Cowboys From Hell wasn't really the beginning. Guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, his brother and drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, and bassist Rex Brown had released three Pantera albums prior to recruiting New Orleans vocalist Philip Anselmo, who made his Texas debut on 1988's Power Metal. "We were selling albums and cassettes out of the back of our trunk at gigs," Brown says of Pantera's sweaty club days. "We were playing to maybe 2,000 people a night in '89, and we sold 40,000 copies of Power Metal on our own. After we'd been cast aside and run over about 28 times, we finally got someone down from the majors to look at us."
But while Power Metal was very much a traditional heavy-metal album fused with thrash elements and a decidedly glammed-up look, 1990's Cowboys From Hell introduced the world to a brand-new Pantera via the insane guitar pyrotechnics of "Psycho Holiday," the vicious and haunting "Cemetery Gates" and the irrepressible, take-no-shit title track. And let's not forget the thudding two-minute blast of "Primal Concrete Sledge," which paved the way for their breakthrough album, Vulgar Display of Power.
"If there was one song from Cowboys that could've been on Vulgar Display of Power, it would've been 'Primal Concrete Sledge,'" Anselmo confirms. "Most of the other songs were written about a year before we recorded the album, so by the time we got into the studio, the attitude in the band was already more Vulgar Display of Power."
In the quarantine month of March 2020 — nearly 30 years on from Cowboys' release — we spoke with Anselmo and Brown about the album that started the wild ride that would see the masterful Vulgar, the crushingly heavy Far Beyond Driven, the venomous The Great Southern Trendkill and the stainless swan song Reinventing the Steel turn a generation of headbangers on to the undisputed power of Texas groove metal.
WHAT'S YOUR MOST VIVID MEMORY ABOUT THE WRITING OR RECORDING PROCESS FROM COWBOYS?
REX BROWN We were writing constantly and the sound started to develop. After we demoed the songs, Max Norman was gonna produce the record. So he came down, but it didn't work out. We needed someone who was gonna keep us in check. Philip and I loved Louder Than Love so much — and any of the Soundgarden stuff that came out around that time — and that's how we got Terry Date.
PHILIP ANSELMO It was a very difficult record for me in the studio. When it came time to record songs like "Cemetery Gates," there were some difficult things to sing and I think my frustration level was through the roof on certain notes. It wasn't the high notes — it was the middle-of-the-road notes, like, "The memories now unfold." Good god, it took me a thousand takes if it took me 20. Big props to Terry Date and the rest of the guys for working with me and pushing me as hard as they did.
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF THE DIFFERENCES — BOTH MUSICALLY AND VISUALLY — BETWEEN COWBOYS AND ITS PREDECESSOR, POWER METAL. WHAT WAS THAT TRANSITION LIKE FOR YOU?
BROWN Dude, I never wanted to do the whole spandex thing anyway. Dime liked the idea, but I was more into camo and bullet belts and shit like that. But you know what? Everybody was doing it, even Metallica. Look at their first record. They were wearing that bullshit. It was just a sign of the times. But I think everyone was sick of it. We just wanted to put on a pair of shorts and dig in.
ANSELMO I was only in the band for two weeks before we recorded Power Metal, so everything was like, "Who are we?" But one thing I pointed out to them that I think made all the difference in the world was that they would write these elaborate heavy-metal songs and at the end of each one they would have this killer riff that would ride the song out. So I said, "If the last riff of the song is the money riff, why don't we just start with that riff and go from there?" A big light bulb went on over everybody's head with that.
FOR MANY FANS, COWBOYS IS VIEWED AS THE BIRTH OF PANTERA. BUT THE BAND HAD BEEN AROUND FOR NEARLY A DECADE AND HAD FOUR ALBUMS ALREADY. WAS THERE ANY FRUSTRATION IN BEING VIEWED AS A "NEW BAND"?
BROWN No, but that was a lot of perseverance. Bands back then didn't last five years. But Phil had only been in the band for about two and a half years when we put Cowboys out, so that's a lot of growth in a very short time. But because we'd been in the studio since we were, like, 15 years old, we knew how to do this shit. And Cowboys was definitely the birth of a new sound.
ANSELMO They had great local success before I was in the band. A local band pulling 1,500 kids to a show in Texas in the mid-Eighties was pretty big stuff. By the time I joined, they'd been through five singers trying to keep the momentum rolling. But the audience wasn't buying into it, and when I joined the crowd had pretty much dwindled to zip. So we definitely had a rebuilding process with me in the band. For the fans, I think it was a trust factor: Was I going to be the guy? That was the question.
YOU COME RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE WITH THE TITLE TRACK, SAYING, "WE'RE TAKING OVER THIS TOWN," WHICH SEEMS PRETTY BALLSY FOR A BAND'S MAJOR-LABEL DEBUT. WAS THAT THE ATTITUDE WITHIN THE BAND AT THAT TIME?
ANSELMO Yeah. The message was, "We have arrived." But at the time it was written, we didn't know we'd be signed to any label at all — or that we'd be playing to audiences all over the world. It was up to them to buy into it. We didn't know it would become a staple of our set. But the riff is so signature and it just has that stamp of identity. At the end of the day, in sizing up all the other tracks on Cowboys, I think we felt, "Why not open the album with it?"
BROWN Well, you had to have some balls back in the day. Otherwise, you wouldn't get noticed. So yeah — we're taking over your town. That's how it was in Texas when we were coming through the club ranks. We were pretty headstrong, especially with Philip. He wrote those lyrics. It was pretty ballsy, but that's just where we were at the time.
"CEMETERY GATES" IS THE CENTERPIECE OF THE ALBUM, AND IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S THE MOST PERSONAL SONG ON COWBOYS, AS WELL.
ANSELMO It is. I mean, there's other personal songs on that record, but "Cemetery Gates" was based on suicides by very good friends that went down about a year before. It was on back-to-back weekends, if I remember. One guy was a big friend of everyone in the New Orleans scene. The very next week, one of his best friends — and we knew this guy very well, too — committed suicide, as well. We didn't know quite what that was about, but it was these back-to-back deaths that rocked us pretty hard.
REX, YOU CAME UP WITH THE ACOUSTIC INTRO FOR THAT SONG, DIDN'T YOU?
BROWN We were sitting in the office at the studio and we had a couple of acoustics. There was this one Guild guitar that was at the studio, and I still have it — I stole it. [Laughs] So I was just sitting around picking and that's how I came up with the intro. Then we put that backwards piano on it. I actually played rhythm guitar on "Cemetery Gates," too — and "Cowboys From Hell" — behind the leads. Dime and I would trade sometimes. He'd play a bass part and I'd play a rhythm part. It was no big deal.
PHIL, THERE'S A STORY ABOUT YOU DRINKING A SPECIFIC TYPE OF WINE TO HELP YOUR VOICE ON "CEMETERY GATES," WHICH WAS SUPPOSEDLY A TIP TERRY DATE PASSED ON FROM CHRIS CORNELL. ANY TRUTH TO THAT?
ANSELMO Yeah, the port wine! He said it helped give you that edge to the voice, that rasp. It even helped with the cleaner, higher-range stuff. That was a Cornell trick that he and Terry Date had stumbled upon, and Terry Date passed the wisdom to me. And I'll take it. I mean, who's better than Chris? Not many.
REX, THE TITLE "PSYCHO HOLIDAY" CAME FROM A NOTE YOU WROTE ABOUT PHIL, RIGHT?
BROWN We were gigging so much that Phil hadn't been home in about a year and a half — and he was going stir crazy. He was living with me and these "friends" who were selling a bunch of dope. So I called Vinnie and said, "Let me get him on a flight so he can go home and see his family." So I wrote down the flight number and then I put "psycho holiday" underneath it. Philip saw the note later, and he thought it was the coolest thing ever. I never in a million years thought that would've been the title to one of the coolest Pantera songs.
ANSELMO I was a young man, and emotional, and I had that crazy chip on my shoulder that dates back to my dad issues. I made some good friends in Texas, but every now and again I'd get super lonesome for home and all my friends back in New Orleans. So it got to a boiling point because we were playing almost every single weekend of our lives. Rex was on the phone with Dime and Vince, and had jotted down on a piece of paper that I needed to take a "psycho holiday." When I saw it, I thought, "You know what? Not bad. I'll roll with that." So credit to Rex on that one.
"PRIMAL CONCRETE SLEDGE" IS OFTEN REGARDED AS THE BRIDGE BETWEEN COWBOYS AND VULGAR DISPLAY OF POWER.
BROWN It was the catalyst, yeah — completely. It was the last song written for the album. As we were breaking the drums down in the studio, Vinnie came up with this beat and Dime goes, "Hang on a second!" It seems like we wrote it in no more than 10 minutes. We tracked it and called Phil to come down and slap lyrics on it real quick. We had to have that song on the record.
ANSELMO That's one of those songs where I was very much freestyling, lyrically. It was off the cuff, but it's one of those "we can't be stopped" type of songs, kinda in the same vein as "Cowboys From Hell." Like, this is an attitude, a way of life, and we're embracing it and running headfirst into it. But we knew we had something rhythmically unique. It was a very pleasant surprise at the end of a long recording session that none of us expected at all.
YOU CAN ALSO HEAR THE LINK TO VULGAR IN THE BREAKDOWN ON "DOMINATION," DON'T YOU THINK?
ANSELMO Absolutely. For me, the first half of the song is very classic heavy metal. But the ending breakdown — we have to give full credit to Slayer and Reign in Blood. I was always sounding the Slayer alarm, telling those guys to listen to Slayer. They were more Metallica guys, so it just took me a little while to get them acclimated. But Kerry King befriended us and came down to jam with Dimebag back in '88, '89, so that shit helped out big time, too. He showed Dime and Rex the power of the Slayer riff firsthand.
BROWN It's kinda crazy because Kerry King flew down to jam with us and I'm pretty sure we played "Domination" with him. I know we did "The Art of Shredding." He came down for a couple weeks and we'd play Slayer songs or whatever at this place, Joe's Garage in Fort Worth.
WHAT'S THE STORY BEHIND THE ALBUM COVER?
BROWN We had this conceptual idea of us being in an old barroom, but we were basically standing in front of a green screen and they took shots of us and pasted us into some old saloon photo. When I finally saw it, I thought it was goofy as shit — but with the new Pantera logo and the Cowboys From Hell title, it was cool for what it was. I've seen worse covers than that. I mean, the three or four records preceding that? [Laughs] So yeah, this one was fine.
YOUR FIRST BIG TOUR WAS OPENING FOR SUICIDAL TENDENCIES AND EXODUS. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
ANSELMO It was a gigantic wake-up call. All of a sudden, we went from being a big fish in Texas to being this tiny fish thrown into a massive ocean. Every single night was: Prove it, prove it, prove it. Which is fine, but there was definitely some frustration.
BROWN We were scared shitless, but at the same time we had something to prove because both of those bands had solid records come out that year. But we learned a lot from the Suicidal guys — they were vicious every night. I remember telling Mike Muir once, "There probably would never be a Pantera if we hadn't done that first tour with you guys." It really sunk in that there were some badasses out there and you had to contend with this shit.
THEN YOU WENT TO EUROPE WITH JUDAS PRIEST, WHICH DIDN'T GO TOO WELL.
BROWN I think we had one day off in three and a half months with two bands on the bus — us and Annihilator, out of Canada. Nice guys, but three and a half months is a looong time. And we went over like a lead balloon with Priest's crowd. It was that old-school Priest audience who didn't know what to make of this band playing "Primal Concrete Sledge," you know? We didn't get booed, but we didn't make a huge dent.
ANSELMO Opening for Judas Priest, the crowd just didn't know who we were. But I think going through gigs like that builds character. It gives you an edge and a chip on your shoulder that we definitely used to thrive off of.
COWBOYS WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE WHIRLWIND FOR PANTERA. DO YOU THINK OF IT DIFFERENTLY TODAY THAN YOU DID AT THE TIME?
ANSELMO Back in the day, I thought the songs were old and I was already thinking about the next record, so it was easy for me to underestimate Cowboys as just a heavy-metal record. We weren't totally Pantera 100 percent, attitude-wise. We were still feeling out our direction and our style. But today, I can see how it was a more palatable listen than maybe some of the thrash bands at the time. I can see how people enjoy it as a classic record. I get it.
BROWN This album opened up a lot of doors. When I look back on it now, it was a really solid stepping stone for what was fixing to come. The camaraderie back in those days, we were all for one. There wasn't a tighter band on the goddamn planet. I can't believe it's been 30 years. It's like this dream from a long time ago.