Cowboys From Hell: 25 Facts About the Pantera Classic

Celebrate a quarter-century of the album that first defined ’90s metal.

Raise a fist and, more importantly, raise some hell in honor of the 25th anniversary to Cowboys From Hell. Pantera unleashed their massively hard and heavy musical milestone on July 24, 1990.

Upon immediate impact,Cowboys From Hell established Pantera as the metal band to beat in the decade ahead feat that no one was actually able to pull off.

The Texas foursome of Phil Anselmo on vocals, Dimebag Darrell on guitar, Rex Brown on bass, and Vinnie Paul on drums brought together all previous extremes of metal, thrash, punk, and hard rock. What’s more, they ran it through their own newly invented “power groove” sound to forge a landmark of sound, fury, innovation, and attitude.

So to celebrate a quarter-century since the unholy birth of the Pantera phase that forever changed music, here are 25 facts about Cowboys From Hell.

1. To casual observers, Cowboys From Hell can sometimes seem like Pantera’s debut album. In fact, it’s the group’s fifth long-player, and their second with vocalist Phil Anselmo after 1988’s Power Metal.

2. Pantera largely agrees with that “first album” assessment. As drummer Vinnie Paul once put it: “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 ass as much as possible.”

3. Among the artists that band members routinely cite as exerting tremendous influence on their creative process going into Cowboys From Hell are Slayer, Metallica, Voivod, Soundgarden, Minor Threat, Mercyful Fate, Faith No More, and ZZ Top.

4. Vocalist Phil Anselmo has pointed out that playing Slayer’s “At Dawn They Sleep“ for guitarist Dimebag Darrell made a huge impact on Darrell’s riffs. Of his own influences, he’s said: “The thrash movement was tremendous at the time. And I was a collector, man. I was into it all. 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.

5. The Pantera lineup that recorded Cowboys From Hell almost didn’t make it to the studio. After Power Metal, guitarist Darrell Abbott—first known as Diamond Darrell, later as Dimebag Darrell—accepted a offer to join Megadeth. Darrell’s one condition was that his brother, Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul, come along. Alas, Megadeth was happy with their own drummer, Chuck Behler. The Abbott brothers therefore stayed put, dug deep into Pantera, and, together with Phil Anselmo and Rex Brown, tapped into transformative new powers that exploded the expectations of all involved.

6. Cowboys From Hell peaked at #27 on the Billboard Albums chart in 1992, two years after its release.

7. In 1993, Cowboys From Hell went gold. In 1997, it went platinum, having sold more than one million copies.

8. Cowboys From Hell is Pantera’s major label debut. Atco Records exec Derek Shulman expressed interest in the band, and, after Hurricane Hugo stranded them in Texas, label reps Mark Ross and Stevenson Eugenio caught Pantera live. After that, the Atco deal was in the bag.

9. In the liner notes for Cowboys From Hell’s 20th anniversary demos edition, Mark Ross writes of initially seeing the band: “By the end of the first song, my jaw was on the floor. The sonic power of it all — the attitude and the musicianship — blew me away. Basically, you had to be an idiot to not think they’re amazing. I mean, how could you see these guys and not think, ’Holy s—t?!’

10. The first song Pantera wrote for Cowboys from Hell was the title track. On an episode of VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show, Phil Anselmo said that Dimebag Darrell first introduced the riff to him by rushing into a house party. Darrell excitedly told Phil to check it out, so they stepped out to Darrell’s car and played the tape, immediately after which, Phil proclaimed, “Yes, this must be an anthem!”

11. “Cowboys From Hell” was released as the album’s first single. The ambitious, expansive “Cemetery Gates” came next. The rip-roaring rocker “Psycho Holiday” was the third single.

12. “Cowboys From Hell” ranks #25 on the TV Special VH1’s 40 Greatest Metal Songs.

13. The popular live music videos for both “Cowboys From Hell” and “Psycho Holiday” were directed by Paul Rachman and filmed at The Basement, a Dallas rock club where the band loved playing.

14. Paul Rachman started shooting shoestring-budget videos for hardcore punk legends such as the Bad Brains and Gang Green before helming high-profile clips for Alice in Chains, Temple of the Dog, Sepultura, and Kiss. In 2006, Rachman directed the documentary feature, American Hardcore.

15. “Cemetery Gates” showcases Pantera stretching its musical muscles and spreading its ever-expanding aesthetic wings. The seven-minute opus is the band’s longest studio track.

16. Phil Anselmo has said that his lyrics for “Cemetery Gates,” which address how mourning a fallen comrade can often make one long to join them in the afterlife, were inspired by people who knew who had died, particularly those who took their own lives. “There was a friend who had died in NOLA and it had a real heavy impact within my group of friends,” Anselmo said. “When I wrote the lyrics I did not want them to be too personal, because that can be cheesy. I also had to make sure that the lyrics would not take away from the song, because that was one of our best songs.”

17. “Cemetery Gates” appears on the soundtrack to the 1995 fright flick, Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight.

18. The very first Pantera song to turn up in a movie was “Midnite Man” in the schlocktastic 1987 Jon Mikl Thor horror vehicle, Zombie Nightmare.

19. Pantera’s Cowboy From Hell Tour ran for more than 300 dates throughout 1990 and 1991, frequently supporting Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies. Both the album and Pantera’s live shows caught the attention of Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford.

20. At a 1991 Toronto gig, Rob Halford met the band backstage. They begged their hero to come out and jam with them. When Halford asked if they knew how to play any Judas priest songs, Anselmo replied, “That’s like asking us if we know what f—ing Dixie Beer is!” Halford performed with the band that night and later asked them to open for Priest in Europe.

21. Halford told Revolver magazine about touring with Pantera: “And I told [Judas Priest guitarists] Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing specifically after that, ’I’ve seen this band. They’re absolutely f—ing amazing and they are going to be huge. They are going to be huge!’ And I said, ’We should try to get him on the tour.’ So, to cut a long story short, we brought them with us on the Priest Painkiller tour of Europe and nobody had a clue who they were. They had no distribution as far as I understood in Europe. So they went out blind, in front of Germans and French and whatever. I used to watch every show, and the first reaction fans gave them was, ’Who the hell is this?’ And it was like, ’Oh my f—ing God, what’s going on in front of my eyes?’ They would just win an audience over in 30, 40 minutes. From playing fresh, new music that nobody had heard before. The communication was instant with that band. So there it was. So by the time we’d done the European tour, and they went back to the States, Cowboys was shooting up the charts. And that was it, they were off and running. They were just launched into the stratosphere on that first release.”

22. While Cowboys From Hell took off solidly in the United States, other territories were not so quick to catch on to just how dark and deep this former glam outfit had just started going. In 2014, Phil Anselmo clarified, saying: “You know what record was misunderstood in Europe? Cowboys From Hell. Nobody liked it, nobody got us. We toured with Judas Priest in 1990 and also ’91. We were hated. We were hated! No one f–ing liked us. However, when we put out Vulgar Display Of Power, it validated f—ing Cowboys From Hell. So it made people go, ‘Oh… I get it now. This is the direction. This is the band. This is a solidification.’”

23. By September 1991, Cowboys From Hell had established the new Pantera sufficiently that the group opened for AC/DC, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, and Queensrÿche at the Monsters in Moscow festival. Earlier that year, Pantera was playing to crowds that topped out around 2,000. In Russia, they performed for a half-million.

24. Graphic designer Robert Delfin, who art directed Cowboys From Hell’s famous western saloon cover, also came up with the band’s logo for the album, which would quickly become one of rock’s most familiar symbols. “I remember we wanted something very macho and tough, but not going the Spinal Tap route,” he remembers. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we keep it very plain and use a condensed sans serif typeface with a big “P” at one end and a big “A” at the other?’ And they loved it. And I said, ‘Well, that was an easy one.’”

25. Bob Delfin’s follow-up album cover two years later would, remarkably, become even more iconic: Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).