we finally pull up, the first question the guy at border patrol asks Darrell is, “Nationality?” And Dime says, “Uhhh, I guess… regular.” I almost jumped out of the window and started running back to the United States. We got detained and they searched the RV and said, “We found traces of weed and cocaine.” This dude reamed our asses out, but then he finally let us through.

BROWN: We always got along well until somebody would get too drunk. I don’t know how many times I pulled Philip off Dime. They used to go at it in a brotherly love kind of way. Dime would always bust Phil’s nuts about something, and then Philip would pin him on the ground and start choking him or slapping him around a little bit. He wouldn’t ever punch him. But I’d have a to run from across the room and dive my scrawny 150lb ass onto Phil to get him off Dime.

ANSELMO: When we played a small club in Toronto called Rock And Roll Heaven, Rob Halford came to the show, and I said, “You gotta get up and jam with us.” He said, “Do you know any Priest songs?” And I said, “That’s like asking if we know what fucking Dixie Beer is.” So he got up there with us, and next thing you know, we get invited to open for Judas Priest in Europe.

PAUL: That was the most exciting thing in the world to us at the time. We were the biggest Priest fans ever. But then we got over to Europe and realised nobody knew who we were and they pretty much hated us. When we finally got home, we went, “Dude, that’s it. We’re never going to Europe again. Never.”

ANSELMO: There’s stuff on Cowboys From Hell that I maybe would have done differently – like Shattered, which was a carryover from the Power Metal days. And some of the lyrics are a little clichéd. But it’s a record that shows where Pantera was at that point in time. And by the end of it, when we had written Primal Concrete Sledge in the studio, you could totally tell where we were fuckin’ going, and where I was going with my vocals. 

And I will say this: one day Dime said to me, “You know how people talk about Rob Halford and they want to sound like Rob Halford?” And I said, “Yeah…” And he goes, “One day people are gonna fucking wanna sound just like Phil Anselmo.” And I thought he was crazy. But I guess he was right.

PAUL: We were finally getting a chance to totally kick ass every night like we’d always wanted to. We felt invincible and nothing was gonna stop us. No one could touch us. We had finally done a record that was truly heavy and brutal, and we knew we could only get heavier.

This was published in _Metal Hammer _issue 212

_Cowboys From Hell _was released on July 24, 1990

Read our guide to the Pantera catalogue here

Jon Wiederhorn

Jon Wiederhorn is a veteran author, music journalist and host of the Backstaged: The Devil in Metal podcast. He is the co-author of the books Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory, and author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. He has worked on staff at Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, Guitar Magazine,, and, while his writing has appeared in TV Guide, Blender, SPIN, Classic Rock, Revolver, Metal Hammer, Stuff, Inked, Loudwire and Melody Maker.