Bill C. Malone and Tracey Laird | Country Music USA | University of Texas Press | June 2018 | 25 minutes (6,531 words)
The emergence of the western image in country music was probably inevitable. Long before the process of commercialization began, the cowboy had been the object of unparalleled romantic adulation and interest. Given the pejorative connotations that clung to farming and rural life, the adoption of cowboy clothing and western themes was a logical step for the country singer.
The increased emphasis on western themes and attitudes appeared unsurprisingly in the westernmost southern states ─ Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas ─ and in California. In these areas, country music assumed forms differing from those in the more easterly southern states. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas, although southern in traditional orientation, embodied significantly different elements. All three were touched by the oil boom of the early twentieth century, and each possessed population groups that stood apart culturally while simultaneously influencing the dominant “Anglo” element of the state. Oklahoma and Texas were settled, for the most part, by former residents of the older southern states, who had brought with them their values, traditions, and institutions. Louisiana, on the other hand, can be perceived as a land of at least three great cultures: a Roman Catholic, “Latin” culture in the South; an “Anglo,” Protestant culture in the north; and an African American culture whose influence could be felt throughout the state. Immigrants brought slaves and the cotton culture to all parts of the Southwest, making Texas and Louisiana parts of the southern economic and political orbit. They also transported their evangelical Protestantism to southwestern soil and brought with them many features of their folk heritage. Some of the old British ballads survived the westward migration, although they had lost many of their former characteristics. In some Texas communities, such as those found in the Big Thicket, a heavily forested area in the eastern part of the state, old ballads and old styles of singing endured well into the twentieth century. Many of the East Texas communities were, and remain, replicas of the older southern environment. And, in many of them, folk traditions died slowly.
Texas folk music, then, was basically southern derived. Texas rural musicians used instruments common to the rest of the South, sang in styles similar to those of other rural southerners, frequently attended house parties where old-time fiddlers held sway, and learned to read music at the shape-note singing schools. But despite its close cultural affiliation with the South, Texas had a culture all its own ─ a culture produced by the mingling of diverse ethnic strains: southern “Anglo,” black, German and Central European (especially prevalent throughout the southern part of the state), Mexican, and Louisiana Cajun (in the area extending from Beaumont to Houston). A passion for dancing was common among all these groups, and in this heterogeneous society, musical styles and songs flowed freely from one group to another, modifying the old southern rural styles. While rural music was prevalent and pervasive, it differed substantially from that produced in the Southeast or in the Deep South.
The discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Beaumont, in 1901 was the first of a series of finds in southeastern Texas, southwestern Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas in the years extending up through World War I. The discovery of the great East Texas oil field in the early 1930s, along with the rapid industrialization that began during World War II, further set Texas apart from the other southern states. While these factors contributed to Texas’s uniqueness, they are probably less important than the fact that it was also part of the West. In fact, to most Americans, Texas was and is the West. And this West was a glorious land peopled by cowboys.
The romantic concept of the West, shared by most Americans, has a history virtually as old as the nation itself. James Fenimore Cooper’s early novels describing the restorative qualities of the frontier were not substantially different, nor less romantic, than the themes emphasized later in Bret Harte’s stories, in the western “dime novels,” or in such books as Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Thus, the cowboy and the West had been bathed in romance long before Hollywood and the television industry began their exploitations of the theme. The American people also had long demonstrated a general interest in the songs of the cowboy ─ beginning with Nathan Howard Thorp’s Songs of the Cowboys, 1908, and John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, 1910 (as a matter of fact, as early as 1907, when “San Antonio” appeared, Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths had experimented with “cowboy” themes). Although a few concert-musicians such as Oscar Fox (from Burnet, Texas) and David Guion (from Ballinger, Texas) made classical arrangements of a few cowboy songs, the western theme did not make any significant impact on American music until the 1930s. Guion’s version of “Home on the Range,” first performed in 1930 in a New York play called “Prairie Echoes,” became the most popular arrangement of the song and was said, perhaps apocryphally, to be President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song. Such songs became so widely circulated in the 1930s that even Tin Pan Alley reverberated with the melodies of the range. The farther Americans became removed from the cowboy past, the more intense became their interest in cowboy songs and lore. Hillbilly singers and musicians did much to implant the romantic cowboy image in the minds of their American audiences.
Before the 1930s, a few musicians recorded songs that genuinely reflected the cowboy heritage. The concert singer Bentley Ball ─ who did many programs of patriotic and traditional songs, many of them in colleges ─ recorded “The Dying Cowboy” and “Jesse James” for Columbia in 1919. Charles Nabell, in November 1924, recorded some cowboy songs for Okeh, along with other types of traditional material. Several of the early cowboy singers came from Texas, and their songs, for the most part, reflected genuine cowboy experience. Carl Sprague, for example, may have done most to generate an immediate interest in the recorded songs of the cowboy. He grew up on a South Texas ranch near Alvin where he learned many of the songs (most of them from his cowboy uncle) that he later recorded for Victor. His 1925 recordings of cowboy songs — topped off by the immensely popular “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” — mark him as one of America’s first singing cowboys. While attending Texas A&M, Vernon Dalhart’s success as a singer of traditional songs convinced Sprague that a similar market for cowboy singers might exist. He traveled to New York and had a successful audition with Victor Records; his earliest recordings had a sound very similar to that of Dalhart, including guitar and studio violin. Singing, however, was never more than a hobby with Sprague, and aside from his recordings, he made few commercial appearances. For many years he was on the coaching staff at Texas A&M, and, in addition, he attained the rank of major in the United States Army.
The romantic concept of the West, shared by most Americans, has a history virtually as old as the nation itself.
Jules Verne Allen, on the other hand, had actually experienced the rugged life of a working cowboy before he embarked on his career as a radio singer. Born in Waxahachie, Texas, Allen began working cattle in Jack County, west of Fort Worth, at the age of ten. From 1893 to 1907 he worked as a rough string rider and bronco buster from the Rio Grande to the Montana line. Unlike Sprague, he used cowboy music as the basis for a professional career. During the 1920s and 1930s, Allen sang over numerous radio stations, including WOAI in San Antonio, where he performed as “Longhorn Luke.” Like most of the pioneer recording performers of the 1920s, Allen and Sprague drew most of their material from turn-of-the-century cowboy life, although some of their songs were learned directly from the Lomax collection.
Other cowboy singers of the early commercial period varied widely in the amount of actual range experience they possessed. The Cartwright Brothers (Bernard and Jack) grew up in Boerne, Texas, directly on the route of “the long drive” that proceeded on to Kansas. Essentially a fiddle band, the Cartwrights performed a variety of songs. Their version of “Texas Rangers,” however ─ marked by Bernard’s haunting fiddle ─ is one of the greatest performances of a cowboy song heard on early commercial records. Carmen William “Curley” Fletcher, from California, was a rodeo performer and itinerant hawker of songs long before he made any commercial recordings. His greatest claim to fame came through his writing in 1915 of the poem that became the basis for “The Strawberry Roan,” which he sold on broadside sheets. The song became one of the most popular western numbers, performed usually with a chorus added by the California radio singers Fred Howard and Nat Vincent. At least a couple of the pioneer cowboy singers, Goebel Reeves and Harry McClintock, were southerners whose wanderlust drew them west, where they worked at a wide variety of occupations. Both men, for example, spent some time in the famous radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies).
Our knowledge of the otherwise shadowy figure of Goebel Reeves comes from the pioneering research done by Fred Hoeptner. Known as “the Texas Drifter,” Reeves was born in Sherman, Texas, in 1899. Before his death in California in 1959, he had enjoyed a varied career that led him across the United States and around the world. Although he came from a respectable middle-class family (his father served in the Texas legislature), Reeves deliberately chose the life of a hobo. During the course of his wanderings, he enlisted in the army, saw front-line service in World War I, worked as a merchant seaman, became active in the IWW, toured the vaudeville circuit, performed on radio, and recorded under several names for such companies as Okeh and Brunswick. In his recording career as a singer and yodeler ─ he claimed to have taught Jimmie Rodgers the yodeling style in the early 1920s while living in New Orleans ─ Reeves introduced some of the most interesting examples of both cowboy and hobo songs found in American music. These included the well-known “Hobo’s Lullaby” (which he claimed to have written), “The Hobo and the Cop,” “Railroad Boomer,” and the cowboy songs “Bright Sherman Valley” and “The Cowboy’s Prayer.”
Harry McClintock was as well traveled as Reeves, having also been a merchant seaman, a soldier, and a hobo. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he roamed widely throughout the United States and became a member of the IWW in the early twentieth century. Because of his musical talents, McClintock was a welcome addition to the Wobblies, who had a well-known fondness for singing and whose Little Red Songbook became virtually the bible for labor/protest singers in America. McClintock’s claim that he wrote “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” two of the world’s most famous hobo songs, has never been seriously challenged. Once he settled down from his wanderings, McClintock began a career as a radio cowboy singer as early as 1925 on KFRC in San Francisco. “Haywire Mac,” as he was often called, also recorded for Victor from 1927 to 1931. Along with superbly performed cowboy songs such as “Sam Bass,” “Jesse James,” and “Texas Rangers,” McClintock’s labor songs make him one of the important progenitors of western music.
John White and Otto Gray contributed to the shaping of western music by presenting it widely to a national audience. White was an unlikely “westerner,” hailing from Washington, DC. However, he was the first person to introduce cowboy songs on radio to a New York audience (on NBC from 1927 to 1936). He also recorded cowboy songs, as well as hillbilly material, from 1929 to 1931, under several pseudonyms including “the Lonesome Cowboy.” White specialized in the history of cowboy songs, and over the years he did more than any other person to describe the origins of the ballads, and he dispelled much of the romantic claptrap that had gathered around them.
Otto Gray, a prosperous rancher from near Stillwater, Oklahoma, pioneered in the commercialization of cowboy music. In about 1923, he assumed the leadership of a string band that earlier had been composed of real cowboys ─ the McGinty Cowboys (named for Billy McGinty, an Oklahoma rodeo performer). Gray’s group had the distinction of being one of the few country groups publicized in Billboard, although Gray paid for most of the advertising. From 1928 to 1932, Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys made a tour of radio stations throughout the country and performed on the northeastern RKO vaudeville circuit. Momie Gray (Otto’s wife) was the featured singer of the organization, specializing in sentimental songs. The Oklahoma Cowboys were a highly professional group that possessed most of the characteristics of slick show-business organizations. A special publicity man traveled in advance of the group, and appearances on radio stations provided further exposure. Two agencies, the Weber-Simon Agency in New York and the William Jacobs Agency in Chicago, handled the group’s RKO bookings. The Gray performers, dressed in plain, western-style clothing, traveled in Gray’s $20,000 custom-built automobile, which was wired for sound reproduction and had a radio receiver and transmitter.
If Otto Gray contributed significantly to the commercialization of “western” music, Jimmie Rodgers played an equally important role in fusing it with country music. As discussed earlier, Rodgers spent the last few years of his life in Texas and conducted many of his most successful tours there. He took great pride in the Texas heritage and the romantic cowboy past. The modern concepts of the “singing cowboy” and of “western” music may very well date back directly to Rodgers.
Scores of singers who modeled themselves after Jimmie Rodgers emerged in the 1930s, and most of them gave themselves “cowboy” titles and dressed in western attire. Young Hank Snow, for example, in far-off Nova Scotia, dressed in cowboy regalia and called himself “the Yodeling Ranger.” In even more remote Australia, Robert William Lane performed under the name of Tex Morton, described himself as “the Boundary Rider,” and sang cowboy songs with a bizarre, trilling yodel about both the Australian bush and the Texas Plains. Others, like Ernest Tubb, included few cowboy songs in their repertories but wore cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. Since the western attraction was irresistible, even young hillbilly singers from the Deep South or from the southeastern mountains, whose associations with cowboys came only through story and song, embraced the western image and imagined themselves “way out west in Texas for the roundup in the spring.”
Perhaps because of Rodgers’s close association with Texas, many of the successful Texas hillbilly performers ─ Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Floyd Tillman, Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan ─ credited Jimmie Rodgers as their inspiration. One of the most important of these individuals, and the one who completed the “romantic westernizing” process begun by Rodgers, was Orvon Gene Autry. Autry owed most of his initial success to the fact that he could perform Rodgers’s repertory in Rodgers’s yodeling style. Autry was born on a horse farm near Tioga, Texas, on September 29, 1907, but moved to Oklahoma with his parents while in his teens. Although his father was a horse trader, one finds that Gene experienced little of the cattle ranch life that his promotional material later stressed. At any rate, he left the “ranching” life as quickly as he could, working as a railroad telegrapher and singing at every opportunity.
According to a much-repeated story, confirmed by Autry himself, Will Rogers inspired his decision to become a professional musician. One day in 1927 the great humorist came to Chelsea, Oklahoma, where Autry was working as a telegrapher for the St. Louis and Frisco Railroad, heard the young man singing and strumming his guitar, and strongly encouraged him to go to New York and become a professional. Autry’s first trip to the big city in 1927 was unsuccessful, but he returned to Tulsa and got a job on KVOO as “the Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy.” Returning to New York in 1929, he made his first records for Victor, accompanied by the Marvin Brothers, Johnny and Frankie. In December of the same year, Autry began a crucial association with Arthur Satherley, who recorded him for the American Record Company (ARC), producer of records for chain stores and for Sears. It was through the association with the Sears Conqueror label that Autry made it to WLS and the National Barn Dance.
In Chicago after 1931, Autry was an immediate success. His appearances on the Barn Dance and on his own radio program, Conqueror Record Time, made him one of the most popular performers in WLS history. His records, released on Sears labels, were those most prominently displayed in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. As a result of his growing popularity, a number of Gene Autry songbooks and guitar instruction books began to appear in the early 1930s. An ad for a Gene Autry “Roundup” Guitar, priced at $9.95, reminded the reader that Autry had become a famous performer “simply because he learned to play a guitar while on the ranch.” Autry’s promotional mentors, Art Satherley and Ann Williams of the WLS production staff, capitalized on the “western” motif and advertised him as a singing cowboy long before the bulk of his recorded repertory came to include western numbers.
With Autry ensconced as a singing movie cowboy, hillbilly music now had a new medium through which to popularize itself.
In his early years as a professional singer, and on through the WLS period from 1931 to 1934, Autry remained a hillbilly singer, only rarely singing anything of a western variety. In both song selection and in style of performance, he revealed his indebtedness to the southern rural tradition. His Jimmie Rodgers imitations were among the best in country music, and his own “compositions” (written or cowritten with people like Jimmie Long) included such songs as “A Gangster’s Warning,” “A Hillbilly Wedding in June,” “Gosh, I Miss You All the Time,” and “My Old Pal of Yesterday.” In 1931, he recorded one of the biggest-selling hits in hillbilly music’s then-short history, “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” recorded as a duet with the song’s co-composer, Jimmie Long. Autry’s many and varied recorded selections even included at least one labor song: “The Death of Mother Jones,” recorded on at least seven labels, which applauded the life of the famous and radical labor leader. While the song seemed rather remote from the type one would expect from a cowboy singer, it nevertheless reflected the passion for social and economic justice that many people felt during these Depression years.
Autry’s success on the Chicago radio stations and on record labels gained him in 1934 the position that made him the best-known cowboy in the United States and one of the most famous hillbilly singers. In that year, he arrived in Hollywood and began his career as the “Nation’s Number One Singing Cowboy.” Beginning with a small part in Ken Maynard’s In Old Santa Fe, he then starred for thirteen episodes in a strange cowboy/science-fiction serial called The Phantom Empire. Autry went on to a featured role in 1935 in Tumbling Tumbleweeds, a film that also included his old sidekick from Chicago days, Lester Alvin “Smiley” Burnette. In the following decades, he made more than ninety movies for Republic, Columbia, and Mascot, eighty-one of which included the multitalented Burnette, who usually played a bumbling character, Frog Millhouse. While becoming one of the most popular and wealthy actors in Hollywood, Autry also created the stereotype of the heroic cowboy who was equally adept with gun and guitar. Autry was not the first individual to sing in a western movie ─ Ken Maynard had done so as early as 1930 ─ but he was the first to institutionalize the phenomenon. With Autry ensconced as a singing movie cowboy, hillbilly music now had a new medium through which to popularize itself. The silver screen further romanticized the cowboy and helped shape the public idea of western music.
After signing his Hollywood contract, Autry made a radical shift in his repertory from “country” themes to “western” motifs. Instead of singing songs about the mountains, he came increasingly to perform songs with such titles as “Ridin’ Down the Canyon,” “The Round-up in Cheyenne,” and “Empty Cot in the Bunkhouse.” Both in Autry’s singing and in the instrumentation that accompanied him, one hears a distinctly measurable change in the records he made from 1929 to 1939. As the one-time hillbilly singer reached out to a larger audience, he smoothed out his presentation of material with a lower vocal pitch, well-rounded tones, and honey-coated articulation. Instrumentally, Autry’s sound exhibited a similar evolution, particularly after the violinist Carl Cotner became his musical director. Soft guitars, muted violins, a melodious but unobtrusive steel guitar, an accordion, and occasionally even horns could be heard as background instrumentation, as he and his directors sought a sound that would give no offense to America’s broad urban middle class. Whatever vocal sound was featured, however, Autry demonstrated a mastery of it. No country singer has ever shown more versatility.
Autry’s popularity inspired other movie companies to present their own versions of the singing cowboy. In searching for likely candidates, the companies usually delved into the ranks of country music, acquiring acts that had already established themselves on hillbilly radio shows or on record labels. Following Smiley Burnette, the Light Crust Doughboys became the first country group to join Autry in a movie (Oh, Susanna!). Some Autry sidemen went on to become important entertainment personalities in their own right. Johnny Bond, Jimmy Wakely, and Dick Reinhart, for example, came to Hollywood in 1940 (as the Jimmy Wakely Trio) and joined Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show in September of that year. Reinhart became one of the early exponents of the honky-tonk style, with songs like “Fort Worth Jail” and “Truck Driver’s Coffee Stop.” Wakely eventually starred in many movies of his own, became one of country music’s smoothest singers, and made several seminal recordings, such as “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)” (one of the first successful “cheating” songs in country music). Bond remained on the Melody Ranch program until it ended in 1956, playing the role of a comic sidekick and opening the show each Sunday with the bass guitar run introduction to “Back in the Saddle Again.” Bond also became one of country music’s greatest songwriters, creating such songs as “Cimarron” (a song about a small river in Oklahoma, and performed by all western groups), “I’ll Step Aside,” “Old Love Letters,” and “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” (now a standard in both bluegrass and mainstream country music).
A long line of hillbilly singers made only occasional appearances in western movies, usually as supporting actors for such leading cowboy stars as Charles Starrett and Johnny Mack Brown. The Sons of the Pioneers appeared in numerous movies, while Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were in about eight. A few singers, such as Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Davis, and Bill Callahan, made only rare appearances.
Other singers, however, became leading men and posed at least modest challenges to Autry’s dominance. Atlanta-born Ray Whitley, the writer of “Back in the Saddle Again” and the designer of one of country music’s most popular guitars, the Gibson SJ-200, became a movie star in 1936 after an earlier successful career in New York as a cowboy singer. Tex Ritter also began his movie career in 1936, and, in the fifty-six movies that he eventually made, he became the most believable of all the singing cowboys. The most successful challenge to Autry, though, came from Roy Rogers, who signed with Republic in 1937. His visibility in American public life would last, because of television, well into the 1960s. The singing cowboy genre also persisted in American movies on into the 1950s, with Arizona-born Rex Allen being its chief exponent after 1949. In many ways, this last singing cowboy was the best singer of them all. Allen’s rich voice ranged from a deep bass to a sweeping tenor ─ a sound that almost no other country singer could equal.
Largely as a result of Hollywood exploitation, the concept of “western music” became fixed in the public mind. After the heyday of Gene Autry, the term “western” came to be applied even to southern rural music by an increasing number of people, especially by those who were ashamed to use the pejorative term “hillbilly.” Not only did the public accept the projection, but even most hillbilly singers became fascinated with the western image and eventually came to believe their own symbols. Autry was the first of a long line of country singers who clothed themselves in tailored cowboy attire; in the following decades, the costuming became increasingly elaborate and gaudy, with the brightly colored, bespangled, and rhinestone-laden uniforms created by Nudie the Tailor (Nudie Cohn, born Nuta Kotlyarenko in the Ukraine in 1902) in Los Angeles being the most favored fare. Eventually, most country performers, whether they hailed from Virginia or Mississippi, adopted cowboy regalia–usually of the gaudy, dude cowboy variety.
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Along with the clothing, country bands and singers ─ particularly in the Southwest and on the West Coast ─ adopted cowboy titles. Singers with names like Tex, Slim, Hank, Red River Dave, the Utah Cowboy, and Patsy Montana, and groups with such titles as the Cowboy Ramblers, Riders of the Purple Sage, Radio Cowboys, Swift Jewel Cowboys, Lone Star Cowboys, and Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Millie Good) abounded on radio stations (and record labels) all over the nation. Radio and record promoters, of course, were very much alive to the appeal of the western myth, and they often encouraged musicians to adopt appropriate western monikers. Millie and Dolly Good, for example, were farm girls from Illinois who sang and yodeled in sweet, close harmony. Their agent advised them to dress like cowgirls, gave them the romantic title Girls of the Golden West, and then, after scanning the map of western Texas, attached to their promotional literature the statement that they were born in Muleshoe, Texas. The Girls very carefully preserved this fiction to the end of their performing career.
Patsy Montana’s career was similarly shaped by romantic conceptions of the West. She was a singer and a fiddler from Arkansas named Rubye Blevins, but on the West Coast in the early 1930s, Stuart Hamblen renamed her Patsy Montana, and she thereafter cultivated the performing image of the cowgirl. Although much of her career saw her appearing as a “girl singer” with such groups as the Prairie Ramblers, Patsy made dramatic history in 1935 when “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” became the first huge hit by a woman country singer and a virtuoso yodeling piece that still influences the style of women singers (Austin country-rock singer Marcia Ball, for example, made the song and yodel standard parts of her repertory in the late 1970s).
Many of the “western” entertainers performed cowboy songs, usually highly romanticized, but more often their titles and attire were the only ties they had with the “West.” Several musicians, however, stayed rather close to the cowboy repertory. Some of them had been performing long before Gene Autry achieved Hollywood fame, and many of them, such as “Haywire Mac” McClintock and the Crockett Family (John H. “Dad” Crockett and his five sons, originally from West Virginia), had performed on California radio stations since at least 1925. Other early California groups included Len Nash and his Original Country Boys, broadcasting from KFWB, Hollywood, as early as March 1926; Sheriff Loyal Underwood’s Arizona Wranglers; Charlie Marshall and his Mavericks; and perhaps the most important (and certainly the most interesting), the Beverly Hillbillies.
Largely as a result of Hollywood exploitation, the concept of “western music” became fixed in the public mind.
The Beverly Hillbillies were the brainchild of Glen Rice, station manager at KMPC in Los Angeles. Reversing the trend toward adoption of western names during the 1930s, Rice used the eastern moniker Hillbillies for the group of western musicians that he assembled around the accordion player Leo Mannes (renamed Zeke Manners) and conducted a ballyhoo campaign alleging that a group of strange and primitive musicians had been unearthed in the hills of Beverly. The band made its debut on KMPC on April 6, 1930, and remained a popular feature throughout the decade. Over the years the Hillbillies included several fine musicians, such as Manners, who had no background in country music but had been attracted to California because of the lure of Hollywood. A few Hillbillies were genuine country boys, such as the sky-high yodeler Elton Britt (James Britt Baker), who came from Arkansas in 1930, and Stuart Hamblen, who came from Texas in the same year. Britt went on to become one of country music’s most gifted yodelers (virtually the last of that once-hardy breed) and a leading soloist during the 1940s. Hamblen, the son of a Methodist minister in Abilene, Texas, was a fixture on West Coast radio from 1930 to the 1950s. He hosted his own shows in Hollywood after 1931, boosted the careers of other performers, wrote many of the most successful songs of the decade (including “My Mary,” “Texas Plains,” “Golden River,” and “My Brown-Eyed Texas Rose”), was the first country performer signed by Decca in 1934, and became sufficiently known to become a candidate for Congress in 1938.
The western group that ultimately became the most famous, and the most frequently emulated, was the Sons of the Pioneers. They sang virtually every type of country song and even ventured into popular music, but the majority of their melodies dealt with western themes. Perhaps more than any other group, they preserved a western repertory and exploited the romantic cowboy image. More “western” stylistically than any other group, they were among the least western in terms of origin. Bob Nolan (Robert Clarence Nobles) was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but he moved with his parents to Tucson at the age of fourteen. In Tucson he found himself fascinated with the desert, a feeling that never left him and eventually inspired some of country music’s greatest songs, such as “Cool Water,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “At the Rainbow’s End.” Tim Spencer, also an outstanding songwriter, was born in Missouri but grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Roy Rogers came from southern Ohio.
The three musicians came to California in the early 1930s and soon fell into a pattern common to most country singers during the decade, moving from group to group before they formed their own organization. Roy Rogers, the prime organizer of the trio, was born Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, on November 5, 1911, but grew up on a small farm near Portsmouth, in southern Ohio. Here he garnered his earliest musical training from his Kentucky-born mother and his mandolin-and-guitar-playing father. In 1931 he and his father moved to Tulare, California, and worked as migratory fruit pickers. In the following three years, beginning with a duo called the Slye Brothers (Leonard and a cousin), he worked with several western-style groups until the Pioneer Trio was formed in 1933. Renamed the Sons of the Pioneers the following year, the trio soon became noted for their smooth, inventive harmonies and yodeling, and for the finely crafted songs that Nolan and Spencer created. They became so famous for their harmony that their instrumental accompaniment is often forgotten. Two extraordinarily talented brothers from Llano, Texas, Hugh and Karl Farr, joined them in 1934 and 1935. The Farrs were jazz-influenced country musicians whose progressive styles were sometimes obscured by the vocal emphasis of the Pioneers. Hugh Farr, who also sang a low-down bass with the group, was one of the hottest fiddlers of the period, and his brother, Karl, was a master of both the rhythm and single-string styles of guitar.
The Pioneers won extensive popularity on the West Coast with an early-morning radio program on KFWB in Hollywood, but 1936 proved to be their banner year. By this time their radio transcriptions were being widely circulated, and the group became a featured act, along with Will Rogers, at the Texas Centennial in Dallas. Leonard Slye left the group in 1937 after signing a movie contract with Republic Studios. At this point he changed his name, first to Dick Weston, and later to Roy Rogers. His performances after this time were made on an individual basis, and he eventually rivaled Gene Autry as America’s most popular singing cowboy (Rogers was also one of country music’s finest yodelers). He was replaced in the Sons of the Pioneers by Lloyd Perryman from Ruth, Arkansas, whose natural tenor was the first the group had ever had, and who gave them an even closer harmony than they had earlier possessed. The Sons of the Pioneers underwent numerous personnel changes after 1937 but have never disbanded. Their songs moved into the repertories of country singers everywhere, and their style of harmony was widely copied, most effectively by Foy Willing (originally Willingham) and the Riders of the Purple Sage, who appeared with Monte Hale and Roy Rogers in Republic Pictures from 1942 to 1952.
The flourishing singing cowboy industry inspired the emergence of songwriters, including two of country music’s finest ─ Fred Rose and Cindy Walker ─ who made their debuts as country composers in the 1940s when they wrote songs for movies (Rose for Autry, Walker for Bob Wills). The interest in western music in the 1930s, however, was not confined to country performers and their supporters. Writers from Tin Pan Alley also reacted to the western craze, and the entire nation was soon humming western-style tunes such as “Gold Mine in the Sky,” “There’s a Home in Wyoming,” and “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Some of these tunes were written by easterners who had never been near a cow, but the Happy Chappies at least lived in California in the midst of the Hollywood industry. The Chappies were a pop-singing duo named Nat Vincent and Fred Howard who wrote or arranged such songs as “When the Bloom Is on the Sage,” “Mellow Mountain Moon,” “My Pretty Quadroon,” and “Strawberry Roan” (the last a musical adaptation of Curley Fletcher’s earlier poem). The most successful of the western-oriented popular songwriters was a Bostonian, William J. (Billy) Hill. Hill’s birth and musical training gave no indication of his future success as a western songwriter. Born in Boston in 1899, he studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music and performed for a short time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1916 he traveled west, riding the rails and working at odd jobs until he had seen most of the western states. He returned to New York in the late 1920s after becoming thoroughly acquainted with western life ─ including everything from camp cooking to cowpunching. In New York he worked as a doorman at a fashionable hotel and composed songs occasionally. Over the years his compositions ranged from popular melodies like “The Glory of Love” to hillbilly songs like “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree” and “The Old Spinning Wheel.” His chief success, however, came with western-style songs like “Call of the Canyon,” which were distinguished for their beautiful melodies and for rhythms that suggested the gait of a horse. He experienced his most spectacular success in 1933 with “The Last Roundup,” the song that really awakened the general public to the romantic West while becoming the most popular tune in the country. Performed by both hillbilly and popular groups, its appeal may have stimulated a greater interest in the more “authentic” country and western material and ensured a greater national following for country music.
Most of the western bands in California and the Southwest used Billy Hill’s material, but his New York songwriting ventures were directed primarily at big-city popular-music audiences. Although country music has always encountered its coolest reception in the Northeast, particularly in the city of New York, country-style entertainers have always achieved some prominence there on local radio stations. Ethel Park Richardson, for example, did much to educate New Yorkers about the beauties of folk culture between 1933 and 1935 with her weekly dramatizations on WOR and the NBC Network. Each week she was assisted by such singers as Frank Luther, Carson Robison, and Tex Ritter as she dramatized a famous folk song. Luther and Robison had been in New York since the 1920s, but Ritter was one of several cowboy singers who kept New Yorkers range conscious during the mid-1930s. Others included Texas Jim Robertson, a deep-bass singer from Batesville, Texas; Zeke Manners and Elton Britt, who had moved from California; Dwight Butcher, a Jimmie Rodgers disciple from Tennessee; Ray Whitley, who sang regularly at the Stork Club and on WMCA; and Wilf Carter, the Nova Scotia yodeler who performed over CBS as Montana Slim.
The most singular of all the cowboy singers in New York, however, was Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter. Born in Murvaul, in deep East Texas, January 12, 1905, Ritter grew up far removed from the scene of much cowboy activity. He attended the University of Texas for five years (singing in the university glee club under the direction of Oscar Fox) and then went to Northwestern Law School for one year. Throughout his youth he had collected western and mountain songs, and therefore had a storehouse of interesting songs when he began singing on KPRC in Houston in 1929. In 1930, he joined a musical troupe on a series of one-night stands through the South and Midwest. By 1931, he had gone to New York, where he joined the Theatre Guild and began his acting career with a featured role in Green Grow the Lilacs (a short-lived play that eventually became the basis for the musical Oklahoma). With his thick Texas accent and storehouse of cowboy lore, Ritter quickly emerged as a New York sensation. He became greatly in demand for lecture recitals in eastern colleges on the cowboy and his song. During the fall of 1932, he was the featured singer with the Madison Square Garden Rodeo and from there went on to a recording contract with ARC and a program slot on WOR entitled The Lone Star Rangers, one of the first western radio shows ever featured in New York City. From 1932 to 1936, he appeared on other New York stations, including the WHN Barn Dance, where he acted as cohost with Ray Whitley. Then, inevitably, in 1936, he made the first of several movies, Song of the Gringo. Ritter, however, was not a cowboy, but was instead a very believable interpreter of cowboy songs. Impressionable easterners were easily convinced that he came, not from a small East Texas community and a college background, but from a working cattle ranch. And Tex very skillfully lived up to the part.
Tex Ritter’s exploitation of the western theme was typical of what was happening all over the United States in the mid-1930s. From New York to California, individuals responded to the western myth, and “cowboy” singers and groups sprang up in all sorts of unusual places. “Western” became a rival and often preferred term to “hillbilly” as a proper appellation for country music. It is easy to understand, of course, why “western” would be preferred to the seemingly disreputable backwoods term. “Western,” specifically, suggested a music that had been developed by cowboys out on the Texas Plains or in the High Sierras; more generally, it suggested a context that was open, free, and expansive. In short, the term fit the American self-concept.
Excerpted from Country Music USA. Copyright ©1968 by the American Folklore Society. Copyright © 1985, 2002, 2010, 2018 by the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.