Country & Western Music: The Singing Cowboys
Movie cowboys may not represent the real world, but you can't deny the appeal of these distinctive, often solitary men who rode the range. The cowboy was thoroughly mythologized by writers of all stripes, and early filmmakers did their part as well.
Cowboy music came of age with the publication of Nathan Howard Thorp's Songs of the Cowboys (1908) and John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). These books can be bought on the used market for reasonable prices, and you can read the latter on Google Books.
The early cowboy songs were typically performed a cappella or with simple guitar, fiddle or harmonica accompaniment. They concerned work, horses, heroes and the wandering life. Vocals lacked the nasal quality of the Hollywood cowboys of the 1930s, who had full bands.
Before the 1930s, a few singers recorded cowboy songs. Bentley Ball, who sang patriotic and traditional numbers, recorded The Dying Cowboy and Jesse James for Columbia in 1919, according to Country Music U.S.A., by Bill Malone, and Charles Nabell cut some cowboy sides for OKeh in 1924.
Early Singing Cowboys
Carl Sprague (1895-1979) was the first singing cowboy to record commercially. Sprague grew up on a farm near Houston, Tex. He was signed by Victor in 1925, recording his first sides that year in Camden, N.J. One of them, When the Work's All Done This Fall , sold 100,000 copies, according to Country Music: The Rough Guide . (Other sources cite sales of over 900,000 copies.) Sprague's career went dormant around the end of the decade; he played some folk festivals during the '50s and '60s.
Jules Verne Allen (1883-1945) picked up many songs while a cowboy in his youth. He performed on several radio stations, and recorded for Victor. Allen wrote the book Cowboy Lore , which is available used for about $20 as this is written.
Harry McClintock (1882-1957) worked as a cowboy and traveled in Asia and Africa. He played a mix of cowboy songs and union songs, plus a few of his own, the best known being Big Rock Candy Mountain . (McClintock's singing reminds this writer of Captain Beefheart's vocal on The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back on the album Trout Mask Replica.)
Sometimes called the father of country music, Mississippi-born Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), “the singing brakeman”, often sang cowboy songs, embellishing them with his blue yodel when singing. Gene Autry affected his style on his early recordings, and Rodgers influenced many western swing singers.
Following Rodgers' death from tuberculosis, Victor signed his cousin, Jesse Rodgers (1911-1970), to their Bluebird label. Jesse took on a cowboy persona after a time and changed his last name to “Rogers”, possibly to associate himself with cowboy star Roy Rogers.
Hollywood's Singing Cowboys
Westerns were a Hollywood staple from the beginning. Ken Maynard (1895-1973) became the first singing cowboy in the 1929 film, The Wagon Master. Born in Indiana, Maynard worked at carnivals and circuses at the age of 16, and was an excellent horseman. He worked as a rider for Ringling Brothers, signing with Fox Studios when the circus played in Los Angeles. Maynard appeared in silent films in 1923, and also did stunts. He appeared in 90 films for several studios from the '20s into the '40s. He recorded The Lone Star Trail and The Cowboy's Lament for Columbia in 1930, and sang two songs in Sons of the Saddle (Universal) in the same year.
Gene Autry (1907-1998) personified the genre with a string of dozens of western films in which he sang. Discovered by Will Rogers, Autry was an established singer when he debuted in a 1934 Ken Maynard film, In Old Santa Fe. He starred in some 90 films, usually playing himself, and also made 91 episodes of The Gene Autry Show for CBS Television. He sold over 100 million records, recording 640 songs, writing or co-writing almost half of them.
Tex Ritter (1905-1974) sang cowboy songs on KPRC-AM in Houston in 1928 before moving to New York to perform on Broadway. He worked for various radio stations on the east coast before signing with Columbia in 1933. He switched to Decca in 1935. Ritter moved to Los Angeles in 1936 and appeared in Song of the Gringo the same year. He made several dozen westerns for various studios. He did television work in the '50s and '60s, moving to Nashville in 1965, where he worked for WSM Radio and the Grand Ole Opry.
Autry's only real competitor, Roy Rogers (1911-1998) was born in Ohio with the name Leonard Slye. He first sang with the Sons of the Pioneers, a group that formed in Los Angeles in 1931 and appeared in films starting in the mid-1930s. The Sons of the Pioneers signed with Decca in 1934. They came to be identified with one of their first releases, Tumbling Tumbleweeds. They underwent numerous personnel changes over the years, and signed with RCA Victor in 1944, where they remained for over two decades.
Rogers first starred on his own in Under Western Skies in 1938. Rogers appeared in more than 100 films, and also The Roy Rogers Show on radio for nine years and then on television (1951-1957), alongside wife Dale Evans, his horse Trigger and his German Shepherd, Bullet.
With all its original members having passed away, the Sons of the Pioneers are still active today.
Other Cowboy (and Cowgirl) Singers
Tex Owens (1892-1962) was born in Texas but grew up in Oklahoma. Known more as a radio personality, in the 1930s Owens wrote Cattle Call, which became a big hit for Eddy Arnold, who recorded different versions in 1944 and 1955. He worked a variety of jobs, including as a lawman, before landing in the music business. Owens and his group, the Texas Rangers, signed with Decca in 1934 and RCA in 1936. Owens made a few movie appearances, but made his mark playing music and telling stories on the radio, including an 11-year run on KMBC in Kansas City. He broke his back when a horse fell on him while filming Western Red River with John Wayne. He needed a year to recover, and his career never caught fire after that.
Wilf Carter (1904-1996), aka Montana Slim, was a Canadian singer who also did a mean yodel. Born in Nova Scotia, he left home at 15, working as a lumberjack before moving to Alberta, where he was a cowboy. He performed on the side, and worked on his yodel during this time. Carter performed on radio starting in 1930. His first recordings were for RCA Victor in Montreal. He moved to New York in 1935, performing there on WABC radio and hosting a country music program for CBS radio until 1937, during which time he picked up the name “Montana Slim”.
Stuart Hamblen (1908-1989) was born in Texas. His father was a Methodist preacher. Hamblen appeared in cowboy films and was popular on the radio on the west coast. He was the first artist signed to Decca in 1934. Hamblen suffered from drinking and gambling problems until he became religious in 1949, converting at a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. Graham later claimed Hamblen's conversion as the turning point for his crusade. Hamblen lost his radio job for refusing to make beer commercials for his sponsor, after which he entered Christian broadcasting. Hamblen was a successful songwriter as well
Born Ruby Rose Blevins in Arkansas, Patsy Montana (1908-1996) scored the first million-selling single for a female country performer with I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart (ARC, 1935). She studied violin, and could sing, yodel and play guitar. Montana became a regular on the WLS National Barn Dance in 1933, performing with the Prairie Ramblers. She remained on the program into the 1950s. She appeared in the movie Colorado Sunset with Pat Buttram and Gene Autry.
Supposedly from Texas, the Girls of the Golden West consisted of a couple of farm girls, Millie (1913-1993) and Dolly West (1915-1967), from southeastern Illinois. Popular in the 1930s, their repertoire consisted primarily of western songs, sung in harmony with guitar accompaniment. They appeared on the radio from St. Louis, moving in 1933 to the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago. Later in the '30s they worked on radio out of Cincinnati.
Hailing from Arizona, Rex Allen (1920-1999) appeared in a few films in the 1950s, and later narrated Disney nature films. Allen's recordings reflected the lush, Nashville sound that was just coming into vogue. He became popular in 1945 on the WLS National Barn Dance, and signed with Mercury in 1946. His first hit was Afraid in 1949. He made a few dozen western movies in the 1950s, starting with Arizona Cowboy. He switched to Decca, which released his big hit, Crying in the Chapel, in 1953. (Allen's was a cover version, as was the Orioles' R&B hit.) Allen cut western albums after his film career ended, along with some crossover and pop hits in the 1960s.
Jimmy Wakely (1914-1982) made a few dozen western films, starting in 1939. He had a crooner's voice that lent itself to both pop and country tunes. Wakely was born in Arkansas and grew up in Oklahoma. He was part of a trio that looked up to the Sons of the Pioneers and appeared on local radio. Called the Bell Trio, and then the Jimmy Wakely Trio, the group appeared in a Roy Rogers film, Saga of Death Valley. They moved to California and worked on Gene Autry's Melody Ranch radio show. Wakely appeared in some films, eventually getting a starring role in Song of the Range (Monogram, 1944). He scored some country and pop hits in the '40s and '50s, and did radio and TV work after his recording career cooled down.
Texan Don Walser (1934-2006) played country music on the side while in the National Guard. He was a good yodeler and a fine country singer. Walser stayed in Texas for many years, expanding his audience after he retired from his day job. He cut an album, Rolling Stone From Texas (Watermelon) in 1994. Walser was known for a deep repertoire of old and little known country and cowboy songs. He was embraced by young fans due to his Austin base.
Hailing from British Columbia, Ian Tyson (b. 1933) sang with his wife in the duo Ian and Sylvia. Tyson had learned cowboy skills as a boy. Injury kept him from a rodeo career, and he gravitated toward music. He became involved in the burgeoning folk scene, moved to Toronto and met his wife. The two played folk music in New York City in the early 1960s, but they drifted apart as the decade progressed, divorcing in 1975. Tyson moved to Alberta and shifted to western music. He has remained in the fold since releasing the album Old Corrals and Sagebrush in 1983.
The Riders in the Sky have performed comedy and western music since 1977. The group was originally a trio, but has worked as a foursome since the 1990s, playing guitar, fiddle, bass and accordion. The group has recorded numerous albums, many of them on the Rounder label, and in recent years on Riders Radio Records.
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The Riders' founder, Ranger Doug, is known in real life as Douglas B. Green. Editor of the Journal of Country Music from 1974 to 1977, Green penned a lengthy study, "The Singing Cowboy: An American Dream", for that publication in 1978. You can read it in The Country Reader. Published in 1996, the book is still in print.