I admit, for many years, as a dutiful hard country snob, I was never that into the whole singing cowboy thing... at least not the records. The "authentic" cowboy music is pretty raw, compared to country music proper, and the Hollywood stuff always seemed so corny. But after a few years delving into "sweet" big band music and early Tin Pan Alley, the charm of the Hollywood cowpokes became more apparent -- it was the same style of sentimental, prefab pop -- often written by the same composers! The old-timey cowboy stuff still doesn't do that much for me, but boy, am I into the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry material!
Sure, you might not want to rush off to the video store to rent some corny old B-movie "oater" (though many of them have their charms...) but the music itself is pretty fun. You just have to pick and choose carefully, so as not to get turned off too quickly. In that spirit, here are a few recommendations...
The 101 Ranch Boys "Melody Roundup With The 101 Ranch Boys" (Binge Disc, 2004)
A nice set by a little-known western outfit that originally hailed from Kansas City, Kansas. Led by guitarist George Long, the Ranch Boys plugged away in the 1930s, moving from station to station, and eventually fell into the orbit of Gene Autry (who they backed on tour) and other cowboy singers such as Smiley Burnette and Johnny Bond. They weren't big stars, but their fiddle-and-steel-tinged sound was quite pleasant, with genial vocals to match. A nice set of rare recordings, definitely worth checking out, if you're into the style.
Rex Allen "The Last Of The Great Singing Cowboys" (Bloodshot/Soundies, 1999)
The whole singing cowboy thing is kinda funny... I mean, when did the roundup-ridin' folk tradition end and the Hollywood myth-making begin? As with most of the best-known cowboy movie stars, Rex Allen had a whole bunch of Tin Pan Alley smoothie to him, and that's what makes these recordings so fun to begin with. It's hard not to compare his cornball crooning with Bing Crosby: Allen had a similarly appealling warmth and natural ease. Right after he made these late-'40s recordings, he landed a Hollywood film contract -- one of the last actors to make it in before tastes changed, and the cowboy movies took a back seat for a decade or two. One of the more unique discs in this series, and certainly worth checking out.
As Gomer Pyle might say, "Suhpraze, suhpraze, suhpraze!!" The singing cowboys -- B-grade movie actors who starred in the so-called "oaters," and took stilted musical cameos with guitar in hand -- get kind of a bum rap in country circles... This 3-CD set might go a long way to correcting all those negative connotations -- each disc on here is chock full of great old material. OK, so the movie cowboys weren't necessarily all that "authentic," but there are far worse things than having all them city slicker Hollywood songwriters feeding you their material. Autry had a warm, calm voice and sweet back-up bands, and he wrapped himself inside these Tin Pan Alley tunes like nobody's business. Totally worth checking out -- highly recommended.
Gene Autry "25 Cowboy Classics: The Western Collection" (Varese Sarabande, 2001)
Gene Autry "Goin' Back To Texas: 25 Texas Classics" (Varese Sarabande, 2001)
A great 2-CD collection of Sgt. Autry's wartime broadcasts, in which he lends the might of his "Melody Ranch" radio program to the tasks of selling bonds, recruiting soldiers and recycling scrap metals and rubber for the homefront mobilization. The first CD skillfully sifts through his wartime broadcasts, gathering choice radio announcements and one cheerful patriotic tune after another. Many of these tunes seem unique to Autry's program -- fine, but rare, examples of wartime propaganda songs. The second disc replys one of his radio shows in its entirety -- similar material, but nice to hear how it was all put together during their live shows. For Autry fans or history buffs, this collection is a doozy!
How many people today even remember that it was Gene Autry who popularized the novelty song, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," lo, those many years ago, in the winter of '47? Yup -- that's right: Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, the sidesaddle showman extraordinaire... And a guy who knew how to tap into the freckle-faced zeitgeist of postwar kiddies like nobody else... This is a swell collection that gathers together a bunch of Autry's best and holiday offerings made for the Columbia label over a ten-year period in 1947-56. It's magnificently cornball material, and even if house arranger Mitch Miller popped things up a bit, I don't think Gene really minded that much. The toot-toodlin' arrangements might not seem all that "country," but for a nostalgia jolt, this can't be beat!
Like many of the old-time singing cowboys, screen star Gene Autry has long been discounted by some country snobs, who see him as too hokey to be part of the classic country canon. Too bad for those folks, though, because Autry's music is both rich in country tradition and musical show-biz savvy. Like Roy Rogers and other hayseed Hollywood harmonizers, Autry dipped liberally into jazz and swing, giving his music a nice little bounce. The songs are delightfully corny and often well-crafted, drawing on the traditions of the Tin Pan Alley composers -- this is music that was made to entertain, and it still works its magic, all these decades later. This is a nice 2-CD set that gathers material from many of the labels Autry recorded for, including Columbia, Okeh, Vocalion and a slew of smaller outfits, and spans his career from 1931, when he was still singing roughneck blues ala Jimmie Rodgers up through the early 1950s, when his success with "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" had led him to a profitable sideline singing songs for kiddies. This is an excellent collection that really does justice to the wide range of material Autry covered... Highly recommended!
Slim Critchlow "Cowboy Songs - The Crooked Trail To Holbrook" (Arhoolie, 1970/1999)
A pretty good example of the archaic charm of the cowboy song, and its often too-static nature. When this record originally came out in 1970, it was a throwback to a far less complex musical past, and had a strong folkloric quality. It's not the sort of album I would put on to listen to recreationally, or listen to in its entirety, but it is full of fascinating (and authentic) cowboy story-songs. This is the real deal.
Stylistically, these transcription recordings are as close to crooners like Bing Crosby as they are to rougher, tougher country singers. It's mostly pretty corny material; Dean later had a bit more bite to his tunes, with a heavier dose of honkytonk style thrown in on top. Some of the later tracks on here, when he gets deep into the singing cowboy stuff, is pretty sweet.
Don Edwards "Saddle Songs" (Shanachie/Western Jubilee, 1997)
A little on the smooth side, sure, but Edwards has a simplicity and sincerity that makes his records very compelling. This 2-CD set is one of his best records. If you want to give a contemporary cowpoke a listen, try this out.
Wow. The Farr Brothers were the backup pickers who added the musical punch to many of the best old recordings of the Sons Of The Pioneers, and of Pioneers alumnus Gene Autry. Left to their own devices, they knocked out a slew of great instrumentals, like the ones on this disc. The surprising thing is how completely jazzy these tracks are. If you like old recordings from the likes of Django Rinehardt, or Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti's duets, then you owe it to yourself to check this disc out. It's hot and sweet, and very listenable.
Chris LeDoux "Old Cowboy Classics" (Capitol, 1983)
As advertised, a nice, compact set of cowboy-themed oldies, including chestnuts such as "Tennessee Stud," "Strawberry Roan," and "Old Paint," as well as songs of newer vintage, like "Night Rider's Lament", which tastefully draws a comparison between the dreams of weather-bitten cattlemen and city-bound office workers. An interesting major-label effort to recapture the flavor of a bygone era.
Hick Music Index