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Singing Cowboys of Old Time Radio

"Git Along Little Dogies"

It all started because Eastern businessmen of the Gilded Age were enamored with the idea of dining on thick beef steaks.

Ly Lady Clementine

An estimated 10,000,000 or more head of cattle were driven from the wilds of post-Civil War Texas to the railheads in Kansas between 1866 and 1895. These were not the rather tame cows like Angus, Herefords, or Shorthorns of the modern beef industry. These were semi-wild Texas Longhorn cattle who may not have seen a human being in their lives before being rounded up and driven north.

The cattle drives were conducted by Cowboys, a group of horsemen and adventurers who would grab hold of the American psyche and never let go. A herd of Longhorns could be a skittish thing, especially at night when the herd of two to five thousand cows might interpret any sudden sound as an attacking mountain lion or marauding wolf, in which case the whole frightened herd might burst into a stampede.

To help avoid the danger of a nighttime stampede, the cowboys would take turns, riding in circles around the herd all night, usually singing soothing songs to keep the cows calm and prevent themselves from falling asleep in the saddle. This was an ideal setting for inventing ballads, and thus was the Cowboy Song born.

From Dusty Trails to the Silver Screen

Although he was usually a simple farm boy trying to make a few dollars with his horse, the American Cowboy was immortalized in dime novels and pulp magazines as a noble knight of the plains. The fictional cowboy had a well-defined sense of right and wrong, always took the side of the down-trodden, never failed to tip his ten-gallon hat to a lady, and had a soft spot for puppies.

When moving picture producers began moving to Hollywood in the early decades of the Twentieth century, they discovered a region with nearly 360-days-a-year of good weather, miles of dramatic scenery, loads of pretty girls, and dozens, if not hundreds, of unemployed cowboys. Even more than the pretty girls, many of these cowboys were willing to get in front of a motion picture camera and do just about anything for a few dollars. Given their bravado and skilled horsemanship, this made for action-packed silent Western Films.

With the rise of Talkies, action-based Westerns became less profitable to produce, even though the Cowboy Myth was still popular with audiences. The major studios turned to more "character-based" Cowboy films while the Poverty Row "B-Grade" outfits found a new Western Hero, the Singing Cowboy.

Gene Autry

Singing and Music were, as discussed, an important part of Cowboy life. However, the Singing Cowboys of the movies were hired more for their screen presence than their cowboy skills. The great John Wayne appeared early in his career as "Singin' Sandy Saunders" in Riders of Destiny (1933, Monogram Pictures), Wayne's singing was dubbed, however, and his insistence on 'authenticity' made Wayne a better fit in "character-driven" Westerns.

The name Gene Autry is practically synonymous with Singing Cowboy. Republic hired Autry as a possible replacement for John Wayne in Singing Cowboy roles based on his ability to sing and ride a horse. Although the Texas Native had done some rodeo in his younger days, when he began his film career Autry needed riding lessons, and he did not seem as "virile" as Wayne, however, this lack of "sex appeal" would pay off as his career progressed. 

Gene could definitely sell a song. Throughout his career, Autry cut 640 recordings, nearly half of which he had written or co-written. Gene Autry's wholesome personality, Patriotism, and work ethic helped to make his version of the Cowboy Myth an American Ideal.

Beyond Melody Ranch

Dale and Roy Rogers

Roy Rogers was one of the original members of The Sons of the Pioneers group of Cowboy harmonizers. He was trying to find work on the Republic Pictures lot when Autry asked for more money. Rogers was given the lead in Under Western Stars (1938, Republic Pictures). Gene Autry's career was far from over, but Rogers soon became "the King of the Cowboys" to moviegoers.

There are enough similarities between Gene and Roy that help to define the Singing Cowboy persona. Both were the picture of straight-laced, white-hatted respectability, but kept a ready smile for their fans. To audiences, the most important person in their lives was their horse, Roy Rogers' Trigger (although Roy managed to score points by wooing the pretty Dale Evans) and Gene's Champion the Wonder Horse (who had his own Kiddie Western Radio Program). Both dressed in Western garb so weighed down with Conchos, sequins, and fringe that they would have been laughed out of any real western bunkhouse.

Roy's old vocal group, The Sons of the Pioneers (Roy first performed with The Sons using his given name, Leonard Slye) would have a rotating cast of singers over the years. Soon after Roy made it big at Republic, the studio began featuring the Sons as supporting players in his films. 

The popularity of the Singing Cowboy and Westerns in general in films and radio led to a glut of TV Westerns in the 1950s and early 1960s. For years, Westerns were relatively cheap to produce, but making 'good' Westerns became difficult in a flooded market. Cowboy Music's association with the Country and Western scene kept it going for decades, even among artists who have never been on a horse.

So, what of the Myth of the American Cowboy? Like so many American myths, the Cowboy is a combination of truth and fantasy, but at the end of the trail, he is part of Our Myth and deserves to be celebrated.

Series Title Years Star About the Show
All Star Western Theater 1946-
Foy Willing Riding the popularity of Singing Cowboy Westerns, All-Star Western Theater combined great Western Music and entertaining frontier sketches.
Chuck Mulkern Collection Chuck Mulkern The idea of a cowboy riding the plains with an accordion strapped to his back seems a little strange, but Chuck Mulkern made it work.
Cowboy Slim Rinehart (Sometimes spelled Cowboy Slim Reinhart) Late 1930s
to Early 1970s
Slim Rinehart Cowboy Slim Rinehart was a singing cowboy who performed on "Border Blaster" station XEG Monterrey, Mexico.
Foy Willing And Riders Of The Purple Sage 1940s Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage The close harmonies of The Riders of the Purple Sage were a staple of Singing Cowboy Western Movies.
Gene Autry 1940-
Gene Autry One of the screen's first Singing Cowboy Stars, Gene Autry moved from success to success, from the Melody Ranch radio show to becoming a decorated pilot in WWII to business success after the War.
Hollywood Rodeo 1944 Tex Ritter Hollywood Rodeo used a rodeo format to showcase the music of Tex Ritter.
Melody Ranch 1940-
Gene Autry If the image of the American Cowboy is based on a myth, the the Singing Cowboy is a complete Fairytale, however, Gene Autry made his Melody Ranch a part of that Fairytale and delighted millions.
Roy Rogers Collection 1944-
Roy Rogers Roy Rogers got his big break when Gene Autry walked off the set one day and was soon tagged "King of the Cowboys".
Tito Guizar Collection 1908-
Tito Guizar In a nod to his contemporary Roy Rogers, "the King of the Mexican Cowboys" Tito Guizar was one of the first of his race to make inroads into early Hollywood.

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